Early Monday morning, October 8, 2017, firestorms raged through my county and the surrounding counties. Friends and co-workers lost their homes. Businesses and familiar landmarks burned to the ground. At 3:00 a.m. that Monday, I was awakened by a phone call from my friend telling me to get up and get out because everything around us was on fire. For almost two weeks after that, I slept in my clothes on the couch, packed and ready to evacuate my home. I was not sure where I would go. I just knew I would get my kids and I would leave.
I texted my sons, who were at their dad’s house. “What do you want me to get from your room to pack in case I have to evacuate?” Shane: “There are some small wooden boxes on top of my dresser. Would you throw those in a bag for me?” Max: “There’s a picture of you from high school in my room, my first pair of drumsticks on your desk downstairs, love letters [from his girlfriend] on my desk…there’s also a letter from you on the small shelf to the left of my desk…there’s also a list under the small drawing mannequin on the shelf to the top left of my desk…there’s also a small sock stuffed panda on the lower shelf to the left of my desk.”
The evening after the fires began, the boys came to my house. Shane consolidated everything in the wooden boxes I had packed into one small box. He grabbed his tallit – his prayer shawl – and his high school diploma, and put it in his backpack.
Max went upstairs to his bedroom. After about an hour, Shane asked him, “Max, what are you doing?” Max said, “Shane, this house is probably going to burn down, I want to spend some time going through my memories before they are gone.” Another half-hour and he came back downstairs with two suitcases and a tote bag. “Mom, can you fit this in your car, too?” I said, “I will make it fit, Max.” I packed and unpacked Max’s two suitcases, his two tote bags, our two dogs and one cat, and all my stuff multiple times during those hazy days of smoke, airplanes and helicopters flying overhead, notices from the Sheriff pinging on my cell phone, texts from friends and family outside the county asking me if I was safe. Until finally, my little town got the message that we were not going to be evacuated. And a couple days later, my boys came home.
Max’s room was even messier than usual – dresser drawers and closet open, books and clothing on the floor. “Max, what is this?” I asked him. He looked at me and said, “Well, Mom, I figured if it was all going to burn down, I wouldn’t have to clean it again.” And that’s when it hit me. My kid had believed that he was not going to come back home again. He had trusted me to take the most important parts of his life from the home he grew in, put it in my car, and drive it somewhere safe. He had trusted that we would take whatever I managed to put into my little car (why, why did I decide to buy a smaller car?) and we would start over again, with that.
I am stunned at the loss all around me, as the days have gone by and I hear from friends and go out into the world again. How can I possibly describe what has been lost? It’s the loss of land and wood and stone and furniture and inventory and art and jewelry and photographs. It’s the loss of time and space and the love that built it. It’s the loss of community. It’s the loss of normalcy. It’s the loss of the fucking average day. Who knew how badly you could miss an average day?
Yesterday, the rain finally came, 11 days after the fires began. I have been around long enough to stop questioning why, why, prayers aren’t answered right when we think they should be. Praying for rain to happen at the time of the fire made sense to me. I don’t know why it didn’t make sense to whomever gets the prayers – G_d, Buddha, The Spirit in the Sky, whomever you pray to. That’s not my field of expertise, at all. I do know that it did, indeed finally rain. And I am grateful for that.
Tonight, my sons and I sat at the dinner table and asked each other questions. Who would you have dinner with if you could invite anyone, living or dead, to dinner? If you could wake up tomorrow and have any power or ability, what would it be? And I said, “Now we know the answer to that one question that people ask each other.” Shane said, “Which one?” I said, “If your entire house catches on fire, and your loved ones and pets are all safe, what one item would you save?” Shane said, “I put everything that I would save in one place, my briefcase, right next to my bed.” I turned to Max. “Max, how about you? Do you have one thing that you would take?”
And right then, as if on cue, the dogs got into a fight underneath Max’s chair. Instead of biting each other, one dog nipped Max’s ankle. There was blood and screaming. Both dogs were thrown outside, pending a trial. We took Max upstairs and wrapped the scrape on his ankle in three band-aids, a tube of Neosporin, one ace bandage, half a roll of sports tape, and seven layers of guilt. The dogs pled to a lesser offense and everyone went to their respective corners. By the time it was all over, all I wanted was a large glass of wine and several ounces of chocolate. And that was when an average day did, finally, return to our house.
We have all unpacked here, at my house. We have unpacked our suitcases and our tote bags. We have unpacked our rage, our frustration, our guilt. We have unpacked our lives, full of chores and school and work and messiness and love and friends and family. We are so lucky. We are so grateful. So, so, so very grateful, to be here, in this unpacked, imperfect, every day, average, life. And we will not forget that. Not ever.