I’ve been trying to figure out how to talk about the house fire, but it’s difficult because even in my own thoughts I’ve come to the point of throwing up my hands in despair.

And yes, I did indeed take a package of ground beef out of the freezer the night of the fire, and put it on the stove to thaw for the next day. And yes, it’s STILL THERE.

If anyone is considering burning their house down (or portions of their house down) for the insurance money, I STRONGLY recommend against it. TV movies notwithstanding, the pace at which things actually happen is so impossibly slow that you will seriously consider campaigning for congress on the sole platform of making insurance companies pay up in a reasonable amount of time.

Here’s roughly how it’s gone so far:

The fire totaled two rooms in our eight-room house: our master bedroom and a small room next to that room. It wrecked windows and so on but didn’t burn through the roof (at least we don’t think it did–we haven’t checked to see if water has been leaking when it rains).

We initially thought that we’d have to repair those rooms, but could do some good cleaning in the rest of the house and be OK.

We were SO WRONG.

The huge problem is this: The actual fire was confined to those rooms. However, the fire began and was fed almost entirely by plastics; the candle fell against our TiVo box, lit that and our cable box and DVD player on fire, fell down and burned up the TV and stereo, spread over to the other stereo, then to a catalog of roughly 500 DVDs, from there to wiring… you get the picture.

(Explanatory aside: Doug is a huge movie wonk with a master’s in communications, specifically radio/TV, so not only did we have a million blinking black boxes with various functions that I do not understand, we had hundreds and hundreds of movies and DVDs and CDs that he had collected or been given or had been sent as “screeners” (or whatever you call screeners when they’re music-related) over the years. Many of them had never even been opened, either because they were part of a collection or (this applies to the CDs) because they were special screeners or advance releases that were sent only to radio stations and so were too fragile or fancy to be in general use–what record companies send to radio stations are often VERY unique, in crazy packaging or a different cover or the tracks are a totally different order, with the desired singles in different positions on the CD, etc. Every single piece of electronics and all the movies and music were, of course, in the only “safe” room in the house, the master bedroom.)

Once the fire ate the entertainment center and then the big stereo tower, it moved in two directions: to our bed and burned up the mattress, and to a big laminate bookcase that burned but for some reason did not spread to the books. Mid-way through the fire the bookcase itself collapsed and dumped MY obsessive collection of a zillion paperback books in a way that closed and blocked off the bedroom door. So when the firemen (I didn’t see any women there, but maybe firepeople is better? Firehumans?) got there they had to break down the door to get in.

So that sets the scene: Two rooms on fire, and lots and lots and lots of water dumped on it. The water totaled a certain radius around the rooms, but the rest of the house didn’t actively LOOK bad.Well, no, that’s not true–it did look bad, in terms of being filthy and wet and with piles of stuff that was wet and filthy and did I mention that everything was wet and filthy? So I was imagining having to come in there with buckets and hot water and having to take fifty loads to the laundromat, but I had a mental handle on it.

Two days later, when we were allowed back in and went through the house with the public adjuster we hired (reminder: public adjuster is sort of an ambulance chaser who represents you to the insurance company and tries to get you a good settlement; absolutely essential for us because we are totally trusting and naive) we found out that looks can be deceiving. Because of the super-plasticky nature of the fire, the coating of black over EVERYTHING on every surface of every room that we thought was “just” soot is actually not. It’s burned and melted plastic. When you touch it with your finger, it doesn’t smear or come off. It’s aerosolized plastic.

This means that EVERYTHING is contaminated. The black icky stuff is carcinogenic and it’s horribly dangerous especially to Honour, our ten-year-old, who has spent much too much time in hospitals and on oxygen in her little life for me to ever risk illness with her. It sticks to and cannot be removed from anything that is plastic or fabric or leather or paper. It can be scrubbed off sealed wood, stone, ceramic, or metal.

So now, if you can stand it, look around the room you’re in and identify everything that doesn’t have any plastic, leather, paper, or fabric. If it’s wood it has to be sealed and water-safe. If you have a fire, that’s what you can keep. Everything else has to get thrown out.

And so then, with that announcement, began the endless and endless and ENDLESS process of coordinating the ten companies and fifty processes to get the house livable again.

Here’s what’s happened so far:

Our contractor boarded up the two rooms and drained the plumbing.

A company came in and ripped out the walls and ceiling in the two burned rooms, and then set up generators (no electricity or heat in the house, of course) to dry out the frame of the house back there.

Another company came in and removed, laundered, and delivered to us at our temporary housing all the clothing that could be safely returned. This amounted to the contents of one mostly unused closet upstairs in the kids’ room (it was OK because the doors had been closed) and Honour’s laundry basket. So I received twelve big bags full of Easter dresses, Halloween costumes, outgrown clothes, four quilts (none handmade),  mismatched socks, summer tee-shirts, and a bunch of Honour’s jeans. Every other piece of cloth in the house was put on “the list” to replace–my entire wardrobe, Doug’s, ninety percent of Meri’s and Tabitha’s, all of Zuzu’s, and all the crates of toddler clothes that had been waiting for Zuzu to grow into.

Our contractor went back in (when it became apparent just how long this was going to be) and completely drained the entire system (the little bits that would be left in the well pump and the hot water heater and so on) and put antifreeze everywhere.

Yet another company came in and inventoried the house and gave rough replacement value to some items. Doug and I spent the next two weeks adding to the list and refining replacement values (ever tried to get a value for a piece of electronic esoterica that Amazon has never heard of? How about 20-year-old Breyer horses?)

Next, our contractor went in a third time with the building inspector to talk about what will need to be replaced to get an occupancy permit.

Company B came back and removed the generators and the pieces of furniture that can be saved (dining table, china cabinet, kids’ beds, very little else).

Our contractor went BACK in with the electrical inspector. This time the news was a little more unexpected: because the repairs to the fire create “opportunity,” most if not all of the house has to be brought up to code. This is a house that was built in the 50s as a complete DIY job by two guys named Bob and Ned, seriously. The electric is a MESS. Absolutely nothing is even close to code; there WAS no code in our town until probably 20 years ago.

In order to bring the electric to code, the basement ceilings need to come down. Once the ceilings are down, you have to re-insulate. If you re-insulate, you need to install new smoke detectors and heat sensors. If you do THAT, you need to chain them up to the second floor. If you open the second floor ceilings, you need to replace the wiring… it’s like If You Give A Mouse A Cookie, only instead of a glass of milk you give him tens of thousands of dollars of code upgrades.

We’re now up to this week, which involved a rollercoaster of fun including the contractor BACK in the house with the electrical subcontractor, working up a bid, and tomorrow our public adjustor goes through the house with the insurance company’s adjustor and begins (BEGINS!) the process of developing a big giant number that will eventually become a claim.

We have been warned that once the big giant number is submitted, it will take up to 60 days, even 90 is not outside the realm of possibility, before the claim is approved and the check is cut.

So that puts us out to somewhere in April, maybe. March at the absolute earliest.

And then, ONLY THEN, does the electric get turned back on and the construction begin. That’s estimated at three months. Ordinarily I’d double that, but our contractor is actually fast and honest so I can trust him.

And, meanwhile, the house is slowly rotting away, the drywall is cracking because of the sub-zero temperatures, and the fridge and freezer are still full. Sitting in my kitchen, full.

And we’re closing in on 50 days of that meat sitting on the stove.