In my childhood home in Flushing Township, we didn’t have many neighbors living out in the boonies like we did, but the nearest ones to us, The Echlins and the Cogswells, were like family to all of us since our house was first built in 1965 when I was 10 years old.
We were especially close to the Cogswells, who lived directly across the road from us. At the time that we had our house built, Rhoda and Raymond Cogswell had two grown daughters, Marcella, who lived in Florida, and Pat, who had just graduated from high school and very soon moved out on her own.
So my two younger brothers and I became surrogate kids for the Cogswells and we had an open invitation to run across the road and visit with them anytime.
They had such interesting things to do and play with! There were several huge 100 gallon aquariums with beautiful fish of all kinds and sizes. They had lots of books which I especially loved to bury my nose in. There was always a bird, usually a canary, that sang its heart out every time we were there. There was an Airedale, named Rusty, to play with and an old barn that was so much fun to explore. Mrs. Cogswell even tried to patiently teach me how to knit and crochet but I was all thumbs and I just couldn’t get the hang of it.
So when my daughter, Tara, and I moved in with my mom to help her out a few years after my dad had passed away, Mrs. Cogswell, who was by then also a widow, welcomed us back to the neighborhood with love and friendship.
Tara had always been treated from birth like an extra grandkid by the Echlins and the Cogswells because of our frequent visits to my mom and dad, and she loved them back like extra grandparents too. There was mutual receiving and giving of Christmas presents, birthday presents, and oh boy, did they always load up her Halloween sack every year with especially made treats.
Tara had an open door policy with Mrs. Cogwell too, like I had had when I was younger, and she found her home just as fascinating as I did. Pat had a granddaughter, Ashley, who was only 2 years younger than Tara, and so those two grew up together as good friends.
They were able to play together a lot more after Pat and her husband, David, moved into the large apartment that was built behind the family room and the garage. The apartment connected to the rest of the house with an angled hallway. The family room and the garage had been added on to the older 2-story farm house long before we had moved out to Flushing Township. So the entire Cogswell home was now in a large upside down L-shape with the older part facing our house across the road.
Rhoda was by then in her 80’s, in fairly good health, but she did have heart problems, circulation problems in her legs and feet and an occasional fainting spell. So she, the house and the property, did need some supervised assistance.
In February, 1997 I was sitting in our living room watching a telecast of an American History class I was taking at Mott Community College. My mom was in the kitchen and Tara was in her bedroom. Our living room had a large picture window that would have had an unobstructed view of the Cogswell house across the road except for the blue spruce tree that had grown to be very tall and wide from when it had been planted as a seedling by my dad in 1966.
I looked out the window at one point and I noticed smoke coming up over the top of the tree from Cogswell’s. That was normal because there was a field stone fireplace between the garage and the family room that was used a lot in winter time, as well as the fairly new fireplace in Pat and David’s apartment that they also used a lot.
But suddenly that smoke became quite dark and dense, and from between the branches of the blue spruce, I saw a couple of flames shoot out from the garage area so I knew that something was very wrong.
I jumped up and called 9-1-1 from the phone in the kitchen, reported the fire, hung up the phone, and told my mom what I had seen. I then ran out our front door and down the driveway. By this time, the smoke was billowing up blacker and higher and I saw flames coming through one spot on the roof of the garage. It didn’t help that it was a very, very windy day either.
I saw two cars that had stopped on the shoulder of the road. 2 men, a younger one and one in his 40’s, got out of their cars and ran up the driveway to where David stood, holding Jeremy, Pat’s greyhound, on a leash.
The men were shouting at David, asking him if there was anybody else in the house and David stood there, looking blank as if he was in shock, but he didn’t say one word. I knew Pat was at work but Rhoda was still inside the house somewhere. I yelled as I came running up to the three men, “Rhoda’s still inside! Rhoda’s still inside!”
The 2 men both ran up the walkway to the door that led into the family room, with me right behind them. Because the family room was right next to the garage where the fire seemed to have started, it was already beginning to fill up with smoke. Rhoda was not in the family room like I had expected her to be since that is where she spent most of her time.
I grabbed a pillow from the sofa that was up against the wall in front of that main door and jammed it over my face to hopefully filter out the smoke. The 2 men ran up the 3 steps that led into the kitchen in the main part of the house and began to turn left, towards Pat and David’s apartment entrance.
I yelled at them, “No, turn right, turn right! Rhoda will either be in her front living room or upstairs in her bedroom!” If they had gone left, and I didn’t know this at that time, they would have walked right into the fire that had already broken through to David and Pat’s apartment from the back of the garage.
So the men ran to the right as I followed them up those 3 steps into Rhoda’s kitchen. I grabbed a dish towel and got it sopping wet from the faucet. The 2 men quickly reached Rhoda and as they helped her through the kitchen, I stepped back while I gave the wet towel to Rhoda and told her to put it over her face to help filter out the smoke.
I turned to follow them but then I bonked my head on Sunshine’s cage that was hanging from the ceiling rafter above the steps leading down into the family room. There was a thin panel that separated their huge refrigerator in the kitchen from those steps. Sunshine was Rhoda’s current canary and he was especially loved because he had an extra beautiful singing repertoire.
As I reached up to unhook his cage to take him out with me, the fire then broke through the wall between the garage and the family room. An extremely dense, almost oily-looking and tasting, black smoke quickly filled up the room.
I knocked on the side of Sunshine’s cage to make him fall down from his perch so that he could sit on the bottom where there were large plastic panels around the outside of his cage. I guess I thought he might be able to breathe better on his cage floor with those panels helping to protect him.
I then clutched that sofa pillow even tighter around my mouth and my nose because that smoke was managing to come up either around or through the pillow. I was finding it harder and harder to breathe normally. I couldn’t see a thing, not even any daylight from that huge picture window that normally lit up the large family room as if you were still outside.
All I could see was that dense, oily, black smoke and it was quickly suffocating me. I had the very real and frightening thought that I was going to die, I was finding it harder and harder to breathe, and I couldn’t see anything at all. I was becoming dizzy and disoriented and I was also starting to panic.
Just then I heard Tara scream, “My mom’s still in there! She’s in that fire! Get her out, please, somebody get her out!” And that galvanized me. Tara was not going to stand outside and helplessly watch as that house burnt me to a crispy-fried critter and she was not going to be left an orphan. I was going to somehow get out of there, I had to, for her sake!
I then told myself, “You know this house like the back of your hand, you have been running in and out of this house since you were 10. Get yourself out, because you do know the way to that main door!” I forced myself to calm down, made myself push my fears and panic down, despite the increasing suffocation that I was experiencing.
I knew that if I went down those 3 steps I would then be right in front of the door that led to the basement. I also knew that if I just leaned forward a little bit from that spot that I would find the sofa on my left.
So clutching the pillow as tight as I could to my face and hanging on to Sunshine’s cage, I went down the steps, counting them as I went. When I was pretty sure I was down in the family room, I leaned forward like the blind person I was at that time with that smoke obscuring everything. I groped around and around for the edge of the sofa.
I had to take a step, hoping that I was moving forward and not sideways, and I was so relieved when I did find the sofa. So I told myself to just continue walking forward, keeping the cushions of the sofa pressed tight to my left leg and then when I got to the end of the sofa, all I had to do was lean forward again to find the main door.
That was easier thought than done. The end of the sofa was about 5 feet away from the main door. And even though there were windows in the door, no daylight, nothing at all, could be seen through that smoke. So I kept inching forward, and leaning forward, trying to keep the very last part of the sofa on the back of my left heel, while I fumbled for the feel of that door.
The heat from the fire was rapidly increasing in intensity and I heard explosions behind me to the right that I later learned were from those huge aquariums that were quite close to where the fire had broken through. The poor fish were either boiled to death or were crispy-fried from the heat, the flames and their aquarium water when their glass homes exploded.
I had to leave that comforting presence of the sofa and move forward a few more steps. I had to take a leap in faith that I could move forward and not sideways to find that door. I also thought, “So this is why people in house fires had been found dead, from either the flames or asphyxiation from the smoke, right next to their own front doors” and that was something I could never understand. Now I understood how that could be possible. It wasn’t a pleasant thought that I could also end up like that as well.
I plunged forward as rapidly as I could with my fingers aching to feel the wooden door. I heard Tara still yelling for somebody to rescue me and I wondered how long had I been inside. It seemed like forever. But hearing her so close made me that much more determined and I kept stretching my arms and my fingers forward, hoping that they would make contact.
And I did it, I had finally found the door! Sobbing with relief, I twisted that doorknob, opened the door, stepped out, and took the biggest breath of fresh air I could get into my lungs.
Tara came running up to me, crying with her own relief, and we both hugged each other as tight as we could. Just then somebody started yelling that David’s car, which had been parked in front of the garage, was on fire. I looked over and watched as people tried pushing it out of the way while the hood of his car had flames licking off the paint.
I looked past Tara and saw my mom holding Jeremy on his leash with Rhoda standing next to her, still holding the wet towel I had given to her around her face. David began to help the people push his car out of the way. The garage and the family room and the apartment were now completely engulfed in flames.
I told my mom, Rhoda, and Tara, that we had to get all of us, including Jeremy and Sunshine, back to our house as quickly as possible. We would all be safe there just in case the car caught on fire and exploded like something had done in the family room. It was also so bitterly cold and windy that I wanted all of us to not get chilled.
So as my mom and Tara helped Rhoda go down her driveway and across the road, I somehow ended up in front of them with Jeremy on his leash in one hand and Sunshine in his cage in the other. I must have at some point also given Rhoda her pillow that I had taken from her sofa.
There were now probably a dozen cars parked on both sides of the shoulder with many people standing around watching us and the fire. Suddenly we all heard sirens and fire trucks from both Flushing and Mt. Morris came roaring up. As they turned into Rhoda’s driveway, I was trying to walk in front of the car that had parked right next to our own driveway.
Suddenly I couldn’t breathe again, and I doubled over, trying to catch my breath. My mom asked if I was okay. I nodded yes, and then I told them, between gasps of air, to just go ahead and quickly get in the house. I then took another deep breath as best as I could and the pets and I slowly made our way to our house after them.
I quickly had Rhoda sit in a recliner near the front window and I covered her with one of our sofa blankets. I checked her over as best as I could and she seemed to be doing okay, much better than I was. I took the damp towel I had given her to hang up to dry while my mom just stood in the living room like a deer caught in headlights.
I made a big bed of blankets on the floor next to Rhoda for Jeremy to lie down on while I asked Tara to fill up a big bowl of water for him and a smaller bowl of canned tuna fish for him to eat.
Then I hung Sunshine’s cage on a plant hook in the ceiling in front of our picture window. Rhoda was so happy to see him. He was still sitting on the bottom of his cage, looking a bit dazed and confused. So I asked Tara to also chop up some pieces of apple and a bit of lettuce to feed to Sunshine as I reached into his cage to refill his water bowl that had been spilled.
Then I thought if I gave my mom something definite to do that she would snap out of her daze. So I asked her if she could brew Rhoda some tea and to also make some fresh coffee. I also asked her to get out some cookies and make some sandwiches and to try to get Rhoda to eat something.
I called Pat at her job and explained that a fire had somehow broken out in their garage, that the firemen were there putting it out and that Rhoda, Jeremy and Sunshine had been rescued and were now in our house. I then added, as an afterthought, that David was okay too. Pat gasped, started crying, and then said that she’d be there as quickly as she could.
Just then I had another breathing attack and I quickly ran into our main bathroom because I didn’t want to worry Tara or my mom. I held onto the sink, heaving and gasping because I could not take a deep breath. Then I began coughing and coughing extremely hard. I coughed up this thick, black junk that I spit into the sink and washed down the drain. I began to feel better because I was able to breathe a little bit easier.
Tara then pounded on the bathroom door, yelling that the police and a fire chief were in our living room and they wanted to talk to me. So I came out and there were two Flushing police officers and a man wearing a long fireman’s jacket and a helmet that said “Flushing Fire Chief”.
So we all sat on our couches as they asked me to tell them exactly what I had seen and what I had done. So I told them everything, what the fire and smoke were doing as I went running across the road, that David was already outside with Jeremy on his leash, that those 2 men and me had run into the house to get Rhoda out, that I had grabbed the sofa pillow that Rhoda was now holding in her arms, how those two men had run into the house just ahead of me and helped bring Rhoda out, how I had given her a wet dish towel, how the smoke had so quickly filled up the family room when I grabbed Sunshine’s cage and how hard it had been for me to find the door. I also told them that I had heard explosions somewhere in either the family room or the garage just before I had found the door.
I also asked if they could somehow get the names of those two men because I knew that Rhoda and Pat would like to especially thank them.
The fire chief praised me for giving Rhoda that wet dish towel and also for my quick thinking to jam that pillow over my face. The police officers also told me that they were going to next interview those two men and they would be sure to pass on their names to us so that they could be properly thanked for their own quick thinking and help.
Then I began to cough and cough very hard again and I excused myself as I hastily reached for a tissue from the Kleenex box on our coffee table so that I could, as gracefully as possible, spit into it the gunk I knew I was trying to bring up. The fire chief gave me a concerned look, and he radioed for paramedics to come to our house and give Rhoda and me a check-up.
I protested that I was fine, I had maybe inhaled just a little bit of smoke and that I would be okay in a jiffy. The fire chief gave me a stern look and told me that I had obviously not inhaled a little bit of smoke, I had inhaled a lot of smoke, in spite of that pillow, and that I needed to be checked out. He could tell that I was now having some problems breathing and that he was going to stay there until I was examined by the paramedics and that was final. I meekly said, “Yes, sir.”
The paramedics quickly arrived, checked Rhoda and they said that she was doing just fine. They listened to my lungs and my breathing, checked my pulse and blood pressure, and asked me if I had coughed up anything. I told them, “Yes, twice, several chunks of black goop.”
One of the paramedics told me I really should be taken by them to the hospital because I had inhaled so much smoke but I refused. I told them to look around, we had so many people and firemen and police in our house and that I had to stay there and help out in any way I could.
So we compromised. They insisted on putting an oxygen mask on me and they would continue to monitor me and if they still believed I was not getting better, I would then have them take me to the hospital. I did breathe a lot better with the mask on so I sat back as all of us watched the flames get higher and higher across the road as the firefighters struggled to gain control.
But the wind gusted up harder and suddenly the main house was on fire too. The garage, family room and Pat and David’s apartment were already completely engulfed in flames and immense amounts of smoke.
Pat then came running up our driveway and I tore the mask off so I could open the front door for her. She immediately went to her mother and I watched them give each other big hugs as they both began to cry. With tears in my eyes too, I then asked Tara to get Pat a chair so that she could sit next to Rhoda as they held hands, watching their long-time home burn up.
After a few minutes, I could feel another bad coughing fit come on again, so after I removed the oxygen mask, I went back into the bathroom to hack up another wad of that thick, black gunk. Tara opened up the bathroom door and asked me if I was okay. I nodded my head yes. Then she said that David was walking up our driveway and I left the bathroom because I wanted to witness how he was now doing.
He came up, smoking a cigar, walking like he didn’t have a care in the world, and as he stepped onto our porch, I opened the door and curtly asked him to put that thing out before he came into our house. He gave me an exasperated look, but he did put it out on our porch railing and then left it there, I guess thinking that he could re-light it later.
He immediately and petulantly told Pat, “Well thanks for checking up on me first.” Pat gave him a look that clearly said “Please don’t start shit” and then she told him that she had figured that he would be over here with her mom, helping to take care of her.
He replied, “Well, I saw Jeneane and her mom and Tara help her across the road so I knew that she would be okay with them.” Pat gave him another look that plainly said, “Really? My mom would be better off with neighbors than with her own son-in-law?” but she didn’t say anything back to him. I had never really liked David since Pat had married him about five years previously and now he was giving me even more reasons to dislike him.
It took 5 more hours for the fire men to finally get the fire under control and completely put out. Just as soon as it seemed that they had, the wind would gust up again and then the flames would roar back up.
Our house had indeed become the command center for the firemen, and as they took turns, they were told to come over, warm up, and get something to eat because my mom and I and Tara were all taking turns making sandwiches and coffee and tea for everybody. At one point I had to hand Tara some money so that she could walk down to the little corner store and get several more loaves of bread and lunchmeat.
Pat got up several times to make phone calls to her sister and other relatives and friends while David kept wandering across the road just to get into everybody’s way. The onlookers were politely asked by the police to leave so that more fire trucks could be brought in to help fight the fire.
At one point, while David had wandered yet again across the road, Pat pulled me into our main bathroom and asked me to tell her exactly what had happened. So I told her everything that I had told the police and the fire chief.
Then she asked me, “And you’re sure David didn’t say a word that my mom was still in the house? And he had Jeremy with him?” “Nope, not one word, because I had to yell out that your mom was still in there and then those two men ran to the family room door just ahead of me. And at that time it was just the four of us there in your side yard. But Pat, maybe David was in shock, maybe he was petrified with fear. I don’t know.”
She shook her head, trying to absorb what I had just told her. Then she hugged me and said, “Thank you so very much for helping to save my mom and Jeremy and even Sunshine. And for letting all of us take over your house and for feeding us too.” And I hugged her back as I told her, “What are neighbors for, sweetie? We all love you guys so much, we’re just so happy that everybody is okay.”
After a few more hours of combing through the ashes and watering down any hot spots, the firemen left. The police officers and the fire chief came back to our house to report that the fire was out and that there would be a fire inspector arriving the next day to determine exactly where and how the fire had started. Rhoda and Pat would then be given the report as soon as possible to submit to their insurance company.
So after we had fixed a hastily put-together dinner for the combined families, my mom, Tara and I left Rhoda, Pat and David sitting at our dining table to discuss where they and the pets were going to stay that night.
We had a sofa bed that Pat and David could use and I offered to sleep on the other part of the sectional sofa so that Rhoda could sleep in my bed. It was already close to 10 p.m. and we were all emotionally drained from that horrific day and were very tired.
So after they discussed things and made some phone calls, they decided that Rhoda would stay at her brother’s, Jeremy would go to stay with a good friend of Pat’s who boarded dogs, and that Pat and David would go to the Ramada Inn that was about 7 miles away. Rhoda asked me if I could keep Sunshine and take care of him for a few days and I hugged her and told her that of course I would take care of him for her.
After they left, I sent Tara to bed and my mom went to bed shortly after that. I tried to go to sleep too but I was too keyed up from the whole ordeal and it took me hours to finally fall asleep.
I kept replaying over and over in my head when that fire had broken through the adjoining wall to the family room just as I had reached up to take down Sunshine’s cage. How I had begun to panic and got so dizzy and disoriented from that dense smoke that was trying to suffocate me.
I also asked myself, “Why didn’t I turn around and try to go through the older part of the house and then exit out the unused front door?” But after thinking about that further, I realized that that might have been an even worse decision. Rhoda was a bit of a pack-rat and it would have been like trying to find my way through a maze to get to the rarely used front room and then try to undo all of the many locks that were on that door. And in the meantime, that fire might have caught me right in the middle, with no easy way out.
And I also realized that if I had not heard Tara scream, then perhaps I might not have found the will to push that panic down hard and then use logic and my long-time knowledge of Cogswell’s house to get me and Sunshine out of there. I believed that I owed my life to Tara and to her screaming.
I also pondered over and over for a long time about how I came so close to becoming a crispy-fried critter. It had happened to other people. And it could have so easily happened to me. Those were very frightening thoughts.
Early the next day Pat called and asked me if it would be okay if she had the phone company re-route their home telephone calls to our telephone number. That way we could take messages from their family and friends, as well as from the insurance company, who would most likely be making several phone calls until everything was taken care of. Then her bosses would not get angry with her for receiving so many calls at work. I could use her pager if a very important matter did come up that she had to immediately deal with.
And that for right now, Rhoda was going to stay at her brother’s until temporary housing was arranged for all of them and that Pat and David would continue to stay at the Ramada Inn until further notice. She asked me if I could still continue to take care of Sunshine until they got a rental home.
I told Pat that that would be fine, and I also told her to not worry about their mail and newspapers. We would save everything for them, just like we did when we took care of the pets and their house when they all went down to visit her sister, Marcella, in Florida once a year. She gratefully told me thanks. So for the next year, I became their secretary and answering service, learning to prioritize what calls were immediately important, what mail I should open up, etc.
The day after the fire inspector and his team had gone through the ashes and the rubble of what was left of our neighbors’ home, Pat stopped by our house after work. She told me that she wanted to go through what was left to see if there was anything that could be salvaged.
So Tara and I accompanied her across the road. As we stood in front of what was left of their home, we all had difficulty trying to orient what parts were where. The older part, the two-story farm house that was closest to the road, was only half there. But the rest was in ashes, with mounds of debris everywhere, with some half-burnt parts of walls leaning here and there.
Pat began working her way into the remains of her home. I told her I didn’t think it was safe for her to go completely inside but she said that there was no basement under the newer built areas so that she couldn’t fall through anything and that she would stay out of the older part that did have a basement.
Tara and I looked at each other and we decided we may as well go in with her and help her look for salvageable items. We went into what we thought what was left of the garage but as we climbed over piles of burnt walls and furniture, we soon realized that we were actually in what was left of the family room, and that the big pile of total ashes to the left was all that remained of the whole garage.
There was such an intense stinky smell too, a combination of oily smoke, charred furniture, dampness, mildew and probably smells of other things we didn’t know about, or want to know about. We had to hold our jackets and scarves over our faces to keep from breathing in that awful stench.
We saw the remains of the large aquariums and the many singed shards of glass radiating out both under and over debris. We also saw how the fronts and sides of the aquariums had exploded out from the intense heat and flames. I then re-told Pat and Tara how I had heard explosions from behind me as I was struggling to find the family room door and that it must have been from the aquariums. We even saw a couple of the bigger fish all curled up and fried to a crisp. That sight depressed us.
But the worse part for me was when we finally made our way to where we thought the steps should be that led up from the family room into what was left of the kitchen and dining room in the older farm house part. We had such a hard time trying to orient ourselves in all of that debris. What finally made us realize that we had climbed over so much rubble and stuff, and that we were actually standing on top of those buried steps, was when I turned and I gasped.
I was looking at the melted remains of the huge refrigerator that had stood next to those steps. When I looked up at the now half-open ceiling, I could still see the little hook where Sunshine’s cage had been. I pointed out what was left of that big refrigerator and then I started crying so hard.
I told them, “That could have been me, also melted down into my half my size. I was standing there at the top of the steps, right next to the refrigerator, reaching up to get Sunshine’s cage, when the fire broke through from the garage and quickly filled the family room with smoke. I couldn’t breathe, I was beginning to suffocate, and I was panicked, not knowing what to do or how to get out. I could have so easily been melted down just like your refrigerator.”
Then I turned to Tara and I gave her a hug. “You are what saved me, did you know that? When I heard you screaming that your mom was in that fire and please someone had to rescue her, that’s what made me realize that I had to somehow get out, that I couldn’t have you witness me burning up in here. And that I also couldn’t leave you an orphan. Somehow, some way I had to push my fear and my panic down so that I could logically think of how to get back outside to you.” Then we all began crying and we had a group hug.
Pat found a few things she could salvage but the rest of the things that we were able to recognize were either charred to bits or were too badly water-damaged.
As we walked down their driveway, we turned around to look back at what was left of their home. Pat said, “I still can’t believe our house and all of our things are gone. I still can’t absorb it all. When I leave work, I automatically start driving here until I realize that I don’t have a home anymore and that I have to drive to the Ramada Inn.”
I told her, “Pat, sweetie, the main things you have to focus on are that your mom and David and Jeremy and even Sunshine all made it out alive. It could easily have been so much worse. You will be able to re-build and make more memories and get new things but just imagine how much more terrible you would be feeling right now if something had happened to your mom or David. Things will get better. The fire inspector was here yesterday and soon you will have his report to give to your insurance company and then you will have a new house and we will get the neighbors we have longed loved back too.”
She smiled at me and thanked me and Tara for going through the house with her and for trying to cheer her up.
Then I asked her if it would be okay if I took Sunshine to her vet because I had heard him do a few itty-bitty birdy coughs and that he had a gray stain on his chest, like maybe he had coughed up smoke too, like I had done. He also badly needed to have his claws trimmed.
She said, “Oh my goodness, yes, please take him to our vet and get him checked out as soon as possible! My mom loves him so much and she has said several times already that she was so glad you were able to rescue him. I can’t take the time off from work or I’d do it myself so thank you so much for asking to do that for us!”
She told me who her vet was and then gave me money for the vet and to also buy Sunshine some proper canary food because I only had been able to give him fruits and vegetables so far.
I was able to take Sunshine to the vet the next day. The vet examined him and asked me what had happened to him. I explained about the fire and how I had knocked Sunshine off his perch so that he could be in the bottom of his cage and be better protected by those plastic panels that surrounded the bottom half.
He asked me how long had we both been in the smoke-filled room and I had to turn to Tara, who had come with me, to ask her. It had seemed like forever to me but she said I was in there no more than 10 minutes tops. But it had seemed like the longest 10 minutes to her too.
The vet shook his head and said that it was a miracle that Sunshine was still alive. He asked us if we had ever heard of miners sending canaries in cages down alone into mine shafts to see if the air was poisoned because any little hint of bad air would quickly kill the canaries.
He said that Sunshine’s breathing was a little bit labored, but not as bad as it should have been, and that the gray stain on his chest was indeed smoke he had coughed up. He asked us to smell his chest as he held Sunshine, and yes, it did smell like smoke.
He explained to me how to clean him up and gave me other instructions on his daily care and feeding because I had never owned a bird before. After the vet trimmed Sunshine’s feet, he gave us some antibiotics to put in Sunshine’s daily water and told us to bring him back if he was still doing those itty-bitty birdy coughs after a few days.
He also said that Sunshine really needed a much bigger cage than the one he had, as well as a cuttle bone to gnaw on. After he explained to me what that was and that it would be easily found in the bird supplies of any pet store, I reassured him that I would ask Pat to get him a larger cage and that cuttle bone thing.
When we got home with Sunshine, I called Pat at the Ramada Inn. I told her what the vet had said, especially how very lucky Sunshine was to be alive, and that he needed a bigger cage, a cuttle bone thing and bird seed made especially for canaries. She told me that if I drove to their hotel right then she would give me all the money I would need because her and David were going out for dinner very soon.
She gave me $100, and I dubiously remarked that all of the stuff Sunshine would need surely couldn’t be that much but she said she wanted to make sure that I did have enough and to keep whatever was left over to help pay for my gas and my time.
So Tara and I went on a shopping spree for Sunshine. We went to the PetSmart store that had just recently opened in Flint Township, got a cart, and proceeded to outfit Sunshine in style.
We got him a large square black cage, lots of canary seed, cuttle bones and then a clip that held the bone to the cage bars. We also found the cutest cage cover that had Tweetie Birds all over it. We bought food dishes and water dishes that could also clip to the cage bars because he always kept tipping over the little bowls that Rhoda had had in his other cage.
We bought veggie and fruit treats and other cage bar clips that could hold pieces of apple or lettuce. We got Sunshine a ladder and two different-leveled perches, as well as a swinging perch. We also found these neat sandpaper rolls that wrapped around the perches that would help keep his claws better trimmed. We bought cute little hanging toys and little bells he could play with. We also got him canary vitamin drops that we could add to his water.
It turned out to be quite fun spending someone else’s money! We almost spent the entire $100 but I did have some left over to put into my gas tank.
After Tara and I drove home, we had so much fun putting all of Sunshine’s toys, perches, feed dishes, ladder, and everything else in his cage. After we hung it up, and as I held him gently in my hand, I put him into his new home. He cocked his head, looked around, and gave a little cheep like he wasn’t too sure about this new place. He hopped to one of the new perches and pecked at one of the toys and the expression on his little face as he rang the bell made Tara and I laugh so hard.
Sunshine quickly adapted to his new home and he loved playing with the toys and pecking at the cuttle bone and his other treats. He wasn’t too sure about the ladder at first but after a week, he learned that it was fun to hop up and down the whole thing.
After two weeks, Pat’s son-in-law, John, who was Ashley’s father, stopped by our house to pick up their accumulated mail and newspapers. He observed Sunshine happily hopping from perch to perch, pecking at his new toys and treats and he told us that he was so glad to see Sunshine doing so well.
He then asked us if Sunshine had started to sing again. We told him no, not one song, and we couldn’t understand why he didn’t sing for us like he used to do for Rhoda. John said that he had suddenly stopped singing several months ago and it had made Rhoda very sad. Nobody could ever figure out why he had stopped so if we could somehow get him to start singing again, that would make Rhoda so happy.
About a week later I got in the mood for popcorn and so I got my hot-air popper going. After it was done popping up all of the popcorn, I turned it off and then listened in amazement as Sunshine was singing a wonderful aria in the living room. He stopped though when he realized the hot-air popper had ceased making its noises.
So I turned it back on again, and Sunshine began singing along with it. But he quickly stopped after I shut it off again and he just blinked at me when I went up to his cage and lovingly asked him to please start singing again. He wouldn’t though.
The next day Tara was blow-drying her hair while I was reading in the living room and Sunshine started singing along with the sound of the blow dryer. But this time he didn’t stop when she shut it off, and from that time on, for the whole year we took care of him, Sunshine would sing and sing all day long. He would continue to sing even after we put his Tweetie Bird cage cover on at night but he would slowly quiet his songs down, until with a final cheep, he would settle down for the night.
Pat stopped by to get their collection of mail and newspapers again a few weeks after John had stopped by. She stood, amazed, at the front door as she listened to Sunshine singing his heart out.
She asked me, in an astonished voice, “How did you ever get him to start singing again?” She laughed and laughed when I told her that it had been easy, all it took was the noise from the hot-air popper and Tara’s blow-dryer to do the trick.
She liked his bigger, new cage and all of the new treats and toys he enjoyed gnawing at and playing with. She thought it was funny to see him hop up and down the ladder and then she laughed as he half-flew, half-jumped to one of his perches and rang his little bell.
Sunshine acted like he recognized Pat and he was showing off for her. She was so glad that he seemed so happy and that we were obviously taking excellent care of him. She said that her mom would be so happy to hear that Sunshine was singing up a storm again and she would love to hear about his new toys, treats and his new cage.
Then she said it looked like they would all be homeless for a while longer because they had finally received the report from the fire inspector. She explained that the report said that the fire had started in an electrical outlet in the back of the garage very near the corner that adjoined the family room as well as Pat and David’s apartment.
However, the report said that it did not appear to be the fault of any wiring or electrical problems. And that after a few more observations and some technical stuff, the report said that the fire inspector could only say that the fire had begun from unknown causes and that he strongly recommended that the state fire marshal do his own investigation.
Pat said that the insurance company did not like the ambiguous conclusion to this report and that they were going to contact the state fire marshal and pay for whatever was necessary to obtain some sort of conclusive report before they would pay to have their house re-built.
She said that so far they had reimbursed Pat and David for their stay at the Ramada Inn but that they would continue to do so for only a little while longer. The insurance company would then pay for a rental home for them all to live in until this was settled. So she was already looking at a 3 bedroom ranch-style house that was for rent in the city of Flushing.
It was so horrible being a part of their house fire and witnessing first-hand the immediate devastation it brought to our neighbors. But having to closely participate too with their many difficulties with the fire inspection and the insurance company, vicariously being a big part of their year-long inability to become settled again and to get to back to normal was almost as stressful on my family as it had been for all of them.
We kept Sunshine for a year until their new home was re-built across the road. I was as sorry to have him leave as Rhoda was as joyful to have him back but all we had to do was run across the road and visit once again with him and our good neighbors.
There were of course both good things and bad things that always occur after a terrible, life-changing event.
The bad things were that Pat and David’s already rocky marriage did not survive the immense stresses of the fire and its aftermath and they were divorced before a year had passed.
Rhoda’s health also took a downward spiral. She never seemed to be able to accept that her long lived in home was gone and she never fully became accustomed to the newly built house. She became more easily confused and her heart and legs problems increased and she fell down more often. She lived for only a few years more after that.
The good things were that we all learned that we could survive and move on and be stronger for the lessons we had each learned.
Tara learned how important it is to be a good neighbor to good neighbors and to do whatever it took to help them in any way. She put those lessons to good use when her neighbors’ house caught on fire just a few years ago. She corralled the neighbors up, fed them, gave their young granddaughter clothes and toys, and helped them with temporary shelter.
Tara and I also became closer after that and we had always been close before the fire. We both learned how easily we could lose someone we love.
We also got our beautiful black kitty, Zorro, as an indirect result from the fire. David had been eagerly expecting a package in the mail and when I immediately delivered it to Pat and David at the Ramada Inn, he put a $50 bill in my hands. Astonished, I handed it back to him, telling him that I didn’t want to be paid for being a good neighbor.
After me and Tara left and were walking down the hallway, Pat came running after us and said that David was hurt that I had refused the money and she insisted that we take it. So I took it and thanked her.
Tara and I were going to the PetSmart store after dropping off David’s package to get Sunshine some more food and treats. While we were there, we noticed this adorable all black half-grown kitty stretching up the glass of the cat enclosure as high as he could, frantically trying to get our attention.
I walked closer to him and he began to scratch at the glass harder. Then I knelt down and while I was looking closer at him, he began to purr so loud, I could hear him through the glass. He started curling his way up and down the glass while looking at me with love in his eyes. And I fell in love with him at the same time. He cost $60 and if David had not given me that $50 bill, I would not have been able to buy my sweet Zorro. I had my baby for 14 years and I still miss him terribly.
I also learned that I could keep myself strong during a fight for my life, that I was able to keep my head and not give in to panic and fear. Knowing that Tara was right outside, worried and frightened, did gave me that extra strength to get out of that fire, but I now believe that I still would not have easily given up and become a crispy-fried critter.
All I had to do during any rough times after that, when I doubted that I could get through them, was to remember that melted refrigerator and those crispy-fried pet fish and think about how easily that could have been me. Then I find the renewed strength to get through life’s bad moments.