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Family still remains thankful

Mon., Nov. 22, 2004

It would be understandable if the Small family of 621 N. McDonald Road skipped Thanksgiving this year. Skipped the turkey, skipped the stuffing, skipped the country’s official day of gratitude because, frankly, they could give “thanks for nothing,” and not be too far off the mark.

Less than six weeks ago, Annette and Aaron Small’s house caught fire. The flames engulfed only their bedroom but heat from the blaze was enough to melt the blinds on the opposite end of the building and most things in between.

Their one stroke of luck was that only the family dog was home when a lighted candle came in contact with a blanket and destroyed their house. Their two kids, Craver, 11, and Sydney, 9, were in school. Aaron Small was at work. Annette Small, who doesn’t get out much because of chronic illness, just happened to be at Ron’s Drive-in, ordering a lemonade.

They’ll be giving thanks this week nonetheless because when you’re a Small, you don’t sweat the small stuff. The Smalls have faced more adversity in the last five years than most couples do in a lifetime. Aaron Small, who manages a feed warehouse in Medical Lake for AFCO Distribution, was crushed between two semis about five years ago. The big squeeze tore up the 37-year-old’s insides, rupturing his pancreas.

Annette Small said she knew her husband’s injuries were bad when doctors started speaking of Aaron’s recovery in numbers. The low percentages used to describe his chances of a comeback were hardly better than the odds listed on the back of a Powerball ticket.

It was about that same time that Annette was diagnosed with lupus, a chronic and painful illness in which the body attacks its own cells and tissues, sometimes damaging organs. A litany of chronic illnesses followed the lupus diagnosis, so many that the medical ID bracelet on the 36-year-old mother’s wrist looks more like an Army dog tag than a Chiclet-sized cautionary note about bee stings or diabetes.

Two neighbors had called Aaron at work to say that his home was burning, that the couple’s bedroom, where Annette spent so much time, was aflame. His wife had not called, so Aaron Small assumed the worst.

As Aaron raced from work to his burning house, the only thing he could think about was whether Annette, given the strong medication she was on at the time, would realize the home was on fire and be able to get out of the house. The answer, he guessed, was no.

“I found out that day that the Tercel goes about 90 mph before it starts shaking really bad,” Aaron Small said.

The paramedics were parked outside the home when Aaron Small got there. He was expecting to hear something about Annette, but instead was informed that his dog was OK. His dog? Buddy was a good poodle, but Aaron still didn’t know what had happened to his wife until he did some more searching.

There were firefighters dousing the Small home with water and chemicals. A couple of emergency workers were busy dragging the charred pieces of Aaron and Annette’s life onto the front lawn.

“It’s just stuff,” Annette Small says now, though it was pretty unnerving at the time to realize that all they really had were two vehicles and the clothes on their back.

They stood outside the burnt shell of their home until 9:30 p.m., not really knowing what to do next. The people living around them approached individually and showed the couple what neighbors were all about.

“We had people in our neighborhood we hadn’t even met before offering to let us stay with them,” Aaron Small said.

In the following days, gestures of goodwill kept coming. It turned out the couple’s school district had a policy of providing free meals for children burned out of their homes. The Smalls moved into a motel east of Sullivan Avenue. The district immediately started making the extra trip out to the motel to pick the Small kids up for school.

And just last week, one of Sydney Small’s classmates offered the girl an ornamental top for her Christmas tree. At this point in time, the Smalls don’t know if any of their ornaments survived the fire.

Only stuff. At this point, the family is appreciating the small things like never before. The couple moved out of a motel room and into an apartment with a king-sized bed just a few weeks ago. A wide, spacious mattress never felt better to Aaron and Annette who are both long enough to hang their toes over a normal bed.

They have their family, and the promise of returning home sometime next spring. That’s enough for now. And neither spouse is talking about the next bad hand life might deal them. They’re just happy to be in the game.

“People were always asking us even before the fire, ‘what’s next?’ We quit asking ourselves what’s next years ago,” Annette Small said.

What’s next? Dinner with Aaron’s sister in Chelan. Family. A day to count blessings.


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