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Into the Fire

When ordinary people face hardship with inexplicable confidence and bravery

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One night last summer, my neighbor Debbie came over and knocked on my door. “I’m leaving for work, Jim,” she said. “Would you mind dropping by my house in a bit and checking on my mother?”

Everyday Greatness--Celebrating the Heroes Among Us“Not a problem,” I said.

I’d lived next door to Debbie and her 84-year-old mother, Nan, for about six months, and we’d become fast friends. Debbie worked the overnight shift at a nursing home. She worried about leaving her mom alone, so she asked if it was okay if she rigged up one of those baby monitors and gave me a receiver. I said, “Sure, why not?”

I was glad to help. But I also felt a little funny about it. After all, what could I do? I’ve been blind since infancy and out of work for years. In fact, at 54, I’d come to wonder if I had much value anymore. I didn’t like having those thoughts and would ask the Lord to help me fight them off. Still, sometimes they got the better of me.

A bit after 9:00 P.M. I grabbed up my cane and headed over to Debbie’s. “Evening, Nan,” I said, as I felt my way into the living room. Nan didn’t answer. Maybe she hadn’t heard me. Like me, she was blind—and was also hard of hearing. Quite a pair, the two of us! I made my way toward the sound of her creaking rocking chair. She was cooing to her apricot-colored poodles, Bevo and Biddler. It sounded like they were trying to jump up onto her lap.

“Oh, you get down now, you silly little fools,” she said, with a laugh.

Nan and I chatted for a bit. After a while I punched the button on my talking watch: “The time is nine forty-five.”

“If you’re okay,” I said, “I think I’ll turn in.” Before I left, I made sure the baby monitor was plugged in and working.

“Goodnight, Nan,” I said. I picked up my cane and headed out the door.

“See you tomorrow,” Nan called behind me, still playing with her dogs.

I locked the door and found my way home. I plunked down into my easy chair, switched on the receiver and laid it on an end table. Checking in on Nan had done me a world of good. “Thank you, Lord,” I said, “for giving me a chance to help.”

Minutes later I heard a sound—over the years my ears have grown supersensitive. It was Nan on the receiver. She was shuffling across the floor. A door opened. Maybe she’s heading to the bathroom, I thought. Then I heard something strange, something I couldn’t identify. It sounded like shussss. Had she turned on the shower? Why? She never showered without Debbie around. Maybe the sound was something else. The gas jet on the stove? God forbid, something catching fire? The monitor was one-way. I couldn’t call her. I reached for my cane. I was starting to get worried.

More sounds. A door closed. Tapping sounds, like someone feeling her way around, someone who’d lost her bearings. I got out of my chair.

Then a loud, unmistakable crash!

I headed for the door. “Jim! Jim!” I heard over the monitor. “The house is on fire! Help!”

I went as fast as I could to Debbie’s. I had to get Nan out. But how? How big was the fire? And where had it started? I wasn’t even sure where Nan was, let alone how I would get to her. One thing I knew: There wasn’t much time.

I got to the front door. I could smell smoke, a heavy, thick smell. Now what? What do I do, Lord? Help me. Help me find Nan!

I put my hand on the doorknob. It was cool to the touch. I reached for my key and unlocked the door. “Nan!” I called. No sound. Nothing. Was I too late? “Nan, where are you?”

“Here, Jim. Help!” Her voice was weak.

I felt my way inside. I could hear the roar of a fire from somewhere in the rear of the house. Smoke stung my nose, as if my nostrils were on fire.

“Nan, where are you? Keep talking!”

“Here, Jim, here!” Sounds as if she’s right in front of me. I flailed my arms about, hoping to find her. Sweat poured down me. I heard crackling. Not much time left. The fire, wherever it was, was getting closer.

“Nan!” I reached out desperately. My fingers struck something soft. Her shoulder.

“Jim, oh, Jim,” she said.

“Let’s get out of here!” I shouted. Grabbing her hand, I started to walk and again I felt the panic rise. Could I find the way out? Our lives depended on it. Lord, you lead us to safety, I prayed.

I tapped with my cane until we found the front door. We felt our way down the steps, breathing in the sweet, fresh summer air, and to the gate of her yard.

There was no telling how quickly the fire would spread. We hurried down the street toward safety. Finally we had to stop to catch our breath. Did anyone know Nan and Debbie’s house was on fire? I heard steps approach. “Are you two okay?” a neighbor asked. “Where’s Debbie?”

“She’s at work,” I said. “Call the fire department. And then call Debbie.” Nothing more to do.

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“At least we’re safe,” I said to Nan.

But Nan was in a panic. “The dogs! Jim, where are my dogs?”

“Nan, we can’t,” I said, my voice now soft. “Going back is too dangerous.” Nan began to sob. I understood. Those dogs were more than loving companions to her. They were her eyes and ears. I put my arm around her to comfort her. I can’t remember when I felt sadder or more busted up.

We heard wailing sirens and roaring engines and then squealing tires. The fire trucks arrived. Debbie came too. We knew from Debbie’s reaction that the house would be a total loss.

We stood around, as if at a wake. Nan and I listened to the sounds of her house coming down. Crackling timbers. Shattering glass. Collapsing beams. Finally, the firefighters got the blaze under control and put it out. But the air was heavy with the dank stench of charred wood and carpeting. I listened to the firemen talk as they put away their equipment. Then another sound. Barking. From Biddler. He ran up and licked Nan’s hand. Well, at least Biddler survived the fire. That’s a blessing, I thought. Soon Debbie, Nan, Biddler and I went across town to Debbie’s sister Dolores’s house. There wasn’t much to say. Even Biddler was quiet.

Then about an hour later there was a knock at the door. Dolores answered it. I heard a bark, and then toenails tapping across the linoleum. Bevo! A neighbor had found him wandering about a mile from Debbie’s house. Nan hugged him like a long-lost child. I breathed a sigh of relief. Thank you, Lord. We’re all safe.

That’s when I heard Nan’s voice break. I heard her sobbing, but I wasn’t sure why. “Jim, I just want to thank you,” she said. “When the fire broke out, I panicked and got turned around. I couldn’t find the door. You saved my life.”

Now Debbie’s voice started to quiver. “You rescued my mom,” she said. “You’re a hero.”

I hardly knew what to say. Two hours earlier I’d wondered whether I really mattered to anyone. And now I’d saved a life. Nan and Debbie were thanking me. Truth was, I wanted to thank them. Nan wasn’t the only one who had been saved that day.

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