The Steering Wheel

Cait has a fear of fire. She seems to have been born with it. It’s been a frequent topic of conversation since the time she was first able to express herself. To help her with this concern, we’ve practiced fire drills at home, we have an action plan for what we’d do and where we’d go, and she helps me replace the batteries in the smoke detectors quarterly. Even with all our preparedness, she still occasionally needs to talk about it. Last night the conversation was about how we’d get out of the house, and what we’d want to save.

“Mom, what about Kiera and Graidy and Finn?” she asked, brows knitted.

“The animals are always where we are,” I said. “And since they run anywhere we run, there’s a very good chance they’d follow us right out. But that’s not something for you to worry about. Dad and I would take care of that.”

Then we moved onto our imagined list of what we’d hope to grab on the way out. (Cait knows that in a real fire, we wouldn’t be trying to grab anything. We’d just be getting out of the house as fast as we could.)

“I’d want Basa,” Cait immediately offered. Basa, a dolphin, was the only stuffed animal Cait had ever cared about. They’d slept together for many a night.

“Hmm,” I said, thinking. “After all humans and animals were safe, I’d like to be able to grab my computer, since it’s kind of become my brain outside of my head.”

“Then again,” I added. “It might be refreshing to be free of a brain.”

It was a joke but Cait didn’t laugh.

Instead, she asked for the hundredth time, “Mom, are you afraid of fire?”

I answered truthfully for the hundredth time, “No. I’m not.”

She wanted to know for the hundredth time, “How come?”

I decided that she was finally old enough to know the reason why.

“Let me tell you a little story,” I began.

Cait snuggled in closer, making herself comfortable. She’d do just about anything to get me to tell her a story.

“Once upon a time, some years ago, I had my house burn down.”

Cait sat straight up with alarm. I pulled her back into the crook of my arm.

“I think you’re ready to hear this story.” I continued, “I was home early in the morning when a propane truck caught on fire in my driveway and the flames shot to my house. The whole side of my house went up in seconds. I saw this happen right before my eyes.”

Cait looked at me wide-eyed, “What’d you do, Mom?”

“Well, my first reaction was to go into the next room and hide in the closet,” I said.

“You did not do that,” Cait said, nervously laughing.

“Yes, I did.” I smiled. “But then my brain started working again and I climbed out the window in my pajamas and bare feet in the middle of winter, into two feet of snow.”

“Mo-om,” Cait said in a sing-song voice, “How come you didn’t get your coat and boots, and just go out the door?” Like, she was thinking, Duh, Mom!

This was the first question Cait asked that gave me pause. She assumed that I’d climbed out the window in my PJs because I was still in a daze. I hesitated, looked at her face, and then decided to continue. “The door was in flames, Cait. My coat and boots were by the door. Three sides of the house were already on fire. The window was the only way out.” I decided not to mention the fact that the smoke was so thick through the whole house that it was nearly impossible to breathe, never mind see.

Cait swallowed hard. “That fast? Three sides that fast?”

“Well, the fire was, after all, getting a little help from a truck full of propane fuel!” I tried to joke. “But that’s why, if you’re ever in a fire, you move as fast as you can to get right out. That’s why you don’t bother grabbing for anything. You just go.” I turned her chin and looked her in the eye, “You understand? You just go.”

“Okay, Mama,” Cait murmured and pressed in closer to me. She couldn’t help herself, she had to ask, “Then what happened?”

“People are so funny,” I chuckled. “A group had already gathered in the street to watch. I just walked through them and kept going until I reached a friend’s house a few blocks away.”

“What was funny about that? How come you didn’t stay to watch what happened?” Cait asked.

“Aside from the fact that I basically had an ignited bomb sitting in my driveway?”

“Oh—yeah,” Cait said, and we laughed.

“Anyway, as far as I was concerned there was nothing to watch,” I continued, “I knew my house and all my possessions would be gone in a matter of minutes.”

Cait saw that I’d gotten lost in thought. “Then what happened?” she wanted to know.

“You know what was really interesting about the whole thing?” I asked.

She shook her head, no, with a conviction that suggested she was positively certain there would be absolutely nothing interesting at all about being in a fire.

“As soon as I realized I had to leave my home and go out into the world with nothing but my body and what was on it right then, a funny thing happened. I was free in a way that I’d never been before.”

Cait was looking at me so intently. I searched for the right words to help my daughter understand.

“I felt oddly peaceful,” I told her. “Maybe because I had no possessions to be concerned about anymore. It did an amazing job of shifting my consciousness to simplicity and thankfulness for being alive. And I had a few things left at Grammy’s and Poppy’s” house…”

“Is that where you went next?” Cait asked.

“For a little while…”

“I would have just moved back in with them for good,” Cait said.

I laughed because this was so “Cait.” Still feeling very attached to me, she often stated that she was never leaving. That whoever married her would have to move in with all of us. And she fully meant it!

“Well, that wasn’t really an option, Honey,” I said. “For a number of reasons. The primary one being that Grammy’s and Poppy’s house suffered from an electrical fire a month later.”

“Oh my gosh! Mom!” Cait had involuntarily hopped to her feet in disbelief.

“Everyone was fine,” I quickly reassured her. “Grammy was the only one home cooking on the stove when the fire started and she got right out. The house was structurally okay. There was just a tremendous amount of smoke damage, and pretty much everything inside had to be thrown out.”

“Mom, this is unbelievable!”

“Yep. And then all my possessions were gone. Gone. Gone. Gone.”

“Didn’t you feel picked on?” Cait asked with some strong emotion.

“Remember when I told you something very interesting happened?” I looked at her and she nodded. “Well, here’s the thing: The only way I could look at it was that the universe wanted me to be free of my history, so I could stand tall and start fresh with no baggage. I have to say, the period after the fires was one of the happiest of my life, because my life suddenly became full of possibilities and choices again.”

“I don’t understand,” Cait said.

“Yeah, it’s kind of hard to imagine if you haven’t been through it. I’d lost everything, and instead of experiencing it as traumatic, or bad, or being picked on, I experienced it as being one of the most clarifying and freeing experiences of my life. You see because I realized, with a Capital “R”, that stuff doesn’t matter. I had myself and my family. Everything else could be replaced. It’s one thing to say you understand that. It’s another thing to live through it and know that it’s true.”

Cait, once again sitting next to me, gave me a big hug, looking for comfort and safety from a world she sometimes found scary.

I wrapped my arms around her, “The thing is, Cait, life can change in an instant, just like that.” I snapped my fingers. “And it does no good to worry about it. People like to believe that there’s a steering wheel to this thing called life. People like to believe they know where their lives are headed. I believe that’s a bit of an illusion. The trick is to accept that it’s an illusion without giving up hope, or joy, or optimism, and without falling into a fatalistic view of life. While I hold a fierce conviction that at times I can indeed steer the way a bit, I try to remember to allow myself to be suspended—I think cradled is a better word—by an openness to the spiritual. I find I get a lot further a lot faster that way, when I can do it.”

Cait looked up at me.

“There are lots of adventures to be had ahead,” I said. “And if we choose to hold on to any one of them with a death grip, that only serves to prevent us from getting to have more adventures. And it doesn’t even guarantee that we’ll get to have the adventure we’ve so desperately grasped. It only guarantees that we’ll get to feel desperate.”

I could see that Cait was starting to feel emotionally exhausted from our conversation. That was my cue to wrap things up. “Cait, I find that life seems to work best when you do all that you can do, and then let go. So, like with this fire thing, we’ve done and we are doing all we can do to be prepared. It’s okay to let go of the worrying.” I patted Cait’s knee. “End of story. Now, how about we go get something to drink? All that talking’s made me thirsty!”

We got up to walk into the kitchen. Cait slipped her elbow through my arm.

“Mom, you’re the only person I know who could make something good out of being in a fire.”

I laughed. “Guess it’s something you have to go through to really understand, Honey.”

“So, Mom. Do you think you’ve used up all our “Fire Karma” so I don’t have to worry about being in a fire anymore?” She asked, only half-jokingly.

“Do you know anybody else who can say they’ve survived not one but two fires?! No doubt about it, Sweetie, I’m sure I’ve burned up all the Fire Karma for our family for the next few generations!

Cait let loose a smile that reached from ear to ear, gave me a big squeeze and let out a loud, heartfelt “Phew!”

27 thoughts on “The Steering Wheel”

  1. Patricia - Spiritual Journey Of A Lightworker

    What a great show of love and understanding for your daughter from you. You were probably right about your daughter being born with the fear of fire. I have a fear of drowning from more than one past life where I did drown.

  2. I am so glad I got to read this. Your writing is great and the way you shared this with your daughter surely relieved her of some of her fear.

  3. Beautiful story, Karen. Just beautiful. I might have missed this if I hadn’t browsed through polliwog’s Carnival of Good Stuff. Good stuff here, indeed.

  4. What a Beautiful Story! You expressed it so eloquently.
    The freedom you spoke of feeling helped us realize that life happens but it can still be okay and maybe sometimes even better for the tragedy.
    Thank you. Your words have touched me before. I truly admire your talent.

  5. Oh Karen, what an amazing, moving, and life-altering post!!! You write so eloquently, and I felt like a fly on the wall looking in on your private conversation with Cait.

    You’re such a brave woman, thanks for sharing your life lessons with us!

    I remember when I got divorced, I left with my clothes and my computer. I lost everything else, but I was just happy to be alive and free, and I realized that everything I had worked so hard to purchase and all the material things I had longed for during the marriage were just stuff to fill an emotional gap.

    Thank you for reminding me what life is about; we should live in the present and trust that whatever lies around the corner is for the best.

  6. Jan, I think the fact that I didn’t have any kids or animals to be worried about at the time (one of the few times in my life when I didn’t have a dog), made it a lot easier to deal with.

    Rory, Life’s nothing if not a trip, eh…

  7. Beautiful mother daughter dialogue. I’ve never had a cataclysmic occurrance, but I guess there might be a sense of freedom in spite of the initial pain of loss.

  8. Kailani, I’m sure you’ll have just as great a relationship with your daughter–when she’s old enough to hold up her end of the conversation! :)

    Thanks for stopping by, Therese.

    Jenn, which one was the mold? The round spikey one? For those who wonder what the heck we’re talking about, Jenn has a microscopic photo of some dust up on her site. Who would guess that it could look like a work of art?!

  9. I agree with the above comments. Your story is simply beautiful. I hope I’m raising my kids with half the insight that you show. Your daughter and your dogs are all very lucky! And I agree the dust is beautiful, but I don’t like the mold spores. Possibly because I’m allergic to mold, or just because they’re not very similar to anything macroscopic. I spent quite a while last year looking at dust under the microscope and it’s quite complex!

  10. Oh, and tornados! Well, I’ve just turned into a bowl of jello. LOL.

    Your Ally sounds pretty special. And I don’t think it’s corny at all to feel a sisterhood. I feel honored.

    And so, then, you won’t be minding in the Spring when I ask for help on how to prune my grape vines? :)

  11. No words…what a blessed moment between you and your daughter…wisdom. I felt I was there with you both listening…tears. I have had this same talk with my youngest daughter Ally…at the same age that Cait is now when we had an almost castastrophic range fire. ( It destroyed part of my vineyard, a barn and equipment) Then a summer later an electrical fire that Ally smelled the smoke and heard the popping of the electrical shorts outside burning into our home ( thanks to her and Rural volunteer firefighters minimal damage)…I know this sounds corney but I feel such a sisterhood with you Karen. And every spring we live with the threat of tornadoes…that is a whole different and long story. And 9/11 is a different story too…dark shadows. Fear cripples…your losses you experienced and triumphed over and any loss makes the mountaintop closer. Thank you for this….

  12. Wow! A Flood! I think that would even be harder than a fire. At least in a fire you can run outside. Where do you run in a flood?

    Yeah. Sometimes the hard part is to make that awareness last… Having been to NYC soon after 9/11 and then just recently, I can tell you the “kindness to each other” there seems to have only been a brief shining moment.

    Hmm. I just had a thought. Maybe that’s because even though there was tragic loss of life, relatively speaking very few were directly touched by that. The rest of the city was living under the fear of loss (another possible attack)–not actual loss. Yep. Fear definitely does different things to people than loss.

  13. What an amazing story–and I love the way you related it through your conversation.

    Pretty amazing.

    Did I say it was amazing?

    I kind of saw that same thing when we were in a flood and everyone lost everything. Somehow it brings out good things in people when they lose everything and starting thinking of how to help others cope with tragedy too.

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