House on Fire

A few years back I lived in Madeira. It was a Saturday morning and I was coming back from doing something unimportant and heading home.

I was coming up Hosbrook and saw smoke up ahead. I took notice as I got closer because the smoke was black smoke rolling up from what appeared to be one of the houses ahead of me. In my mind, you don’t usually see black smoke unless someone is burning something they shouldn’t…or something is on fire that shouldn’t be.

As I got closer, I started to pass a ranch house with a garage underneath. The garage was opened and on the left side of the house and as I drove past it, I saw black smoke and flames pouring out of it. There were no police cars, no fire trucks, no gathering neighbors…this was happening right now and I was one of the first bystanders to realize it.

I pulled up on the side of the street and jumped out running up to the house.

The fire was taking off, gaining momentum as flames and black smoke were pouring out of the garage and I remember hearing glass breaking.

As I reached the front yard there was a young boy standing in the middle of it. He was maybe 8 or so, wearing shorts and at t-shirt. He was in a lot of anguish and unbelief and horror as he was watching…slightly pacing…not sure what to do. It was where he lived.

I went up and asked him if he was ok…and was anybody else in the house?

He started to say no, but then screamed “Barney! Barney’s in the house!”
I looked at the house thinking “oh Jesus help me” and could see the garage was spewing flames and black smoke but neither the first floor nor the roof were on fire yet.

“Who’s Barney? Is Barney your brother?” I asked…
I mean if it’s a brother or goldfish or toy animal, there was a big difference and I was going to have to weigh whether I was going in or not.

“He’s my dog!”
Dang…I knew I was going in.

I remember the lady standing next to the boy saying something about “you can’t go in there!” (there’s always one of those) as I ran to the front door of the house…big metal door was right of center of the house. I had no idea whether it was locked or no, but I turned the handle thinking a big “oh shit” thought. I had a flashback to a movie with Robert DeNero where someone opens a door and fire shoots out to consumes the person. (That was only in the movies, right…right?)

I turned the handle and opened the door.

As I opened the door…and there was this literal wall of dark grey-ish smoke…smoke so thick you couldn’t see anything BUT the smoke. “I gotta find this dog” I thought as I stepped into the fog bank and immediately realized the danger of moving forward into the room, away from the door.

Stepping into the smoke was an immediate shock to me. It was a white out situation where all you can see is grey smoke. You can’t see what’s in front of you at all, you can’t even see your hand in front of your face let alone the furniture, shape of the room, or a dog. The thick smoke choked my lungs and I could hear the raging fire eating the building. I could hear popping glass from what I assumed were the first floor windows over the garage breaking from the intense heat. I distinctly remember having the thought “Oh…this is how people die.”

I stopped in my tracks.

I still had my hand on the door and pulled myself back, stepping out of the wall of smoke, stepping back onto the porch.

My mind raced for a second…where would the dog be? Could he hear me? Was he still alive in there? Was it a big dog or small? What exactly was this dog I looking for?

Going back into the wall of smoke was no good, but leaving the dog in there was also unacceptable. The smoke that was heavy and thick, I couldn’t chance getting lost or passing out…there had to be another way.

Believe it or not, I remembered a childhood video where they told you to stay close to the floor…so I bent down close to the patio floor and got on my knees, peering into the front door. I could see a little through the smoke just above the house floor. I decided I would crawl in if I had to.

Crouching down as close to the ground as I could get, I screamed into the fire,
“Barney! BARNEY!” The only sound was the roaring fire.
BARRRNEYYY!”

Then, like an ghost, this old gray haired beagle came wandering out of the smoke. He seemed ancient and the look on his face was one of confusion. He looked more like a “Yoda” than a Barney, but boy was I happy to see him. He looked at me at total confusion.

For a second, I was SO happy as he came out of the wall of smoke. I smiled and I said ‘good boy’. This look of total confusion was on his face as he looked at me…

…and then turned and walked back into the cloud of smoke and vanished.

I was caught completely off guard and dumbstruck as he wandered back into the smoke.

I just about fell over myself launching into the smoke to blindly grab, well, actually tackle him, and scooped him up. Pulling both of us out of the smoke.

He didn’t fuss or go wild or bite me, he seemed to know I was ok.

I brought the dog back to the boy, who, just for a minute was relieved.

A neighbor had her arms around him. She handed him a phone…he (and I) didn’t know what she wanted him to do with it. “Call your mom and dad.” She said. I felt sick for this boy…he made the call. (To this day I regret not taking that phone from him so that he didn’t have to tell his parents.)

At this point, I could hear the sirens wailing in the distance, they were on there way to where we were standing. Knowing that there would be nothing else I could do, I went to my car and drove home.

God uses us for moments like this….no doubt in my mind and I think most people would agree.
I came at the right time, right place, to save this family’s dog.

It struck me later, as it does now still…the dog.

The dog knew it’s world was on fire, it knew that everything was wrong. I’ll go as far as to say it knew it’s very life was in danger. When I called his name, he knew to come to the voice, came to someone calling his name. But when the dog came out of the wall of smoke, he saw something that he didn’t understand, someone he didn’t know, couldn’t conceive?
He wandered back into the wall of smoke, back to where comfort and safety had once been…back into the burning building.

Said another way, the dog would rather stay and die in the surroundings that he knew than have a stranger pull him to the new uncomfortable reality. That’s a goofy thing the dog did, right?

But…

We’re like this dog in so many ways. Our world can be on fire, burning down around us and we’re waiting for the firemen to show up while we sit in the Lazy Boy flipping channels in denial.

The job is coming to an end, the marriage is in shambles, our finances in flames, our addiction our of control…
….and we go turn on the tv
…crack another beer
…look the other way
…pretend it’s not happening.
We wander around a burning house wondering why it’s burning.

Often God sends someone to jolt us out of that denial…a brother, a sister, a police officer, a good friend…and we just turn and walk back into the fire, “nope, reality is not happening today” and we’re not going to hear it. ..it’s like we’ve done enough adulting for the day and that’s all there is that’s going to fit into our reality for one day. We ignore the flames and blinding smoke and noise that’s consuming and sucking the life out of us.

If…

If your world is on fire…then I believe God can be trying to send you someone to call you out of the confusion, out of the fire. I’ve never seen where the Good Father gives up on His child. It may be a familiar face or it may be somebody you’ve never met. But when the way out shows up, no matter what it looks like, get through that door.

Today is Thanksgiving 2018.

If you’re reading this, and it occurs to you that I’m writing this story for you…then take it as a sign that God wants better for you…and then answer God’s voice and reach out your hand for Him to take it.

If you’re reading this, and it occurs to you that I’m writing this story for someone you know. We have those people in our lives that we have reached out to so many times…their lives burning down in front of us…and we’ve watched them and reached out for years, and they continue to wander in smoke.

Ask God to help you reach out again…ask God to bring them to the door…then through the door. Those we know can be the hardest to reach. You can’t tackle them like a grey haired beagle…you have to extend your heart before you extend your hand.

You never know when someone is ready for a new start, a new life.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone,

Tony

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The Precipice: Conclusion

The confrontation that I had with my neighbor happened in late July, 2018, I detailed that incident in a blog post called “The Precipice” that was published on my blog “dieonempty@wordpress.com” on August 11th of the same year.

I won’t belabor any details of that confrontation. It happened, it was confusing, and it didn’t really end right in my mind…I mean I’m a storyteller, and I wanted a story with an ending that you can smile, nod, and sleep peacefully that everything wrapped up nicely and everything was put back in it’s place like it’s a children’s book.

But it wasn’t.

So after we went to court, after everything was done, it didn’t fit all nicely in a box.

I replaced a custom order door for the 1900s goofy dimensions…the damaged door still sits leaned against the back of my house (Jake will you PLEASE get this!) and I have ZERO expectations that I will be paid back as the court has ordered…about $900 down the drain.

Mentally, I won’t lie, I was on watch for a pissed off ex—neighbor that might try to find me one night with a gun, a knife, or a baseball bat. I set “weapons” in key places should I get confronted in my house or in my yard. I heard things in the night that woke me out of a dead sleep that I went to check with gun in hand. I installed a security system with cameras that were tripped by every animal type in North America. I kid you not, squirrels, possums, raccoons, around 7 different neighborhood cats, dogs, deer (buck, doe, and fawn), MANY birds, a neighbor kid playing with the neighbor’s stray cats, and the mailman, all on a REGULAR basis set off chirping “alerts”.

It was like I had a petting zoo around my house.

I don’t remember where the idea came up for a restraining order…but someone told me I needed to have one, so I filed for one. To get a restraining order, it’s a two part procedure. First you file paperwork to get a court date. THEN you go to the actual courtroom hearing for the restraining order.

SO to I file for the restraining order, go to court downtown, go before the judge and a date is set for the restraining hearing. Part one is done, part two is few weeks down the road.

With date set and I prepared myself with “my story” and the supporting documents that included the police reports of my first incident with him along with the actual assault report. The day before court I’m a little nervous. I got up early, find parking space downtown, got to the courtroom early, waited for my name to be called…and when it did, I went up before the judge only to be told that the other guy had not been served with papers and the hearing was postponed. They didn’t know how to find him…and that I HAD TO GET HIS NEW ADDRESS to the court.

Three things cross my mind.
1) WHY THE HELL didn’t someone just pick up a fu#%$ phone and call me to save me, the judge, and the 5 other people working in the judge’s chambers that my case was postponed to save us this wasted time in our lives?
2) You want the assaultee to get the assaulter’s address? That’a little messed up.
3) This guy’s on probation, right? Seems the court should have known to call the probation officer to get his new address. Seems perfectly logical to me, right? They didn’t. Seems they leave that up to you to call the probation officer (who knows they can’t tell you the information) to call the court and tell them this guy’s new address.

Anyway, court date is put off for a new one…two months down the road. Two more months of practicing my ninja skills.

Two months go by…haven’t seen him a single time….and I’ve been watching and looking…thinking surely this guy’s got to be pretty angry.

Nothing.

So, two months later, I’m back at the courtroom. I’m there early because I know what and where I’m going…I’m practically a regular now. I let a couple amateurs next to me know that playing with their phones is frowned upon…cause I’m a veteran in the courtroom now and I’ve watched them make an ‘example’ of a person or two. I also know that you tuck in your shirt and don’t wear shorts (One judge declared to all of us, “You’re not at a picnic, THIS IS COURT OF LAW FOR GOD’S SAKE!!!”) Also, side note, if there’s a state seal in front of the judge, don’t step on it…just warning you, it’s a setup.

I’m sitting there…and THE guy that I got into it with, shows for court. I didn’t expect him to be honest…but he showed. He sat in the bench behind me, off to one side. I actually wondered if he would hit me in the back of the head in court. I realize that would go poorly for him but what good would that do if I got some Chuck Norris death punch to the neck?
He didn’t hit me…but I watched him out of the corner of my eye.

Anyway, we were called up in front of the judge very quickly. She asked a few basic questions and we were about to get sworn in. She said to both of us to raise our right hands to be sworn in. I rose mine and the other guy was messing around with getting something out of his backpack. She snapped at him again to raise his right hand with a firmness that caught both of our attention.

He raises his LEFT hand. (Of course he did I thought)

“RAISE YOUR RIGHT HAND!” She barked at him. He’s startled, wide eyed, and shoots up his right, hand AND arm like he’s giving her a Hitler salute. I know he didn’t mean it (or did he?) but I actually had to keep myself from smiling.

We swore in and she told me to present my case.

I began laying out details as I had in my story. She took my copy of the police reports and looked at them as I outlined “my side” of things. I fancied myself a lawyer for a second, yes, this would be my next career.

The other guy tried to interject once, but she stopped him. The second time he tried to interject, she warned him NOT TO SPEAK out of turn and that she would not warn him again! I secretly wondered if she had been one of those mean nuns at one time in her life. Judge’s robe to nun’s habit was not much of a stretch.

I was like, wow, this was really going to go my way.

Until it didn’t.

She looked and listened to MOST of my story before asking, well, not so much asking but telling me that I didn’t have the criteria needed for a restraining order. I needed 2 incidents within 3 months….I only had 2 documented incidents within 5 months. I stuttered…thought for a second. Nothing documented, no witnesses…I had no other cards to play. I finished my side of the story.

My career as a lawyer was halfway over.

She asked me several questions that let even more air out of my balloon…where was the dog when it was loose? His yard. Was the dog ever loose after our first incident? No.

My career as a lawyer was three quarters over.

She then says do you have any other documents? Any witnesses? Anything else I want to tell her? No. Do you rest your case then? Yes I said.

My lawyering career was given a 2 minute warning.

I wasn’t sure what to expect when she asked him if he wanted to tell his side of the story or refute anything I had said. I don’t know what I expected…but I expected things to get worse from here. Maybe he would heap accusations at me, tell them about me being a bad neighbor…or maybe he would lie about things.

“Do you want to add anything? Do you want to tell your side of things?” She asked him.
“No, he told the truth…that’s exactly the way it happened.” He said.
“He told the truth.”

I think he was genuinely surprised that I told truth of everything…and it surprised him. I’m not sure why, but I was surprised that he was surprised.

The judge ruled that the case was dismissed in that it didn’t meet the requirements for a restraining order. I felt as if I had wasted everyone’s time. I was doubtful my next career as a lawyer would get off the ground.

When the judge said it was over and he then asked if he could go back to the house and get his stuff. The judge responded that my ‘stay away order” was in place and that he could not trespass or interact with me whatsoever. She also stated it would be best if he did not take his dog. He said that he had to give up his dog with everything that had happened. He said he hadn’t found a new place to live yet and that he would get another dog when he did.

I kind of made me sad because I know that dog, no matter how much I knew it wanted to eat people, that dog meant a lot to him. He had lost his dog and his place to live, that’s a rough couple months in anybody’s book.

The nun in disguise dismissed us and called the next case.

When you’re done with court, you go out the side door to the hallway where there’s an office, a cubby whole with a person and a printer. They get the official documents of the court, copy them, and give you a copy. So he and I went out the side door…and as we’re sitting there, he walks up to me and sticks out his hand and mumbles something about “being sorry about all this.”

To say I was surprised is quite an understatement.
In my shock, I shook his hand and I mumbled “I am too”.

He gathered up the documents and walked off. I sat down for a minute.
It was over for both of us.

In moments like this, I ask God, ”So….what was that all about?”
I think His response is “It’s not for you to know everything…it’s not all about you.”
Fair enough, I think.

As someone who has faith I often ask God to use me. When I say that I want to be used, I really mean, “let me win the super lotto so I can be super generous with some of it” or “I’ll be the hero in your story”….kind of way. I want a story like “let me catch the winning pass in the Super Bowl and I’ll give you all the glory” kind of way. But that’s not the way God always works. Some times you get to be the punching bag so God can teach the other boxer a lesson.

The lady next door has never given me a reason to think she’s a Christian…but some how I just know that she’s watched over by God. Maybe I was the answer to her prayer or her daughter’s prayer, or her granddaughter’s prayer…but I think it’s the lady.
Why do I think that?
She told the truth the night of the incident. He statement backed my side of the story. She is still my neighbor, and she and her man, and her daughter and granddaughter have been very nice to me ever since.

Another sign is that ALL the stray cats in the neighborhood are drawn to her house. And I mean ALL of them. They lay around her porch like seals on the ocean docks on a warm sunny day.

Maybe that guy he has a purpose to fulfill for God but he was hiding from it, like he’s Jonah and had to be in the belly of the penitentiary whale for 2 weeks to get him to wake up.
Maybe God needed him out of that house and onto something else…I don’t know and until he starts a blog or my neighbors tell me, I may never know.

I also suspect God used that incident to wake something up in me that I’m not fully aware of yet. Or maybe He wanted to show me what I was not….besides a lawyer.

Do I understand all of God’s ways, His reasons, His methods?
Not
Even
Close

Do I trust all of God’s ways?
I say yes…but I have to laugh because I know that I don’t have a choice. Like a toddler buckled into a car seat, I can scream and throw tantrums, or I can sit back, look out the window, and enjoy the ride.

Some day maybe he and I will be friends…we’ll sit and laugh about it, maybe have a beer.
I just hope we don’t attract a bunch of stray cats when we do.