Awakened in the night. I sat up in bed and looked over at my one-year old son. I had gone into his room to console him and had fallen asleep. Now it was the middle of the night. As I sat there foggy-headed from sleep, I heard the sound of breaking glass. I jumped to my feet and ran toward the sound, fearing someone was breaking in our house.
I ran toward the kitchen and met the threat face to face. It wasn’t a person, but a dark sinister cloud of smoke. It moved like a freight train through the dining room, knocking me to the ground. The smell was toxic, a mixture of every chemical contained in the walls our old home…rubber, copper, wood, paint, plastics, fabrics…a cocktail of smoke stronger than anything I had ever smelt.
Through the smoke I saw the kitchen in flames, pieces of things falling, windows breaking, a light fixture dangling. I staggered back toward the bedrooms, yelled for my wife to get up and get out. We narrowly escaped death, but lost nearly everything we owned.
You never know how powerful smoke is until it knocks you to the ground. You never know the toxic smell until that moment. Afterwards you never forget it. Every wisp of smoke, from a bar-b-q to a fireplace it reminds you of the day you lost it all. You heart races, only momentarily on good days, as you wonder if it could happen again.
Sometimes the reminders are vivid, as you see other families hurting the way you hurt on that day. Anxiety rises as all the emotions of that day are remembered anew.
Even if we seem strong in the immediate aftermath, depression and anxiety sneak in as time passes. The fire will no longer be a top news story but will forever be headline in your life. Seeing the fires in Gatlinburg was a vivid reminder for me.
By nature we remember the fear, sadness, and heartbreak. But I remember something else as well. I remember the love and support offered by friends, family, and complete strangers.
I remember the clarity I had as I walked through what remained of our home. I saw the things that once seemed important had turned to ashes. The unforgettable smell lingered. The ashes mixed with water to form a black slush. I saw a charred crib and melted shoes. I saw with clarity how fleeting life is. I thought about things that matter.
When faced with tragedy and loss, it is clear what things are most important in your life. There is also a certainty that all temporary things, including this life, will end. Until that day, I had never truly relied on God. In my brokenness I ran to Him and out of the ashes my faith in God was renewed.
That Christmas I cherished every moment with my family, lived each day like it might be my last. I hugged a little longer, and cried openly, spoke truth and spoke love. My heart was focused on the things that really matter.
This Christmas will be met with mixed emotions. Though grateful, you will be sad and angry. You will feel joy in things previously taken for granted. You may be surrounded by love, yet isolated in fear. You may feel renewed energy and thankfulness for your life. You may sink into deep depression.
As life goes on and words like “normalcy” become common, do not mask your pain and hide how real the hurt is. Acknowledge it and seek wise counsel. There is no shame in seeking mental healthcare.
It is my prayer that through the trials you find joy that surpasses understanding. I pray you run to God, not from God. I hope each day of this holiday season is cherished as a precious gift. I pray you abound in faith, hope and love.