God gave Noah the rainbow sign
No more water, but the fire next time.
November 8, 2018 to November 8, 2019
The first day they let us back in I drove through fog as dense as the smoke that had driven me out. The burned hulks of cars and the opened guts of houses lined the roads along with the cleanup crews in their yellow vests. They gestured for me to stop and show my identification proving I could see the ash pits of my life. They gave me special coveralls and masks and shoe covers in case I felt the need, like some demented Scrooge McDuck, to start plunging into my personal ash bin, my no-money bin, to pull out whatever did not melt, which was — it turned out — hardly anything.
Driving to where my house had been was like driving through…
like driving through some updated and hellish medieval landscape…
like moving through some small town after it had been destroyed from the air in some sort of Satan’s pyre.
Everywhere was ash. Here and there whisps of smoke rose and twined with the fog that covered the corpse of the town.
And then I came to what had been my home and I saw what I knew I would see but until I saw it could not comprehend it… a small wall of bricks in a long rectangle and inside that rectangle, everything I had owned was just a pool of ash. Everything. Here and there ceramic and iron items had survived and poked their shreds above the surface of the ash-like skeletal fingers of a drowning man…
but it was gone. It was all gone. Seventy years just reduced to ash soup.
When I got out of the car I noticed that the woman and man who had been my neighbors across the back fence were standing looking at their yard and their ash pit. The woman was just standing transfixed looking down where her three small children had played and laughed in the afternoons.
I walked over to her and she pointed down at the ground to the remains of three tricycles in three different sizes; small, smaller, and smallest. The fire had burned so hot that all the rubber and plastic had evaporated and the metal parts of the tricycles had been welded like steel into the earth.
She looked up at me and said the most chilling thing I’ve heard in the last year, “What if the fire had come at night?”
At night? At midnight? At four in the morning? There was no air raid siren that the town could hear. There was a “phone tree” but hardly anyone knew about it. In the high ridges and deep canyons with their hundreds of thousands of dry pines the cell phone coverage was always hit and miss.
At night? The fires would have taken not 86 lives but thousands. I would be a name on a list in an archived copy of the Chico Enterprise-Record.
It’s one year later and my life has changed, changed utterly. My house and my mother are both gone and other struggles in my family that began in this horrible year are still unfolding. I live in a small apartment in Chico, California not very far from the apartment my mother lived in for the last few decades of her 104 years. I left Chico and my first home in Paradise over 70 years ago. Five years ago I moved back to Paradise. One year ago Paradise was lost and became, as Milton wrote,
A Dungeon horrible, on all sides round
As one great Furnace flam’d, yet from those flames
No light, but rather darkness visible
I wrote many things as my town burned and the people there began their long struggle to return, to recover what had been lost to them. But what cannot be recovered is that part of their lives that went into the ash; went into the smoke.
In the weeks of the burning stories began to appear about how the smoke from the fires had made its way to the Bay Area where it was causing people’s eyes to sting a bit and to wonder if they should maybe get a face mask as they made their way between the piles of human feces on their sidewalks. The people of Paradise were sorry about that. It was just our photos, our memories, our pets and our clothes that were in the smoke. We were sorry for the inconvenience.
Yes, yes, yes… all that… yes.
But this morning here I am in this place and I ask myself what I really remember from those days that is of worth and of value?
I’ve written about the burning and what came after in detail but now, as the first glow of daybreak comes over the eastern ridge where Paradise is being rebuilt, what I do think about is the response of all my readers here and all those who never were readers but heard and helped.
To be reduced in one day to less than zero and to wander in the smoke of that loss is come in direct contact with what becomes a void of feeling; a blunt numbness, a deep feeling of nothing at all, despair deeper than the dark.
And then, to understand — to be shown with the force of revelation — to know within a few days, that there are people in the world that you do not know and will never meet that will reach out and with money, and things, and cards and wishes and even, from one young girl, a package of toys and treats for my small cat, all to help me begin the work of rebuilding my life… that… THAT AND THAT ALONE… is what I felt and feel and hold as the pearl beyond price as I wake up in this day one year later.
These gestures came in a torrent. They came from friends, from friends long forgotten, from stranger upon stranger… from gifts in numbers so great…. hundreds upon hundreds… that I could not answer them all even though I struggled with the list for months as my mother began her slow fade from this life.
I don’t know why I have to learn again and again that there is nothing in the things of this world beyond the people in one’s life that matters at all, but that is my failing. Be that as it may, I will never forget what all of you and all the unmet others did for me to help me rise out of that dark place where darkness itself was visible back into the light of life.
As they say in the rooms, “The attitude is gratitude.”
That will be mine on this day.