It is Labor Day weekend, the fifth anniversary of my house burning down. It’s been five years since I lost everything, five years since so much of my world changed forever.
I have friends who are no doubt reading this and thinking, “When is she going to stop talking about these anniversaries?” and my answer is, I don’t know. Maybe some year Labor Day will come and go, and weeks later I’ll think, “Huh. That one went right by me.” Maybe the weekend will lose its significance. Maybe. Or maybe not.
For the most part, I feel like I’ve “recovered” from the Fourmile Canyon Fire, but what does that word really mean? Re-covered, just covered up the feelings and moved on? Recovered as in taken back – I’ve recovered what was lost? Um, nope. That’s never going to happen. I think it means I feel steady on my feet again, like I can trust the earth beneath me, that the ground doesn’t feel like it’s always shifting and changing, ready to swallow me up. I’ve recovered my balance.
After my house burned down on Labor Day, I became a bit superstitious about the day, and for the last four years have spent it away from home. “Labor Day is for travel!” I would chirp, “Let’s go somewhere!” Last year I was in Tofino, British Columbia, at the northern tip of Vancouver Island, about as far from drought and fire as I could get. I listened to the ocean pulse and crash all night, and dreamed about dolphins and whales and breathing under water.
This year I decided to stay home. I took a breath – up here, above the surface, in real time, not the dreamscape – and looked my fear in the face. When fears get a hold of me, I try to reach out and grab them, give them a shake, and send them on their way.
I learned how to do this from Mrs. MacKinnon, my occasional nanny when I was a child. She was a big, soft, grandmotherly Irish woman with a heavy brogue. “You’ll be wantin’ to come get your dinner now darlins,” she would say, “or the Wee Folk will be takin’ it right off your plate before you get here.” We’d all thunder into the kitchen, afraid that the Little People would swoop in and leave us hungry.
One night when I was about five years old, I woke up sweating and terrified, startled by the shadowy threat of monsters under the bed, and went crying to Mrs. MacKinnon’s room. She hugged me, and asked, “Did the Little People come to bother you, now?” and I nodded, tears streaming down my face. “Well then,” she said, and picked me up and carried me back to my own bed. She sat down and said, “Now, my good girl, I’m going to tell you something. You, darlin’, are a hundred percent Irish, descended from the last Kings of Ireland, and that’s something special indeed. It means you have the courage of your ancestors inside you. So when the Elves and the Fairies come to try to scare you – and they will, believe you me – here’s what you do. You look them straight in the face and say, “I’m a hundred percent Irish and you CAN’T HURT ME,” and then they’ll scamper away like nobody’s business!”
I went to bed that night with a new feeling of power and safety. In the days that followed, when the night terrors came, I would do exactly what she told me to do. I would sit up in bed, and look out into the darkness, and say, in the strongest voice I could muster, “I know you’re there, but I’m a hundred percent Irish, and you CAN’T HURT ME!” And I would feel the monsters recede, backing away from the thousands of ancestors, royal and otherwise, gathered around me in that moment. I was no longer a scared little girl, I was a warrior princess, with armies of fierce, fearless Mrs. MacKinnons to call on at any moment. I knew I would never again be alone in the dark.
These days, fear and fire and difficult anniversaries are my gremlins. This year when Labor Day was looming again, and the Wee Folk began to whisper, “This is a Bad Luck day, time to be off somewhere,” I decided to look them straight in the face, and stare them down. And away they went.
I’ve had a really fun weekend at home. Like most folks, I’m taking a little break from work, swimming and reading and hanging out with the people I love, and squeezing out the last moments of summer.
Instead of avoiding Labor Day, I am celebrating. Celebrating all the love and support I’ve received, and the amazing new people I’ve met in the five years since the fire. Celebrating the miracles, small and large, that have happened since I lost everything. Celebrating what I’ve lost, and what has come in to take its place.
Labor Day will probably never be just another holiday for me, but each year it will be less of a heartache. And perhaps someday it will come and go, and a few weeks later, I’ll say “Huh. That one went right by me.”
According to Mrs. MacKinnon, I’m an Irish warrior princess with an army of angels around me. So come what may, I’ll take a deep breath, and look the fears and the gremlins straight in the face, and send them on their way. And I’ll pray, again and again, not to be sheltered from dangers, but to be fearless when facing them.
Wishing You and Yours a Wonderful Labor Day,