Working our way back home
Six months out from the fire feels like a milestone, but a mixed one. In late January the Army Corps and their contractors began the debris removal process for our lot. After sorting it into three piles – appliances, other metal and glass, and ash – they loaded the last remains of our home into dump trunks and hauled it away. The most impressive part of the undertaking, besides the T. Rex machine – er, Excavator – that snatched up our two-ton concrete patio like a saltine cracker, was the warmth and thoughtfulness of the workers. They checked in regularly, assured us that they were there for us, and did their best to honor our wishes. It turned out that the Army Corps supervisor had lost his own home to fire. Twice. With soft-spoken authority, he brought a perfect mix of competence and compassion to the job.
The crew was about to send a full-size bulldozer into the backyard when they realized it was a muddy quagmire that would trap heavy machinery. Instead, they chose to use a much smaller piece of equipment, kind of a mini-backhoe. Even so, the machine got stuck, its treads spinning deeper into the muck, digging itself into a hole in the earth. The only way out was to brace its bucket on the ground and push backwards over and over again until it was free. The pit it left behind is now a deep puddle with an uncertain future. I’ve always wanted a pond, so maybe we’ll keep it. At the end of a few days, the debris was gone, there were ‘dozer tracks all over the yard and a two-foot deep hole where our house used to be. A milestone? Yes. Reason to celebrate? Perhaps, but our emotions were mixed. With the debris gone, the road ahead came into sharper focus and it looks long and daunting.
With one exception, all our trees, which included mature oaks, are dead or so compromised that they’ve become potential hazards to people, cars and structures. Their blackened trunks remain as telling witnesses to the fire. Those closest to the structures that burned are the most skeletal, their limbs bare and smooth against the sky. Those a little further away still have twigs but no leaves. The tree with the least damage is in the middle of the backyard, an undamaged tire swing still hanging from one of its limbs. The uphill side of its trunk is scorched, the downhill side intact. Thousands of dead leaves, which withered and turned brown on the night of the fire, still rustle in the breeze. In normal times they would have fallen long ago. Interrupted in the middle of its yearly cycle, that oak seems a lot like us – shocked by what happened and struggling to get back on track.
I’ve been hearing stories about the physical toll the fire has taken on people. One woman I know, whose home burned, was losing her hair from the stress and is living elsewhere for a while. A friend in his fifties, someone I’d consider physically fit, spoke of having hip problems and having to use crutches for a while. He thought it was a psychosomatic response to the fire. As for myself, I took a bad fall walking home; tripped and was unable to catch myself. The next thing I knew I was on the ground, bleeding from my head and chin. Before I could even sit up, a friend appeared. Several others quickly gathered and someone called 911. A friend who was driving by called Jill, who showed up a few minutes later. The paramedics arrived, checked me out and sent me to the hospital with her. It was another example of how well our little community takes care of each other. Can I blame that fall on the fire? Maybe. I’m probably extra distracted these days and the fall was a wake up call to pay better attention to my surroundings!
The feeling of loss comes and goes. When it does come, it often arrives out of left field. We’re a few months away from being “empty nesters.” One of the silver linings of the fire is the chance to design a house that will work for us for the next 20 or 30 years. We’re excited to dream and explore the possibilities of downsizing. Yet meeting with our architect a month ago, I found myself having a hard time reviewing the preliminary sketches she’d made. They were very competently done and she’d incorporated the changes we’d asked for. Even so, they looked all wrong and I must have seemed quiet and subdued. Later I realized that we’d met on the ninth of the month, the anniversary of the fire, a not-so-subtle reminder of all we’d lost. Looking over those drawings, I was overcome with wanting to go home again, to our old home. I was homesick and the drawings were only making it worse. Eventually I explained my reaction and apologized to her, and we’re back on track now. At the next meeting I felt excited again, even as the loss of our old home lingers in the background.
In a nutshell, that’s life after the fire – a combination of grief and gratitude, of homesickness and excitement. Along the branches of that oak in the backyard, a few leaves are beginning to appear, each one a small green flag of hope and trust in the future. Like that tree, ever since the night of the fire our family has been recovering in tiny increments. We’ll be working our way back home for a long time, but each little step and every kindness from the community brings us a little closer.