October 10, 2010
Thirty-Three Days After the Fire
Hello Dear Friends,
I was talking to someone today, and she asked, “How are you doing?” I stopped and said, “That’s a rather complicated question right now.” It’s amazing how complex life becomes after something like this, and even the most ordinary of questions becomes a loaded gun, aimed at your heart. “How are you doing?” Oh, God, do you really want to know? Do you really? Because if I really answer, honestly tell you how I’m doing, you might not like what you hear.
It’s like this. Ninety-nine percent of the people I talk to each day are wonderful, helpful, incredible people. And every day – every single day, someone says something that is inadvertently hurtful, stupid or inappropriate, and it goes like a knife into my heart. Wonderful people. Well meaning people. When it comes to dealing with grief, loss and death, we as a culture are dancing in the dark. We put a foot forward, stumble, and wonder why the lights went out. Why is it so dark in here? Can’t they just change the bulb and move on? “Move on.” As a culture we are obsessed with “moving on” after a tragedy.
I got a letter today from some friends – thoughtful, well meaning people – who wrote, “We are so glad you are moving on with rebuilding and getting your life back together.” Moving on? Are you kidding? This whole mess has barely started. Never mind the grief, the loss, the PTSD – jumping when you hear a siren, cringing at the sound of a helicopter – there’s the County to deal with, and why can’t the Post Office find my mail? A friend of mine comes over for a visit and says, “Oh, I’m so jealous you get to live in a cottage!” Really? Jealous? This place is adorable, and it’s 500 square feet. Would you really trade your 3,000 square foot house and big yard for a cottage? C’mon, think about it, willya?
When I say things like this I sound mean, ungrateful, intolerant. I am not any of those – I’m merely trying to tell the truth about my life.
Back when I was an undergraduate English major, I read a piece by Muriel Rukeyser, who wrote, “What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? The world would split open.” I remember I wrote a tedious paper titled, “World Split Open: The Truth About My Life.” I was 18, and some poor graduate instructor in Women’s Literature had to wade through it. I probably got a “C.”
But now, in my 50’s, in the wake of this bizarre, surreal experience of homeless limbo, I am too tired to not tell the truth. Being nice and taking care of everyone is too exhausting – I can only tell it like I see it. And when people ask me if I am “moving on,” I want to spit nails. Talk to me in a year, okay? Moving on. People cannot bear to stay in the feelings of tragedy for long, and we Americans are famous for our short attention spans. As my friend Sharon Glassman joked, “People are like, ‘Hey, your tragedy is So Last Month. Whaddaya got that’s new?'” Whaddaya got, indeed.
Last Saturday I went to the Four Mile Canyon Revival Concert. It was headlined by Phish, Yonder Mountain String Band, and Leftover Salmon, among others. Several people who lost homes in the fire had been given tickets by the sponsor, The Community Foundation, one of my all-time favorite charitable organizations. So I was thrilled to get free tickets and take my friend David, who has been so helpful in dealing with the insurance company, builders and contractors, and my crazy moods.
If I’d realized how shell shocked I still was, I probably wouldn’t have gone.
David and I got there right before six, and my stomach dropped when I saw the crowd outside the Event Center. There wasn’t a line to get in – but rather a huge crush of people, pushing helter-skelter to the few entrances. I grabbed David by the arm and said, “I’m not sure I can do this…” But I took a deep breath, hung on to David, and joined the fray. The crowd consisted mostly of twenty-something Phish fans, dressed in all manner of Hippie/Dead Head attire, who ran around hugging each other and squealing with delight over long-lost friends. As we stood there, a young woman in a pink tutu ran up to another young woman and screeched, “Oh, it’s so good to SEE YOUUUUU!” and then leaped into her arms. I thought it was kind of cute, actually. The woman in the tutu gave me a rather stoned-looking smile, and I said, “Yep, I’m probably old enough to be your Mom. Maybe even your grandmother.” She smiled and said, “Oh, I wish my Mom was half as cool as YOUUU!” and then leaped up and gave me a long, stoned hug. As I said, kinda cute.
When we finally got inside and I could breathe again, we asked an usher where our seats were. “Are you with the fire fighters?” She asked. “They’re over there in the front, in a reserved section.” “No,” I said, “We’re with the people who lost homes in the fire.” “Oh,” she said. “Those are General Admission. Just sit anywhere.” I turned to David with panic in my eyes and said, “General Admission? Are you kidding? This place is a zoo.” I had no idea how frazzled my nerves were until I faced the mass of dancing, pot smoking fans gathered on the floor of the arena. Sit anywhere? Oh, my God. I haven’t had a General Admission seat since I was about thirty. But again, deep breath, and we found two seats in the back, by the door, a few rows up. It wasn’t very crowded there, and from up there I could watch the incredible theater taking place down on the floor as the bands began to play. There were guys in rainbow caftans, top hats, and Jerry Garcia wigs; a guy in a silver lame jumpsuit and chunky, platform shoes. A girl with a skirt made entirely of glow-sticks. Lots of young white guys in dreadlocks, bobbing and weaving and shuffling to the music of the first band.
After a while I actually relaxed. The music was good, and our section was only moderately crowded. Everyone got up and danced, and after a while I joined in. The young guy dancing next to me leaned over and shouted over the music, “WHERE YOU FROM?” I shouted back, “BOULDER. YOU?” “TELLURIDE” he shouted back. “WE DROVE SEVEN HOURS TO GET HERE AND WILL DRIVE SEVEN HOURS TONIGHT TO GET HOME. I HAD TO CALL IN SOME SERIOUS FAVORS TO GET THESE TICKETS. HOW DID YOU SCORE YOURS?” I leaned over and shouted in his ear, “MY HOUSE BURNED DOWN.” He stopped dancing and looked at me, shocked. Then he recovered himself and hollered, “CAN I GIVE YOU A HUG?” Hugs being the order of the day at a Phish concert, I acquiesced. And then we just danced.
When the first act ended, a couple of speakers came out and talked about how scary the fire was, how they evacuated with only a moment’s notice and how they struggled to figure out what to take with them. And how the firefighters saved their homes, saved the town of Gold Hill, and how they got to go home again. Then the emcee shouted, “Let’s give it up for the REAL HEROES sitting in here tonight, OUR VOLUNTEER FIRE FIGHTERS!!!” The crowd went completely crazy, stomping and cheering for several minutes, while I clapped my hands over my ears. Each time a new act went on stage, this was repeated. Another story about how a house was saved, another thunderous standing ovation for the firefighters. A check for ten thousand dollars was presented, to the fire fighters. Another happy ending. Let’s go on with the show.
About half way through the concert, they began a slide show. As the huge screens on either side of the stage darkened, my heart caught in my throat. “Oh no,” I thought, “Oh no, they couldn’t, they wouldn’t…” Sure enough, they began to roll pictures of the fire. Smoke billowing out over the Flatirons. Firefighters and trucks. Red skies. Black, burned trees. Slurry bombers flying over the forest. “Oh my God,” I said, putting my hand over my mouth. “David I have to go get some air.”
I walked out into the nearly empty lobby, trying to breathe, wondering if I needed to tell David it was time to go. Suddenly a voice called out, “Hey, you’re from Sugarloaf,” and I turned around. Standing there were some other people who had lost their homes in the fire; I recognized them from the meeting we had with the County a few days before. “You spoke in the meeting,” a woman said, “How are you?” I looked at her and said, “HOW AM I?” and we all burst out laughing. “I’m a mess,” I said, “How are you?” She said, “Oh God, we’re a mess too. We thought we were the only ones. It seems like everyone else has moved on.” I snorted, “Yeah, it’s been almost FIVE WHOLE WEEKS since the fire. We should definitely all have MOVED ON by now.” And again we laughed our exhausted, disoriented laugh. We talked for over an hour, while the music played inside the arena, and the Phish fans danced and drank and smoked more pot, and the standing ovations for the firefighters punctuated our conversation.
We talked about our guilt, our anger, our frustrations; about the State declaring our beloved homes and property hazardous waste sites, about the exorbitant cost of haz mat debris removal, about our charred trees, which one man at the County meeting had described as, “Like corpses – we’re surrounded by corpses,” as he burst into tears. As we talked in the lobby, one man said quietly that he felt like something was wrong with him, because he felt compelled to go up to the site of his burned home every day and sift through the ashes. Many of his neighbors, he said, didn’t even want to go look. They just called the bulldozers and said, Take it all away. “Are we in denial?” his wife asked. I said, “If you want to go up every damn day for a year, have at it. You just go up there as much as you want and who cares what people say. Everyone has their own process, and there’s no right or wrong for any of us. Screw the people who tell us we should be “moving on.”
One woman said that she had been called in by her daughter’s teacher, who scolded her for her daughter’s missed assignments, and said that other kids in her class who were “affected by the fire” had “moved on,” and it was frankly time for her daughter and their whole family to “start moving on.” My jaw dropped and my eyes filled with tears at this story. Did those other kids who were “affected by the fire” get to go home again? Or did they lose everything — their toys, their stuffed animals, their safe and familiar home? Having been there as a kid, I know the trauma of losing my childhood home to a fire. How dare a teacher, or anyone, tell a parent that their child has to truncate their grieving, put their pain in a box, and move on. For shame.
After a while I was hoarse from talking, and we all hugged and said we’d keep in touch, and stumbled away to find our seats and the friends in the arena we had abandoned for so long. I felt exhausted but also somehow at peace. I am not alone, I thought. I am not becoming a bitter, angry person, I am telling the truth about my life, in whatever clumsy and awkward and angry way that I can. We are all stumbling through this together; we are all dancing in the dark. I went back in and asked David if we could leave, and he cheerfully agreed. “Whatever you want,” he said.
These are the real heroes here tonight, I thought. The people who are walking this path with their homeless, burnt-out friends. The people who say “Yes,” who show up, who listen to our rants and tirades and then make a joke and laugh and cry with us. The people who, like David, listen to but don’t indulge our anger. When I get too crazy, David smiles and says, “Dah-link. Me thinks you might be over reacting just a tad,” and then I shout “YOU THINK SO?!” and we laugh until we cry. These are the heroes of my universe tonight.
Lainie, who spent three days on the phone with me as I drove fifteen hundred miles across country, alone in the car, knowing that my house had burned down. Matthew, who took a week off work, and jumped on a plane from Chicago to come help. Kathy, who flew out for a weekend from Massachusetts, because she knows something about facing tragedy and loss as a single person. Ellen, who I haven’t seen in five years, who brought me corn chowder, and said, “I’m going to be a pest. I’m going to check up on you.” Beth, who took me in after the fire and rallied my friends and organized food and a party for me within days of the fire, to make sure I had the basics of life covered. Marki, who showed up like Santa Claus each day, and brought me towels and clothes and furry socks and a beautiful vase, because every girl needs a vase to put flowers in.
My list of heroes and s/heroes goes on and on. Every day, another gift. Every day, another sorrow. This is the essence of it. This is the agony and the ecstasy of life under the microscope of loss. The pain is sharp; the joy wells up in flashing, searing moments of gratitude. What pain will tomorrow bring? What joy? What gifts?
We left the concert at midnight, even though it was still going strong. I came home to my quiet cottage and my Nellie dog, and said good night to David. That night I dreamed of fire, of running from fire, of the ocean on fire, and not being able to reach my friend Ellen on the phone. In the confusion of my dream, my clumsy fingers couldn’t find the numbers, and I ran on and on, alone and afraid. When I reached the edge of the shore and faced the wall of fire, the phone rang, and it was Ellen. “Thank God you called,” I cried. “Thank God for you.” And when I looked up, the fire had gone out.
And then I woke up, with Nellie snuggled at my shoulder, and the sun rising. Another day, I thought. Another step in this confusing, erratic, and strangely fascinating dance. And Nellie looked at me, and wagged her tail. And on we go.
Take Good Care and Good Night,
Andi and Nellie