My oldest daughter received a text message just as we were getting ready for our weekly family dinner over the weekend.
Her home in Portland was on fire.
Living in the information age, we are all bombarded with hundreds (thousands?) of messages every day and it’s easy to get desensitized to the tsunami of bits and bytes that flood our digital devices. But the message “your home is on fire … please come back to the scene” is something that evokes a primal level of fear.
Our immediate reaction was to be thankful that my daughter and our grandson were safe with us, followed by concern for other people in the building and for Emily’s two dogs that were left in the kitchen. Ultimately, people and pets were safe thanks to the Portland Fire Department and their fast action on a brutally cold evening.
What happened? Apparently, a contractor left a space heater running unattended to thaw frozen water pipes and somehow the building caught fire. The contractor earlier sent a text message to my daughter instructing her to “leave (the space heater) there and on as it will be bitter cold.”
Five short and fateful hours later, after returning from dinner, my daughter and her son would have been fast asleep a few feet from that same space heater, but not for the randomness of a spark here, or a spark there.
A few weeks ago my youngest daughter had a ski accident that required fairly serious surgery. (As a parent, I view any surgery on my kids as serious.) And for the hour that she was unconscious in the operating room, there was nothing in the world more important to me than my daughter waking up. (She’s doing fine.)
Last Thursday, I ran into a family friend at a local coffee shop. His young son is battling cancer in a Boston-area hospital, instead of enjoying a Maine winter with his friends. There is very little to say in the moment when unimaginable pain and incalculable fear are presented. Looking back now just a few days later, I regret not finding better words or stronger emotion to convey my feelings, but still, none come close to being adequate.
John Lennon famously wrote “Life is what happens while you are busy making other plans.” A truth we are all forced to accept in large doses and small. Lennon’s lyric was written in 1980; he was tragically murdered later that year.
Why am I writing this now? I’m not sure. Maybe because I’m finding myself looking for ways to appreciate people now, more than ever before. And as tragedy, and near tragedy, enter my orbit with greater frequency, I’m keenly aware of the finite nature of life’s journey.
In my teens I was indestructible and certain that I knew everything worth knowing in the universe. During my 20s, I careened through life within a cocoon of righteous arrogance.
By the time I got to my 30s, I was empowered with just enough experience behind and opportunity in front of me, to not see the here or now.
It wasn’t until my 40s and the start of my family that I awoke to the external world beyond myself. And now in the back half of my 50s, I’m content to appreciate and embrace the mystery of life and what happens along the course with an operating system of gratitude.
Like many born in the late 1950s, I started down a forced religious path as the son of my parents. But, since being asked to leave Saint Joseph’s Parochial School in the third grade for an infraction involving a thrown chalk eraser and, if memory serves, a rather mean-spirited nun, my relationship with organized religion has been strained.
In short, I believe in treating others how I would like to be treated. I also believe in honesty, honor, compassion and giving more than taking.
What I don’t believe in with any genuine conviction is the pomp and pageantry of stained glass, really old mystical books, and any form of hate born from religious conviction or intolerance.
All each of us can do is try our best. That’s my goal for tomorrow. And, the next day. Meanwhile, I’m grateful for the health, safety and happiness of my family and yours.
Steve Woods is from away, but fully here now, living in Yarmouth, working in Falmouth, traveling the world, and trying his best. His column appears every other week. He can also be heard each Saturday at 11 a.m. on WLOB-AM 1310.