Race doesn’t matter when saving a life
The night my neighbor saw me as his neighbor — even when I didn’t see him as one
At 7:28 p.m. on July 27, 2015, I texted my husband this message: “Lightning bolt from hell just hit the ground outside the family room.” When it struck with a crackling zap just a few feet away as I worked on my laptop, I jumped to my feet. The electric energy was palpable. For a nanosecond, the smoke detector screamed, which I thought was weird.
We had lost power minutes earlier during a fierce and sudden storm of such intense wind and rain that I was convinced a tornado had whipped through our subdivision. I learned later that the lightning had traveled underground and up through our electrical wiring, striking the attic. Attic fires are the worst, especially if people are asleep, because by the time you smell them, it can be too late.
Discombobulated and unnerved, I ran upstairs to hide in the hallway, in front of the laundry room and away from numerous windows. As I crouched on the floor waiting for the storm to pass and praying for a swift return of power, I heard two-fisted pounding on my front door with such force that I panicked. Instantly, I thought of every Hollywood movie featuring police trying to break down an offender’s front door. Until that moment, I did not know I feared law enforcement even when I wasn’t driving. But against the backdrop of high-profile cases involving black men and women, (Sandra Bland had been found hanged in her cell in Texas just two weeks earlier), my survival instinct whisper-screamed: “It’s the police. They have the wrong house. I’ve done nothing wrong, I’m not opening the door.” Only a more colorful word preceded the word “door.”
This may sound strange to all the law-abiders in the world, myself among them. But I had never had anyone beat on my door with such conviction. Already freaked out by the storm, I conjured up images of angry law enforcement officers intent on getting someone high on their list, even at the height of a raging storm. They were just at the wrong house.
And so I hid, on my hands and knees, weirdly focused on my thumping heart despite a growing haze. During a lull in the frantic door-pounding, I tried to discreetly peep out a window over the garage, only to be confused by what I saw: the profile of a white, middle-aged man with salt-and-pepper hair not in uniform. He stood in the middle of the cul-de-sac and said to someone I could not see, “There’s no one home.”
His words made my heart beat like a hip-hop record. If he thought no one was home, why was he trying to get in? And where was his uniform? Was he a plainclothes cop? Who was he?
These questions hula-hooped through my mind until I smelled smoke. Ah, something was burning outside, that’s what he’s trying to tell me. I ran downstairs, flung open the door and looked into the panicked eyes of a man who minced no words. “Get out now. Your house is on fire,” he yelled.
Immediately, I grabbed my laptop from the nearby family room (blame my writer’s DNA), my cellphone and car keys and paused. A car left in the garage of a burning house could lead to an explosion. “Can you come in here and open the garage door? The power is out and I don’t know how to open it with that cord.” I pointed to a dangling black line whose execution I had never mastered.
My heroic neighbor, who had already done more than enough, entered my home with its roof aflame and opened the garage door. I backed out of our short driveway and stopped at the edge. When I looked up at the second floor where I had been seconds earlier, flames leapt out.
Surreal is the only way to describe that moment. As I watched the place where I hid seconds earlier roiling in orange and yellow flames, I realized how narrowly I had escaped physical harm.
All around me, shocked neighbors were asking me if I was OK and videotaping the dancing flames on their mobile phones.
I quickly learned the weather event was a “microburst” and it affected a 10-mile radius hard, so much that downed trees delayed the water truck’s arrival.
I sat inside an ambulance parked on the corner across from the first home we built, our home, and I watched it smolder. I remained numb until my husband, Mike, entered the ambulance and wrapped me in his arms. Minutes later, feeling somewhat functional, I sought out my neighbor who’d relentlessly pounded my door, saving me from injuries or worse.
“What’s your name?” I asked, shaking his hand, then hugging him.
“Thank you, Adam.”
It turns out Adam had seen the bolt hit the house and told his wife, Suzy, to call the fire department while he banged away on my front door. Adam spotted me upstairs and that’s why he kept knocking.
He had no way of knowing why fear and confusion kept me hiding. And I couldn’t bring myself to explain why I’d panicked.
There was beauty and power and sadness and miscommunication that smoky evening. Our perspectives, no matter how organic, can trap us. For on that smoky July night nearly a year ago, Adam saw me as a neighbor before I saw him as one.
I hadn’t really socialized with my neighbors, preferring to stay to myself. Few neighbors seemed to remember my standoffishness the night we lost our home. I will never forget that, or that some lessons are more nuanced, complicated and emotionally dicey than others, especially when race is involved, because it alters almost everything, except when it doesn’t.
As heartbreaking as this catastrophic event was, it left me full of gratitude. Heroic neighbor? Check. Good insurance? Check. Supportive family and friends? Double check. Emerging from a burning house unharmed? Oh yes, beyond blessed.
The lessons embraced in the days that followed our tragedy fuel my daily intention to practice kindness, appreciate life and inspire others. And without a doubt, be a better neighbor.
Almost a year ago today, lightning struck my home of 20 years and my husband and I lost nearly everything. Until I realized we hadn’t.