The Day There Was(n't) a Fire

Last Tuesday I was getting ready to leave work for lunch when I got some unexpected texts from Curtis.


I smelled it in the hallway before I saw our wet living room. The picture doesn't capture the water that was spitting at the ceiling, streaming down the wall, and soaking the couch and carpet.

Really, it was fine because it was just water, and nothing was hurt besides the couch. We ate lunch as usual, while the plumber scurried in and out and waited for the water to completely drain the our system so he could take the head off and fix the problem. I went back to work confident that when I got home that night, everything would be cleaned and airing out.

Ten minutes after I got back to work, I got more texts. This time they were from my brother, who we asked to sit in our apartment for the afternoon.

Do you want a video of the bad news?

I expected a quick clip of a hole in the wall they'd had to break to turn off the sprinkler. What I received instead stopped my heart. 

The water wasn't completely off, and in some mis-chance, when the sprinkler head came off, it fire-hosed greasy black water all over our living room. What the night before had been a cozy, christmas-y nest was turned into a dank smelly black wet mess. We spent the rest of the afternoon in limbo, as I tried to figure out what we needed to do while I was at work, and Curtis worked to assess the damage and see what could be salvaged.

When I got home from work and walked into our apartment building, a group of facilities workers got off the elevator in the lobby. They were covered in black and smelled awful.

I asked them if they came from the corner apartment on 8 and they nodded and said,

We’re so sorry.

Usually when people see our apartment, they say, "It's so cute," and "We love how you decorated," and "your couches are so comfortable." They don't apologize.

The elevator smelled faintly, and the closer I got to the apartment, the worse it smelled. Nothing could have prepared me for walking into my tiny cozy home and finding it wet, black, smelly, steamy, a stained shell full of ruined belongings.

I felt like a kid who's trying to learn to ride a bike and keeps falling over—the weight of discouragement was so heavy I wanted to sit down on the floor and cry. But I couldn't, because the floor was covered in black greasy water and the couches were filthy.

Apparently, after water sits idly in clean pipes and extracts sediment from said pipes, sprinkler water turns black. The translation of that into simple language is that the movies have been lying to us all this time. In The Office (spoiler alert) when Michael Scott proposes and all those smiling people get drenched with clear water from the sprinklers, it's an inaccurate depiction (of course, covering everyone with smelly black water probably wouldn't have had the same effect. For the sake of the story, media, deceive on.).

Just know for your own benefit:

Sprinkler system water isn't crystal clear.

After everyone who had been cleaning left, we sat on stools in our living room and just stared. For a long time.

We bemoaned the ruined Christmas tree that we'd put up three days before, the sodden couches, and the cozy blankets (now covered in nastiness) that we wrapped ourselves in so many times to watch movies and eat homemade pizza on Friday nights. Our books had been straight in the line of fire (ha), and they were all ruined.

My parents brought dinner (and some parental care, concern, and encouragement), and when they left we picked the blackened ornaments off the tree in silence, hoping maybe they were salvageable. 

Then we made a list of everything else that got ruined in "The Black Drench." It felt far too long. Without my brother and his wife and the Oreos they brought over, we probably would've given up. Even with them it took a few hours to write down everything we'd lost and what we guessed it would cost.

The next 72 hours were a roller coaster of talking to person after person about what had happened, and what was next, and where we were going to sleep that night. We never implemented my grand plan of cardboard boxes under a bridge, even though a few afternoons I thought we might have to.

Two days later, they knocked out part of the wall, took out the carpet, and started some serious deep cleaning. At one point, all of our saved furniture (and the tree, which has since met its demise) besides our bed and dressers fit in the kitchen.

There were crews working on our apartment tirelessly, from morning to night, all week. Men came in and painted, laid carpet, and scrubbed the ceiling and walls, even on Saturday, so we could move back in as soon as possible.

Everyone was kind, everyone worked so hard for us, everyone did their best to make sure that we'd have a clean happy home to move back into. 

Yesterday, 7 days after the original fiasco, we got to move back into the apartment. It's freshly painted, newly carpeted, and squeaky clean. We don't have any living room furniture, but we have a living room. And that alone is a privilege. 

I learned some stuff in the past week.

What matters lasts.

I used to think that it was important to have things; things mean stability, comfort, establishment. You need couches to sit on, books to read, and a Christmas tree to celebrate Christ's birth. I don't at all discount any of those things, but in the past week I realized I'd much rather have Curtis and none of the other things, than have all the things and not Curtis.

People can sit on the floor, libraries have plenty of books, and Jesus Christ coming to earth is much more significant than just a shiny Christmas tree in my living room (don't get me wrong, I do love Christmas decorations).

At the end of the day the things that matter are still there: love, Jesus, family, friends. The accessories may change the experience, but they don't change the truth.

People are kind.

As a glass-half-full person (but let's be real, if it's chocolate milk, it's half empty. There's no such thing as enough chocolate milk.), I usually see the good in people quicker than the bad. I'm not naively oblivious, but a lot of people do a lot of good that goes un-commended, and I try to look for it.

In the past week people have been nothing but kind. We've been given gift cards for food, money, small kind things like cups of coffee, and other little gifts that might seem like nothing to the giver, but they felt like everything to us.

Dozens of people have worked together to keep us optimistic, to clean our house, and to simply care. Their consideration has gone above and beyond the call of service provider and worker, and reached a level of kindness that would give even the staunchest pessimist a fragment of hope. 

Maybe we need disasters more often, if this is what it brings out in people (disclaimer: I am not wishing exploded sprinkler heads on any of my friends or neighbors.).

I am not enough, but...

My natural instinct is that with enough grunting and legwork, I can get things done. Many times, that is true; hard work builds bridges and climbs the un-scaleable wall. 

In this case, it most certainly was not. Feeling powerless-ness is debilitating to a do-er, and standing in my trashed living room, helpless to clean or move things or repair everything broken, I felt entirely insufficient. Not because there was nothing I could do, but because I couldn't do enough. I couldn't fix it, I certainly couldn't make it all better, I was incapable of doing the things that badly needed to be done. Almost everything happened without my instruction and without my help. I did a lot of work, but at the same time, I barely lifted a finger.

It was an important jolt to my self-sufficient mentality. Surrender and dependence don't come naturally to me, but experiencing forced surrender and helpless dependence reminded me that I am not enough. I never will be. But Christ in me is enough. He is the beginning of every good thing that comes from me, and the completion of every keen idea that spreads through me.

I am not enough. But Christ is. 

I learned a lot of other small things, but those three are the ones that I'm setting out to remember, the ones I'm writing down to articulate clearly, and the ones I'll tell my kids about when they're old enough to understand what a trashed apartment and no renters insurance means.

May you never have to learn these things in the same way I did.

Anneliese, happily no longer homeless.