I’d only been out of college a few months. I was living in my first by-myself apartment (a studio apartment barely big enough to turn around in) and working in my first real-world and in-my-field job (as a community college ESL teacher). It was a normal, boring Monday evening. I had finished my lesson plans and was lying on the couch, watching The Biography Channel when I noticed red and blue flashing lights filtering dimly through my venetian blinds. Curious, I peeked through the window only to see firetrucks lining the parking lot and tenants pouring out of the building.
But I don’t smell smoke!
I knew it had to be a false alarm, but I pulled open my apartment door to see what I could find out. Firemen raced past me, carrying a fire hose. The bottom dropped out of my stomach and I heard my blood rush in my ears.
Oh, God! This is for real!
My mind raced as I stood frozen in my doorway, wearing pajamas and flip-flops.
Jesus, everything I own is in this tiny apartment!
A fireman snapped me out of my daze as he stopped in front of my doorway and bellowed at me.
“Hey lady, you gotta get outta the building!”
I looked down at my pajamas and opened my mouth to speak, but he barked at me before I could make a sound.
“NOW, lady!” Then, he disappeared down the hall.
A slideshow of all of the things I should take with me clicked through my mind. My Bible. Family pictures. My laptop and lesson plans. But in the end, my shaking hands only fell on my cell phone and keys before I pulled the locked door shut behind me and headed out into the dark parking lot full of strangers.
I had lived in the apartment for more than six months and had never met a single one of my neighbors. I lived in a city where people naturally keep to themselves. Living so closer to Fort Bragg, there were a lot of military folks, of course. They moved in and out all of the time. Nobody seemed to stay for very long. It had just seemed easier to keep to myself and live my own life. But now that I was standing, terrified, in front of my burning apartment, my loneliness was sharp.
All at once, I heard children crying. My head snapped around to find the source and my eyes fell on a young woman trying to dial a cell phone while holding an infant in one arm and a toddler on the other hip. Both children were hysterical and the mother didn’t look far from it herself. To make matters worse, they were in the way of the firefighters, standing between the trucks and the building. My latent maternal instincts surged and I instinctively ran over to the little family.
“Ma’am? Can I help you?” I put an arm around them and began leading them out of the way as the mother looked up at me with tear-filled eyes. Both children continued to wail.
“My husband is at work.” Her voice broke, but she continued. “I can’t reach him! He will be so worried!” And with that, she dissolved into sobs.
I pulled the screaming toddler from her arm and settled the little girl on my left hip, then put my right arm back around the mother, wondering for a moment what to do now. As I did, a forty-ish lady walked up and gently took the howling infant and eased him to her shoulder.
Tossing a grateful glance at my new helper, I offered a comforting smile to the young mother. “Come on, let’s go sit on that curb by the streetlight. It’s out of the way and you can try your husband again.”
I sat on the curb with my curly-headed two-year-old charge and the rest of my rag-tag group. Soon, my little Sesame-Street-pajamaed bundle went limp. I looked down and realized that she’d fallen asleep against my shoulder. For more than an hour we adults sat, quietly chatting and watching the fire trucks, wondering what this night–this fire– would mean for us. But for that brief period of time, not even knowing each others’ names, we were okay because we faced the fire together.
We were blessed that night. Only one unit in our building burned– the one next to mine. It didn’t come through the wall into my apartment. No one was injured.
For months after that event, I watched out for these ladies in my comings and goings, but I never saw either or them or the children again. I think that maybe God just put us together for that one night. I learned that during the fire, God never leaves you alone and that when you reach out to give hope and help to a stranger, sometimes that’s the very thing that gives hope and help to you.