Monday, September 14, 2009

Life and Flames

"Among the notable things about fire is that it also requires oxygen to burn - exactly like its enemy, life. Thereby are life and flames so often compared." ~Otto Weininger

Monday, August 31st, 2009.

I am standing on a hotel balcony overlooking the Pacific Ocean. It is dark. I can hear the steady soothing crash of the waves, and although it is one of my favorite places to be, tonight in my mind’s eye I can also see the ocean turning into a monster, pounding at the earth that confines it. I look at the ocean and I can see fury, because today I left fury behind: a slow-moving, insidious fury that burned and choked La Crescenta, the town where I live and breathe, the place I call home.

It’s been burning since Wednesday. On the news tonight they said the Station Fire was over 164 square miles, the size of Las Vegas. Every morning we awoke to sick yellow haze and floating ash-flakes, delicate and light as snowflakes, lighting on our clothes and hair and cars but not melting, just sitting there, gray and dirty and toxic and sneering. The ash fell and the air was thick and we coughed and stayed inside. Each day we coped; each night we stood with our neighbors and pointed at the flames up the hill, wondering what would happen next.

Sunday morning, I started to feel like my bronchial tubes were trying to claw through my chest. Sunday night, my friend Becki and her family were on Day Two of mandatory evacuation from their house, a mile up the hill from us. Sunday night another friend told me about the 2 a.m. wake-up robocall telling her to evacuate. Sunday night I stopped watching the flames, turned off the news, took an ativan and surrendered.

Sleep is a wonderful thing, when your body is worn down from an oxygen-starved environment and the effort of keeping things normal for your kids, even though normal surrounded by fire is kind of like birthday cake surrounded by ninjas: things you haven’t had to deal with simultaneously before. Plus you probably haven’t ever personally dealt with ninjas, either.

So Sunday night I was sleeping soundly, as you can imagine, when the phone rang at 2:17 a.m. Before I even checked the caller ID, I knew what it was. LA CO SHERIFF said the phone. This is a mandatory evacuation, said the robovoice.

But it was a mistake. Somebody had pushed the wrong button. Within 25 minutes of our first fumblings with refugee status, we learned that we could stay. Within 5 minutes of that determination, I was asleep again, this time on the couch, because the bedroom smelled like smoke from the trips out to the garage. Dan tells me he got the “oops” robocall after I went back to sleep. Didn’t hear a thing. Yay, ativan.

I was in a peaceful, floaty dream when Dan came out to the living room cradling Alabama, our old cat, and whispering urgently, “Leanne, you need to wake up. Bama’s dying.”

Now, coming out of a deep sleep, it sounded a bit like “Emma’s dying,” and Emma is my 8-year-old daughter, and I was just about to scream when he said “she was under the bed and howling” and I realized it was the cat, who’s been very sick with kidney disease. She was 16 and probably couldn’t take the bad air.

It was 6:30 a.m. on Monday, day six of the fire, and I took one look at her and knew this was it. The vet’s office was not yet open, and the emergency vet was too far away. We wrapped her in a towel and Dan held her and she trembled slightly, her eyes blank. I caressed her sweet black head and whispered in her ear, “I love you Bama, thank you for being the best mama kitty,” and she gasped three little gasps and was still. I nuzzled her anyway and we were silent, and my hand crept over her chest and made sure there was no heartbeat and no breath and Dan said, “I think she’s gone.”

Numb, I made a fresh pot of coffee while Dan dug a deep hole beneath the bougainvillea in the back yard near her favorite sunning spot and we buried her right away, before the kids were awake.

The radio was on, and the dire news reports about the fire were more of the same. Raging out of control. Air quality was “borderline hazardous”. The evacuations started 4 blocks north of us. And fire crews were planning to set controlled burns at the top of our street in an attempt to keep the blaze from destroying homes in our area.

I sat listless on the couch, clutching my coffee, tears in my eyes, but I was too tired for even the effort it took to sob. Dan sat down next to me.

“I’ve been thinking. I’m going to take the day off. Let’s go to the beach.”

Alabama died at 7:20. By nine we had booked a room at a lovely hotel in Oxnard, right on the beach. By 11 a.m. the kids and the bags were in the van. I stopped at Baja Fresh for a big iced tea, got some cash, gassed up and drove as fast as I could away from the smoke and fury in my beautiful mountains.

It’s now exactly 12 hours since we hit the freeway. Dan spent the day with us poolside in the cool, clean air, and we all had dinner by the harbor. We had ice cream and watched the sunset. Dan went back to take care of the dogs and the house.

The kids are asleep. My lungs are lighter by small degrees, and I sit on the balcony listening to the waves.

But I’ve watched an out of control fire from my front yard, and I’ve held my kitty as she died, and it’s taking a little more effort for me to feel comforted and not overwhelmed by nature. So I close my eyes and breathe. It’s good to breathe.

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