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Trial by Fire: Parenting Through Crisis

The Crier Landing Page >>


By: Cody Harris   |  March 27, 2023

On New Year’s Day 2023, our house caught fire. Thinking back on it now, it feels surreal. I remember how early that morning, our neighbor sent a message on our cul-de-sac text chain asking if anyone else had noticed the lights flickering the night before. I remember how she later texted to say she had called PG&E, who had come out and “fixed” the problem. I recall how later that morning, I noticed the lights flickering again and called PG&E myself. I remember how they told me they’d send another crew out in around an hour. I remember how hard it was for my wife and me to get three kids and one grandma out the door for a New Year’s walk. I recall how my wife, ever the optimist, declared, “I have a feeling 2023 is going to be a great year!” and how I, ever the pessimist, jokingly responded, ‘Ah, something horrible will happen.” And I’ll never forget how, as we neared our street, we saw the PG&E truck finally arriving . . . just behind the fire trucks.

Our home, which we had moved into only two years before, was alight. It turns out that PG&E had lost control of the amount of electricity coming into the cul-de-sac, causing massive power surges. Nearly every home suffered something: surge protectors fried; appliances shorted out; all of the furnaces stopped working as transformers blew; various electronics charred and burned. Any or all of the homes on our cul-de-sac could have caught fire that day, and ours did.

Luckily, our home has interior sprinklers, and one dutifully deployed. The good news is that it saved the structure of the house. The bad news is that it created massive water and smoke damage throughout the home. When we arrived and peered inside, our living room and kitchen was a maelstrom of smoke, steam, water, and noise. The heat was palpable. The smell was worse.

The Kentfield Fire Department was professional, friendly, and methodical. The good news is that they ensured the fire was out. The bad news was that they smashed through a good chunk of our walls and ceilings to do their job.

The PG&E crew was apologetic. “We’ll make it right,” the supervisor told me. Time will tell.

In the meantime, my family entered into the most stressful period of our lives together. Everything we own was either destroyed or so damaged by smoke that it’s unusable. The house is uninhabitable.

2023 has therefore been an exercise in crisis parenting. There’s no manual for parenting, but we are truly off the map. How do you keep a family running when everything you own vanishes without warning? How do you maintain a sense of normalcy when you’re moving three times in a month? And how do you do this with an 11, 9, and almost-3 year old in tow? How do you maintain a sense of calm, or even find joy, while dealing with such a calamity?

I’d be lying if I said I had the answers. But I can share a few lessons we’ve learned (and are learning) throughout this ordeal.

It’s Just Stuff. The biggest lesson, which hit us right away, was that as awful as this is, it’s all just stuff. All of us were safe and healthy. Even our goldfish somehow survived. We weren’t awakened in the middle of the night, inhaling smoke, grabbing the kids and shivering in the January air. Instead, we went out for a nice walk and then dealt with the aftermath. We lost a ton of personal property, but in the end, they’re only things. The important stuff was unscathed.

Community is Key. We have been so grateful for how our community has rallied to help us. Two of our friends and neighbors let us stay in their homes while they were out of town. Another brought toys and books for our little girl. Home-cooked meals appeared unexpectedly. Our AirBnB host had us booked for a week but managed to rejigger things so we could stay for months. Our boys’ friends’ parents have offered to shuttle them around, or have scheduled playdates while we deal with the fallout. We are new to the Greenbrae/Kentfield/Ross area but it’s lived up to its reputation as a kind and welcoming place.

Keep it Normal. My wife and I made a tacit pact that we would keep the kids’ lives as normal as possible, no matter how much chaos we were dealing with. They didn’t miss a practice or event. They’ve done their homework on time. Thanks to fellow preschool parents, we turned our daughter’s third birthday party into a joint party that went ahead at their house instead of ours. A neighbor lent us a keyboard so our boys could keep practicing piano. With a race through Target, we turned a walk-in closet into a cute little bedroom for our now 3-year old daughter. We continued our family tradition of celebrating Shabbat every Friday. We want our kids to know that come what may, we stick together and keep living our lives.

Find the Fun.  When so much has gone wrong, all you can do is laugh. We’ve done our best to make this adventure fun (at times). We’ve played hide-and-seek in each new house we found ourselves in. We’ve had family dance parties and played board games. We and the boys go to hot yoga every weekend. We taught the kids Yahtzee!

Count our Blessings.  As bad as this was, there are far worse things. And so many families suffer a tragedy like this and can never recover. We are exceedingly fortunate that we’ve been able to take some time off of work to deal with this crisis, and that we have insurance and enough resources to keep the family machine running. We are trying to teach our kids that this tragedy shows just how lucky we truly are.  

Safety First! We had no idea that something like this could happen – when the lights flicker, you usually assume the power will go out. But as annoying as a power outage is, too little electricity is better than too much. Check your surge protectors and upgrade them. Consider a whole house surge protector. Learn where your main breaker is so you can turn off the power to your house if you need to. Have open lines of communication with your neighbors. Make sure your smoke alarms work. Buy fire extinguishers and cut the zip tie so they are usable when you need them. Thank your local firefighters. They’re awesome.

We hope to be back in our house at some point this year, that it will be good as new, and this will all recede to a surreal memory someday. But for us, 2023 will always be the Year of the Fire. We are doing our best to make it a year of family, thankfulness, and love as well.

Cody Harris lives in Kentfield with his wife, Rebecca. They have two grade-school aged boys, Emmett and Levi, and a pre-school aged daughter, Annanit. When they’re not chasing their brood around, Cody’s a litigator and Rebecca is an RN and Lactation Consultant.
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Hard Decisions of Parenthood Read>>

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Trial by Fire: Parenting Through Crisis Read>>

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