It was exactly the call you never want to receive. The time was 2:36 a.m., between Sunday and Monday two weekends ago, and my sister, Diane, age 69, called me to tell me her house was on fire.

Fortunately, she and my brother, Don, age 65, who’d been staying in her basement guest room,  managed to get out unharmed. The fire had started from a frayed extension cord that was running from her garage out into her backyard to operate a birdbath pump. The pump itself wasn’t even being used, but the exterior door’s opening and closing on the cord caused it to fray and electricity to arc, thus igniting the door itself.

As the smoke alarms blared, her poodle, Corky, would only come to the front door when she called for him to follow her outside. He froze there and wouldn’t budge, and Diane, aware that her car was in the garage just five feet away and that its gas tank could explode at any moment, was too afraid to approach the house again. Thankfully, her heroically stoic neighbor, Hank, raced up to the porch to snatch up Corky for her.

Meanwhile, her schnauzer, Bruno, also terrified, had run back into the house and hidden. For almost 45 agonizing minutes—which my sister said felt more like hours—she watched helplessly from her neighbor’s lawn and imagined her dog dying inside as the firefighters fought the flames that spread along the house’s back side and over the roof.

At long last, however, a wonderful firefighter emerged with a soot-covered, shivering dog wrapped in a blanket. A vet’s exam the next day said he hadn’t even suffered lung damage, so this was a miracle to say the least. Sadly, however, her cat, Tennessee (a tuxedo cat previously owned by our mother), and her three mourning doves (a mother, father and baby) perished.

Several days later, I did a walk-through of the remnants of this house that had once also belonged to our mother. Seeing everything blackened and charred, with insulation from the crashed-in roof over every surface was difficult enough. Imagining what Diane’s poor pets faced in their last moments caused me agony. The extreme heat from the fire would likely have incinerated the sweet pet birds, a horrible thought. But Tennessee (ironically nicknamed Houdini for her previous escape-artist capabilities) had succumbed to smoke inhalation, and her body was carried out hours later by the firefighters. The only comforting thing I learned from a veterinarian was that due to the small size of a cat’s lungs, it was likely it only took two to three breathes for the smoke to end her life. She likely suffered only a matter of seconds. I don’t know if this is true, but I certainly do hope so because to imagine her fear and pain is too much for me to bear—and she wasn’t even MY cat.

This fact makes Bruno’s survival for 45 minutes seem like the result of Divine Intervention. Perhaps Tennessee was ready to go, as she was 17 (but an extremely chipper and healthy 17-year-old who could pass easily for 5). A friend reminded me that when the soul is ready to depart, it does so. I can only hope my mother’s spirit was there waiting for her kitty on the Other Side and that she’s holding her now in her arms, figuratively speaking.

While my sister started to pick up the pieces of her charred life, her friends helped her inventory every single thing she ever owned—for insurance purposes. The first day after the disaster, I couldn’t even reach her because her cell phone had melted in the fire. The following day, besides running errands for her to replace her dogs’ medications and get other necesessities—such as a can opener so she could feed her dogs, I was only able to reach out to friends on Facebook on her behalf.

Within two days, more than 90 posts had come in from people who didn’t even necessarily know my sister but whose compassionate hearts compelled them to send thoughts, prayers and words of condolence, through me, to her. I printed up 23 pages of such messages and brought them to Diane in her hotel room. That was the first time her shock slipped a bit and she cried. She assures me their prayers must have been working because she knew something other than her own inner fortitude had been buoying her up.

I wish to sincerely thank everyone who has helped my sister and me both survive this ordeal.

Now go and hug your pets fiercely, take a video inventory of everything you own and store it somewhere safe, and be grateful you may never need it.

Diane and CJ                           Diane with her grandson, CJ, and her son Jason; Christmas 2012.

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