In a nearby town there was recently a fire. Fires happen far too often in our area in the winter. Many of us burn wood for heat. Many old houses (there are plenty around here) have questionable wiring. And fires these days often burn hot and fast, thanks to the flammability of the synthetic materials used in furnishings.
There were seven members of the family home in this fire. Only two made it out of the building. The mother and four children were lost.
Friends of ours were among the first firefighters to arrive from the small volunteer force in this small rural town. The truck arrived promptly, and there was still nothing they could do to get inside. The fire had moved that quickly.
This is not a post about tragedy, although that is what I think of every day. This is about community. This is about empathy. This is about what we still have, and what we are forgetting, and why it matters so much.
In my husband’s family, two parents have lost children. In my family, two of my aunts lost adult children. On the highway I commute on, I’ve come upon the aftermath of fatal accidents more than once. On a twisty back road I take down to town, I once spent fifteen minutes of a warm sunny day slowing traffic around a still young man and his fallen motorcycle.
This is part of being alive, that death is always there. It is, in fact, the only promise we have, and yet we pretend it isn’t. The woods and fields know better. In the winter, the track of a mouse scurries across the snow to a point where it vanishes, the imprint of owl wings left to either side. The scatterings of bluejay feathers among the leaf litter on the ground, the smell of decay in along the trail on a hot humid day—there is nothing to hide.
We have a beginning and an end, all of us.
In this small town where a father and child escaped from a fire into a future without so many loved ones, this is what has happened. Town members have gathered, in church, at the school, and they have mourned and comforted. The fire department has asked for help and hugs for the volunteers who are grappling with their inability to save a family, and they have received both. Funds are being raised for new clothes, new furnishings, food and housing. A living space has been found for father and child. Children are supported as they try to understand how death comes for the young and the loved, not just the mouse in the snow.
This is the best of us. This is what we are born to be to one another. The volunteers who run into a freezing night to try to save their neighbors, the families who give what they have to help one another. The people who recognize grief—their own, others—and open themselves to feel it, not to turn away. The potential for pain in this world is legion.
So is the potential for grace.
Compassion requires one giant step: to acknowledge that loss waits for us all. We do not protect ourselves by refusing to take it. We simply make it easier to become the people who do not care, who see suffering and step around it, mock it, incite it. To become people for whom community is simply a misspelling of commodity.
Last fall, my husband and I stopped to help a young woman broken down on the side of the highway. She was traveling to visit a friend, and something on the road had punctured her tire and caused a blowout. As is the case in much of our area, there was no cell service. She’d managed to contact her mother via a hotspot she had rigged, and while we changed her tire in the soft ground of the shoulder, I could hear her mother in the background. Are you with good people? Are you sure?
We stopped to help because she was young, and a woman, and alone, and because we wanted to protect her. Because I could hear the fear in her mother’s voice, and because mothers know that when we send our children into the world, we are dependent on good people being there for the times we are not. Because tragedy waits for us all, and because compassion is the truest thing we can offer. I have rescued many birds trapped in buildings. There is always a moment, as you open your hands to release them into the world, that they sit stunned for just a second, weightless in your palm, and then, when they fly, you can feel their freedom like your own. Seeing this woman drive away, I could feel the same.
When I have hope, it is not in things. It is not in political thought. It is in the moments when we recognize our constant vulnerability. When we step into the grief, instead of away. We are made to care for one another. When we do, we become so much more.