Marie Grassman’s license plate reads: “2D CHNCE.”
It’s a perfect message for her silver Chevy cruiser, because in a dramatic turn of events more than a decade ago, Marie nearly died. It’s frankly a miracle that she didn’t. And so now, “I see life as a gift,” she said. “Every day.”
Here was Marie’s life before her second chance: A happy childhood in Houston, Texas, the daughter of a furniture store credit manager who also moonlighted as a lay Methodist preacher. Long family road trips: “Daddy’s idea of vacation was to see how many miles he could put on the car.”
Big Sunday dinners featuring her mother’s specialty, roast leg of lamb. College days in Austin at the University of Texas. Marriage to a future Air Force officer named Mike, a fellow from the neighborhood she met through friends. The birth of a son and two daughters before she was 27, and a life spent packing and unpacking as the family moved from state to state for Mike’s various assignments.
And then the life she knew started to unravel. Her marriage fell apart. Her children were grown, and she was alone.
She took a job in a flower shop. She licked her wounds and tried to figure out her next steps. And one day, she offered to house- and dog-sit for a friend. It was a stucco house with a metal roof in the hill country of central Texas.
Marie was getting ready to take a shower in the upstairs bathroom. The Old English Mastiff named Boomer, whom Marie was charged with caring for, nudged his way into the bathroom. “I thought, this is odd,” Marie said. “He usually just sleeps under the kitchen table downstairs.” Marie poked her head out of the door.
What happened next took place over a matter of seconds.
The ceiling erupted in flames. It was white hot and a “crinkly” sounding fire, Marie said—electrical in origin. From the top of the stairs, Marie could see that thick, black smoke had already filled the first floor. She could feel poisonous air filling her lungs, the result of burning insulation, paint and wiring.
The dog tried the stairs, and his body was discovered later.
Something told Marie not to bother.
“I knew there was no way out. And I also knew I couldn’t panic. I suddenly felt so calm and peaceful and so loved. I truly was not alone. I was taken into the bathroom.”
She closed the door to this windowless interior room and stuffed a towel under the door. She wet a washcloth, put it over her face, and fell to the floor. She happened to have a cordless telephone with her, and she called 911.
A neighbor, an off-duty firefighter, heard the call over his radio. He broke the door down before the trucks even arrived. He said later that no flames were visible from the street; it wasn’t until he entered the house that it was obvious the place was engulfed.
The next thing Marie remembers, it was two months later, and she was lying in a bed at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio.
When she regained consciousness, she thought her limbs were being restrained because they were so weak; she couldn’t move them at all. In truth, the injuries and treatments she’d received during that period seems endless.
She’d sustained burns on her shoulders, leg and face. She had had four surgeries on her left leg, and came very close to losing it. She’d had a golf ball-sized clot in her arm and another in her lung. Her kidneys quit twice.
Her heart stopped beating several times, once for three minutes. So really, she did die, she says, for a few moments. And while she doesn’t remember anything about that 2-month stretch she lost, she does remember something about that near-death time. She saw a forest. A clearing. A welcoming tree surrounded by the brightest light she’d ever experienced.
And then, her son’s voice: “Welcome back, Mom.’”
It took many days and painful therapies before Marie could return home. And life hasn’t been easy since. Marie was extremely active and physically fit before the fire—running, swimming and dancing routinely. Now, she gets pneumonia at least once a year, and her energy isn’t what it used to be.
But: “I really have a different way of looking at my life,” she said. “Before, I think I felt entitled. I think we all have a little bit of that in us. We feel like of course we should have this life.
“Not me. I don’t worry about the little stuff the way I used to. It’s people that are important. I’m not going to stay home and clean my house and do laundry if I can go somewhere and be with people.”
That translates into her ministry at BPC, a place she joined soon after moving to Virginia to be closer to her daughter. She helped create and operates the “tea ministry,” which means she makes high tea—complete with china cups, finger sandwiches and cream-topped scones—for dozens of church members each year. It’s a way to bring light into their lives, Marie said, something she feels called to do in a renewed way.
“Sometimes God speaks to us through a disaster,” she said. “So in a way, I don’t think of the fire as a bad thing. It got my attention. I have a different way of looking at my life.”