Five years ago today, my life changed. Five years ago today, a terrible force of nature change everything. Five years ago today.
We are no strangers to fire. We have faced the possibility of losing our homes in three major wild fires that I can remember, and several domestic fires. It's the price you pay for living off the grid, it means more brush, more hazards, and completely diminishes the possibility of firefighters making the trek to make a difference. That is why the men in our family have found ways to do it themselves. When the time comes, they light backfires, clear brush, spray areas, and save houses. In my lifetime I have seen them do this during three wildfires, and several electrical fires. Their ability to protect our homes instilled in me confidence. I knew that if my uncles and grandfather and cousins were there our homes would be safe, our animals would be safe, and we would be safe. There was no question in my mind. I have never seen a more capable group of men.
That's why, on October 21, 2007 when I saw on the news that wildfires had once again taken hold of San Diego I wasn't worried. I called my mom, just in case, to make sure everything was going to be okay. I had been in college a little of six weeks, living in at my grandparents house to shorten my commute to the University of San Diego. I was a freshmen, and this was my first extended stay away from home. I tried to come home every weekend to see my six little sisters, my parents, and my dog Sadie. I considered her my child. I had had Sadie for four years, and being away from her killed me. My mom told me that every night she would walk around the house looking for me, and finally give up and go to sleep in Karly's room. When I came home, she would literally glue herself to me, desperate for me to stay.
That weekend was family weekend at USD and my parents, grandparents, Sierra, and the twins had come down to spend time with me. It had been perfect, and when my mother arrived home she assured me that they were safe from the fires, that the Santa Ana winds were blowing in the opposite direction and would have no need to evacuate. I reminded her, if she did, to grab Sadie and went to sleep.
At four a.m. I was awoken to the clatter of six little girls between the ages of fourteen and eight months were at our grandparents. The winds had changed suddenly in the night and they had had to evacuate without warning, barely able to grab the photo albums and important files.
"Where's Sadie?" I remember asking.
"Dad's going to get her if he has to evacuate," my mom assured me. I wasn't worried. My father is Jim Can Do, and I knew that if he said he was going to do it, he would.
We spent the rest of the day tense, ash falling from the sky like rain. My mom had been in contact with my dad, and he told us our neighbors house had burned, but he had saved our house. We were relieved, but we knew it wasn't over. So we waited, and slept restlessly.
The morning came in darkness, the sky nothing but ash. I remember those moments like yesterday, the colors still bright in my memory.
I'm sitting on the red couch, typing away on my red computer. My mother is across from me, her hair red. The phone rings. She answers. I can tell from her voice that it's my dad, and he's tired.
"It was a rough night," he says.
"Is it gone?" My mom says, her eyes closed.
Everything is red.
And we knew. Change in the winds, everything happening to fast. My dad finding firefighters, sitting on the side of the road watching. Please, he says. Our water truck burned. You can save our house. They do nothing. It's not worth it. They say. Not populated enough. My dad leaves, and does everything he can. He and his brother fight, while his brother's house burns on the hill top beside them. My dad is on the roof, and it starts to cave. My uncle sees the dogs, Red, Lacey, Sadie run, terrified into the house. He tries to run after them, but the smoke is thick as blankets. Above him my dad is sinking into the roof, like dancing on sponges. He barely makes it, barely gets off in time and watches everything he has burn.
They abandon the hill top. It's morning, but there is no sun. It's morning, but everything is glowing red, like sick. Uncle Peter's house is ash. They barely made it, the fire passing over their heads like a bird of vengeance while they cowered underneath metal and thought of their wives, their children, some of them yet to be born. Andrew screams and screams for his dad, thinking he is still in the truck, thinking he is not only homeless but fatherless.
Elizabeth and Grandma are underground, breathing in smoke and praying that their families are safe, fighting with their hearts and with their souls.
The brothers and sons gather. Everything is gone, except Grandma's house, the house of their birth and Mary's house. They are determined not to see the main house burn. Even when burning palms accost the roof, even when they are surrounded, they must protect that house. If that house burns... what is left?
At the end of that day, six families are homeless and seven homes are gone. October 23, 2007.
I wish I could say I handled the news well. I pretended I was okay, trying to be strong for my sisters, for my mom. She launched into finding us a place to stay, calling the insurance, and renters in the area. My mom has always been a woman on a mission, and is one of the most determined, driven women around. I honestly cannot remember what my sister's did. I wish I had been there to support them, to lean on them. Instead I left. I went to the nearest church, to the garden of Mary and begged for God to talk it back. I begged for Him to make it better. I begged for him to take back time and save our house, to save my dog. My Sadie, my beautiful Sadie. She was the sweetest thing, and I had let her down. I hadn't been there to save her. I let her die. God let her die.
I wondered if I had been better- skinnier, prettier, smarter, holier- if she could have been spared. If we all could have been spared. I wished I had been born a man so I could have helped. I wished I could have died, in exchange for the houses, for the animals. I wished I could have done something.
But I couldn't, and I didn't. I turned myself off, turned myself inward. I stopped feeling, my emotions locked in turmoil. My family started to heal, sorting through the plethora of donations from the community, living in a rental home twenty minutes from the Ranch. I stayed away, stayed busy at school. I discovered alcohol, and how it made me feel nothing. I discovered illness, and that if I starved my body I could mold it into what I desired. I discovered pain, and how it could hurt less than what's inside. The years following are moments- of anger, of hurt, of disappointment, of hate. I turned my back on God, on my family, on my friends. The bitterness that steeped through my veins was a poison. It poisoned my relationships- specifically with God and with my family. They were moving on, and I didn't understand how. I could pretend, and not well. My grades suffered. My work suffered. I suffered.
I wish that I could say that I was valiant and good and loving, but I wasn't. I moved out of my grandparents house into the dorms, where I hung up no pictures, left my things in boxes. All I had were clothes, clothes from before, clothes bought during, and clothes bought after. Mountains and mountains of clothing. I moved to the an empty trailer for the summer with no power and no water and only unpacked the things I needed for work. I moved again and again, never unpacking, never making a place my own.
Fast forward to now. In our first house, with pictures still not hung, and boxes still not gone through. This is why this matters. Taking ownership of my home is healing, and five years later I still need it. I've come a long way. I've renewed my faith in God, no longer flitting from one faith to another searching for what I was missing, when what I needed was my home, the Catholic Church. I now know that God did not abandon me, that He loves me, and even though it felt like the end of the world, and the end of His existence, he was the there with me the whole time. He was waiting patiently while I stumbled and fell, calling me over and over to come back to him. It wasn't until Anthony was born that I truly understood that, that I truly understood what love could be. I've renewed my relationship with my family, healing old wounds and moving past them to forge stronger relationships. I wish I had done that years and years ago. I appreciate my family so much more, and can honestly say that my sister is my best friend, and hope that I can have wonderful relationships like that with my younger sisters as well. I am so grateful that my dad chose his life over the house, over the animals. He's the strongest man I know; and for him to go through that whole experience, feeling like he let us down is awful. He never let us down, he brought us up with his strength and his faith. I am so blessed to have my mom, who weathered through so many storms with me, but never stopped loving me, never stopped being patient as I broke her heart over and over again. She's an amazing woman, and an even greater mother. She takes after our Heavenly Mother, and I'm so glad she has never given up on me.
I used to be sad that I didn't pray hard enough to save my house. Now I'm happy that I prayed hard enough to save my family, and that I can be here with them. This house, this house is my home. I am blessed to share it with my son, and with my husband. It feels good to feel safe here, to know that God is present. Even if worst should happen again, I know that God is with us, and that all things happen for a reason, and all wounds heal with time.
God Bless you.
|October 21, 2007|
|October 21, 2007|
|Everyone in front of the house a few days later|
Linked: Titus2Tuesday, Gratituesday, Just Write, Heart & Home