My family always has been my refuge.
I was blessed with good examples. As a child, I was blessed with food on my plate and parents who insisted we eat a home-cooked supper together, at the kitchen table, every night.
I was blessed with a roof over my head.
I was blessed with a grandpa and daddy who built that home with their blood, sweat and tears.
Five years ago this week, however, the tears falling were mine.
I leaned against the end of the house, in the driveway where my brother learned to ride his tricycle and where my sister and I practiced our dribbling drills and cheer routines and would wave at high school boys driving past on the county road.
I leaned against the garage. And I cried hard.
Then I heard my Grandma Peggy’s loving and wise voice:“Brandi Lynn, it doesn’t do any good to cry. Now straighten up and quit it. You quit that right now.”
She handed me a box of items my mama wanted to save and told me to take it to the car.
She was right. Tears weren’t productive. The flames in the pasture across the road were nearing the neighbors’ house and moving at a rapid pace toward us.
As my brother was climbing on my parents’ roof and wetting it down, it seemed like we were up against Goliath. A little garden hose against a merciless opponent.
I felt defeated.
As a journalist, I try to have the utmost sensitivity for the people I write about. I’ve lost sleep over other people’s struggles. I’ve taken notes as I watched people sift through soot or tornado damage as they searched for heirlooms. I’ve sneaked into a newsroom bathroom stall and wept after talking to someone about their mom’s cancer battle. I have sat shaking in my car after interviewing someone about brutal domestic abuse. I’ve sobbed alone because I don’t want to have to write about someone’s crime or bad decision.
And when interviewing a mother who lost a daughter to a tragic accident, my wall of professionalism fell. Instead of retreating to privacy, I just cried alongside her. Still, every Labor Day weekend, I remember Jen’s family.
For about 15 years or so, I’ve helped report the news. From Big 12 Championship games to school board meetings to murder trials, I have been busy scribbling shorthand, detailing life as it happens to everyone else.
But on that day of the 2011 wildfire, neighbors were praying, firefighters were against all odds, and my extended family drove from more than an hour away to help.
News helicopters circled overhead. Fellow reporters stood at the property’s edge.
I was in the story and not writing it.
As much as I pride myself on being a compassionate journalist, it’s much different when your pains are first hand instead of second hand.
It may be only a house. It may have insurance and it may be replaceable. My parents may be able to carry on just fine if a fire were to destroy it.
While material things aren’t important, the experiences are.
As the blaze danced on, I had a flashback to times I’d deliver water jugs or sandwiches out to daddy and grandpa or sat on a sawhorse and dangled my legs as I watched them work harder than I’ve ever seen any two people work.
I thought about how my parents would time our sibling leg races or watch us catch fireflies or play with us in the yard — made-up games or real ones — every night like we were a chapter in an Ozzie and Harriet biography.
It was the house that daddy and grandpa built, but it also was the house that built me.
Watching the fire rage out of control, a pit in my stomach increased as it crept toward a poor and unprepared defense. For a moment I leaned again — on a tree. I remembered when I was a kid and daddy brought home what seemed like a billion trees for our new 3-acre yard, which at the time really was an extension of our pasture and in need of a lot of TLC.
It was raining that day, but we had to plant them before they would die. Rain coats and galoshes in the mud, we planted those suckers all day, and I thought it was the most horrible experience of my short, little life. I muttered under my breath.
Torture to a preteen.
But as the fire grew five- or six-stories tall just 200 yards away from the house full of my memories, I leaned against that tree and nearly lost my legs from under me.
I cried thinking about how I hated planting it years ago and how I didn’t want it to burn.
I thought about how I would plow over the little runt tree on the southwest side of the house every summer when I mowed the yard to earn my allowance.
“Bubba, do you ever pay attention?” daddy would ask me what seemed like every week.
On that day five years ago, ash raining from the sky and heat radiating off the prairie as the flames raced across it, I was paying attention.
The grass wasn’t in need of a lawn mower. In fact, it was so dry, brittle and brown it could have been December instead of summer. The Oklahoma drought was a monster, and the blades of dead grass were eaten alive instantaneously by growing fire, likely caused by the careless toss of a cigarette.
And my brother, with his measly garden hose, was climbing on the back porch and wetting down the house while other relatives used the sprayer on the tractor to add a moisture barrier to the ground.
We didn’t stop. The firefighters, who were dwarfed by walls of towering flames that were engulfing cedars and bales of hay in nanoseconds, didn’t stop either.
We all kept on trying to outsmart the Goliath standing in our midst. We kept working diligently — not with tears, but with hope and lightweight garden hoses and a barren pond. We did it all while praying for heavenly reprieve. A shift in the wind, some rain, something.
We got a little of both in the knick of time.
The firefighters were able to stop the inferno mere feet from the neighbors’ house, and the house across the street, the one that built me, was saved.
As everyday struggles of all types continue to come in this life, sometimes I catch myself leaning and crying. Sometimes I feel helpless to the roller coaster. Confused. Alone. Mistreated. Outmatched. Smaller than David with a slingshot.
But then I straighten up, determined not to give up, and I go after those giant flames with my puny garden hose.
I rise from the ashes.
Then I become the fire.
The shift in the winds of circumstance surely will follow.
(This column also was published on Aug. 10 in my hometown newspaper, The Cleveland American, for which I often report as a special correspondent.)