It began with the queasiness of being late for something important.
We’d slept in. All of us. With three kids, that’s ridiculously unlikely. I tipped my phone to check the time: 7:01am, not that it registered under all of the urgent messages from friends and family.
I got up, got the rest of the family up. We dressed, ate breakfast, threw important documents, underwear, toys, wedding jewelry, and diapers into backpacks, wrestled cats into carriers and children into shoes, and got in the car as though this were a normal activity: hurriedly, haphazardly, more or less the way we leave for school or dance class.
Not knowing for sure where we were heading. Knowing it might all burn.
I held my violin, uncased, in my lap. Soothed children, listened to music. Squeezed Thor whenever I would otherwise have spoken words not fit for little ears.
I didn’t know terrifying and peaceful could coexist in one moment, let alone one car ride, one day, the better part of one week.
We stopped at the nearest evacuation center to get our bearings. I got out and asked the first uniformed person I saw that wasn’t looking incredibly busy whether we should stay there or go to west county, where our friends had offered to take us in.
We established that she couldn’t officially make that decision for me, and then she essentially made that decision for me. I got back in and we drove out of town, past beloved mundane sights — knowing each might become smoke — and into the golden-hilled, oak-strewn countryside.
It was both an incredible gift and deeply, fundamentally wrong to be somewhere so beautiful and safe while our home was in jeopardy.
Facebook let me know my friend’s whole neighborhood had disintegrated. I saw her brave eyes, her unflinching acceptance of loss, her steady heart.
Imperfect maps let me track the erratic progress the closest fires made toward our house and those of friends and family. Homeschooling always, I explained these maps over and over again to curious children.
I texted love, photos, news. Marveled constantly at modern technology’s approach to disaster.
The fires engulfed home after home, but had a sizeable ridge to consume before they could get to ours.
So we came back. Just us grownups, the next day. To evacuate more thoroughly. We got the things my heart ached for (rabbits, chickens, cello and other musical instruments, my mother’s ashes, my children’s small treasures). And clothes, way too many, stuffed into trash bags utterly unsorted except in terms of clean vs. dirty.
At the last moment I grabbed the kids’ roller skates and Thor’s soccer gear… Unfortunately, minus one cleat. My dear friend Pythia’s chortling response to this state of affairs: “you know when evacuating it’s key to be able to play soccer whenever you want.”
The second drive away from home felt more final than the first, more premeditated, but still surreally calm. While there were many things we had to leave behind, including Thor’s beautiful custom builds, that had to be ok, so somehow it was. We had our lives, every two and four footed member of the family, and then we got a chance to take two carloads of belongings. That still feels about as lucky as it is possible to be. So lucky I’m hesitant to admit it in the face of so much loss.
While others faced the destruction of every material possession, we spent the better part of the past five days in what one might consider utopia under more intentional circumstances: three families (one host, two evacuees) with eight children between them ranging in age from 20 months to 11 years, all homeschooling through the same charter school, sharing food and chores while the kids ran around like a pack of wolf pups, in and out of pond and trampoline and apple trees.
I found my brain would abruptly stagger under the cumulative weight of uncertainty when faced with unimportant decisions about meals and so forth, and having other adults around to share those smaller burdens is probably what kept the larger one manageable after the initial adrenaline faded.
Firefighters lit a backfire that quelled the inferno closest to us. It’s not over yet for far too many of our neighbors to the north and east, but in our little corner of the world, danger is ebbing.
And now we’re home, a place I honestly expected never to see again. We’re plying the kids inside with screens until the air quality improves. We wear masks during errands. Tomorrow we will attempt to unpack all of our prized possessions before Cria trashes them.
My town is devastated. New normal is a work in progress slow to take form. Each day appears as if from nowhere, and plans for more than a few hours at a time seem unfathomable.
While we wait for daily life to find us, we find solace in sharing our experiences. Exquisite beauty and pain co-mingle in every tale of loss and triumph, and it is by telling these stories that we journey back to the frame of mind that makes routine possible.