Tuesday, June 11, 2013

The Prong

"Do you know what this goes to, Ma'am?"

The private fire investigator hired by the insurance company was asking me this question, and he was totally serious. 

The man had sifted through the kitchen cabinet you see above and fished out 4 little pieces of metal; prongs from the electrical cords for a crock pot and cell phone chargers. The cords themselves were melted, or as the insurance company would put it, burned out of sight.  
He explained that newer items have solid, cut prongs in the cords and older ones often have the metal folded over. Did I know which one of the prongs he was holding in his hand went to my crock pot? 

I shot him a look that said "are you out of your ever-lovin' mind?" It was a look that said "are you crazy?" and "for reals?" I shot my husband a look that said indeed the fool was crazy and I walked away. 

I needed this guy to do his job, but I was not emotionally prepared to deal with these kind of questions. The insurance company was not willing to start paying until the cause of the fire was determined. Fair enough. The fire chief had already narrowed the cause down to either the crock pot itself, or the outlet it was plugged into, but the insurance company wanted a lot more detail. 

This guy actually reconstructed the whole fire for us which was quite interesting. He explained that the cord had shorted out on the crock pot. He showed us the exact spot on the cord where the sparking would have occurred. The sparking melted the cord, burned for a bit as the fire traveled the overheating wiring into the wall and ceiling, and eventually ignited a bottle of olive oil sitting next to the stove. From there, the fire went up and out in a large triangle, catching the ceiling and consuming the kitchen. Heat and flame began to push out from the kitchen to the family room and dining room and the heat in the house grew intense, melting plastics in every room in the house. 

His work was intriguing, but still...the question seemed ridiculous. Who could actually identify their crock pot or cell phone charger by that little metal prong? I was wearing my $1 flip-flops, too-large donated jeans and my new black t-shirt for the third day in a row and I was operating on very little sleep. I was standing in the soot-covered ruins of my home, grieving the loss of years of memories. And this man wanted me to identify from memory a tiny metal prong. I had zero patience. 

He was not deterred at all. 

He started sifting through this wet pile of insulation and charred drywall on the front lawn and he pulled out a piece of blackened fabric. Only about 6 inches of this thing, whatever it was, remained and no pattern or color was visible. 

"Do you know what this is?" he asked. I will not repeat here what I said to him. 

He asked where our kitchen towel was when the fire started. Again, I shot this man a look that conveyed powerful emotions. I was contemplating taking a long walk, but those $1 flip-flops kept me from fleeing. 

I explained that we have five kids. Five. Cooking and chores are a group effort in our home. The dinner hour is chaos. I hadn't been home for a few hours prior to the fire, but if I had to imagine what our kitchen looked like in those hours, it would look something like this: One child was lazily doodling a dish brush on some dirty dishes. One child was cleaning the kitchen cabinets, sweeping crumbs right into the floor. One child was collecting recycling, taking a swing at a sister as they passed by. One child was probably hiding in the bathroom hoping not to be noticed until chore time had passed. One child was playing under the table petting a dog. The Big Guy was likely checking the chicken in the crock pot, yelling at two kids to stop touching each other, asking one to go find rice, and calling another by the wrong name. That would be a totally normal evening in our home. 

The towel might have been on the island. It might have been on the counter. It might have been laced through the cabinet or refrigerator handle. It might have been in the floor. It might have been a tutu for one of the dogs. Who knows? Who cares? It didn't start the fire. It didn't put the fire out. I could not comprehend how it was relevant.

I have never been so blatantly rude to a human being as I was to that man at that moment. To this day, I am embarrassed but unapologetic. It had only been a few days, but the fire had already changed me. I had a new found sense of what was important in life, and this stupid piece of metal was not it. 

And yet...it's been 21 months since the fire and I am still holding onto that little piece of metal. I keep it in a little box on my desk. I'm not entirely sure why. It seems to symbolize some very intense feelings that I can't quite resolve. It still triggers feelings of anger and emptiness. It seems to epitomize the disbelief that overwhelmed me in those early days and weeks. I can't seem to let it go. 

Maybe I should hang it from my keychain or something. 

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