House fire revealed kindness of others

Response of local community was a “spring of hope”

January is a quiet month after all the rushing around and last minute activity in the run up to Christmas. My family’s January is very different this year. On Christmas Day, my 85-year-old father’s house went on fire, ravaging the building and destroying everything in its path. My father was very fortunate to get out alive having made some vain attempts to smother the rising flames. In a smoke-filled room, with the fire spreading rapidly across the ceiling, he made the wise decision to rapidly exit the dwelling, a decision which was probably the difference between life and death. Depending on the kindness of good neighbours, all he could do was wait anxiously for the fire brigade to arrive, feeling a certain security when matters were taken into their hands. He has said many times since that he feels a deep sense of gratitude that he’s still here, alive, and still around to recount the dramatic and terrifying tale.

Precious memories

It’s not every day that your father dashes from a flame-engulfed house or that the home you grew up in, that holds so many precious memories, is blackened, burnt and twisted beyond recognition. What made the disaster more poignant was the fact that it occurred on Christmas morning.

All the preparations had been made for the celebration: the turkey was cooking in the oven, the beautiful crib figure of the Baby Jesus had been gently placed in the manger by my 13-year-old nephew, and my sister and her son were at Mass. Everything was poised, like an opening scene, waiting for the joyous day to unfold. When I got the fateful phone call from another shocked sister, I had just attended Christmas Day Mass myself with my own husband and children.

The news took a while to sink in. It can be very difficult to absorb such a sudden change in circumstances. The words of the song What a Difference a Day Makes kept coming into my head in the hours and days following the traumatic event. It seemed that the familiar ground was suddenly pulled from under us and we were struggling to regain our balance and composure.


There are a lot of terrible things that can happen to people and there are much worse things than a house fire. We reminded ourselves of that in the days that followed and over and over again, I discussed with my family and five siblings how my father’s story could have ended so differently. My father was very philosophical about it all. He was very aware of other sad losses over the Christmas period in similar circumstances to his own.

For all his children and grandchildren, he was an example of fortitude and resilience in adversity. His main concern was a small wallet that contained a black and white picture of my late mother on her wedding day. As the rest of the family bemoaned the various items that were damaged beyond repair, my father was reflecting on how he’d said his Morning Offering and the daily prayer to his guardian angel only hours before the unexpected calamity. The words “Ever this day be at my side, to light and guard, to rule and guide” never seemed so full of meaning and strength. My father’s house was a blackened charred mess, but his appreciation of the goodness of God was foremost in his mind.

In the flurry of days that followed, it could be described in the words of Dickens: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times….” Waking every morning, I felt that I could just pop over to see my dad in the nearby town where he lived. He’d be sure to be there playing The First Nowell on the piano, given to the family by our musical grandmother when we were all small children.

It was the one item I’d felt saddest about losing. One lonely note bravely survived the inferno that silenced forever its companions. A statue of Our Lady of Torreciudad, a gift I bought my mother after a pilgrimage to the Marian shrine in Northern Spain had melted into nothing. My sister and nephew, who live with my father, lost many items that are irreplaceable.

Any mother knows how precious the first little teddies and soft toys are, the treasured gifts of childish art works and the bits and pieces that tell the story of a life. Losing everything can feel very much like the “winter of despair” in A Tale of Two Cities. However there was definitely a “spring of hope” in the overwhelming response of the local community.

Pulling together

The fire was like an unwelcome raider seizing and demolishing all in its path. The aftermath of the fire showed all the family and extended family the goodness and kindness of humanity. The courageous fire fighters who battled the blaze, the neighbours and friends who brought clothes, food, sweet tea and endless sympathy, and even our own family, pulling together and managing, in the midst of it all, to capture some Christmas cheer.

We all learnt more about Pope Francis’ message of reaching out to others than any normal Christmas would have taught us. The Christmas Day fire may have ruined a home and its contents, but it ignited a spark that fanned a flame of love and hospitality that’ll never be forgotten.