A year ago when someone asked me where Daniel and I are from, I would answer with something like…..’ever heard of Sierra Nevada or Chico State?’ My voice would lilt upwards in a happy pitch when I said it and usually one or both of those prompts would elicit a positive response and nods of ‘ohhhhh yahhhhh! You’re from there? How cool!’ or something like that.
Nowadays I find myself saying, ‘you know that little town in Northern California that burned down last fall? Yah, we live about 15 miles from there.’ When I say that, my voice has a downward, saddened tone. Isn’t it interesting how one year and a tragic event can shape the way we think and respond and behave?
We are approaching the one year anniversary of the Camp Fire, the fire that decimated the Town of Paradise, California. Even as I write this, I find emotions welling up inside me and my eyes moistening. No, our family didn’t lose our home. Our pets, family, and belongings are all safe. We were some of the lucky ones; we escaped relatively unscathed.
Though we weren’t in the direct line of fire, still, we were touched emotionally. Daniel and I are nurses in our local medical center’s emergency department. We worked the night the fire started and the subsequent days while it continued to burn. The scene was surreal, almost indescribable. The sky was black all day and night. The sun rose in a dark, mean, reddish-orange fireball enveloped by blackness. Ash fell like some grotesque, nightmarish snow globe that dusted cars – and everything else, for that matter – in a fine toxic layer, a dusty reminder of the immense loss happening real time. Air vents clogged and breathing was difficult even for the most healthy among us. Our sweet little town of Chico looked, and felt, apocalyptic.
I have never seen the ER like I experienced it that week. Every time our ambulance bay doors would slide open, another distraught casualty of the chaos rolled in on a gurney flanked by EMS personnel. With them, a thick blanket of chemical smoke flooded in, it’s grayish tendrils seeping around door frames and up the walls like fingers clawing their way ever closer to us. The feeling of insecurity and doom was palpable. We spent our twelve hours shifts with tight N-95 respirators strapped to our faces. I don’t know if you’ve ever worn one of those things, but they are uncomfortable – hot and claustrophobic – and they hide your identity in a strange way. They say your eyes smile when your mouth smiles, but I don’t think I experienced that for real until I couldn’t see the smiles anymore, not that there were many smiles. We all tried to keep it light; listen, be kind, and offer a smile and a hug or a joke when appropriate. In between patients, however, we would escape to the locked med rooms and hold each other sobbing behind those private doors, try to catch a snippet of how the fire had progressed, pray, then pull ourselves together and head back out. Again and again. Every night.
‘Do I even have a home any more?’
‘I lost my home.’
‘We left. Our home was on fire.’
‘I hope my home is still there.’
‘I looked back and the flames were reaching the rooftop of my home.’
We heard these phrases over and over in those days and weeks following the fire. Honestly, I have been dreading this anniversary. I would prefer not to relive these difficult emotions. I really don’t want to cry any more or remember all the pain we felt as we watched this real life horror show unfold. But you know what? After hearing so many sad stories, that word ‘home’ has been sown like seeds into my heart. I didn’t know this at the time, but each story I heard was like a tiny little mustard seed dropped into one those brown paper cups, mixed with rich soil, watered gently, and placed lovingly in a windowsill in the hope that it will sprout and yield something special.
For me, home is the overriding theme here. Not loss. Not uncertainty. Not anger. Not even really sadness. Sure, those things were all present – in droves, I might add, but the overwhelming theme I heard again and again was the absolute power and the incredible need for, home.
What exactly is home? Is it a place? A feeling? What? With the anniversary looming, I have been thinking about this a lot so I decided to ask my friends this question. Here are some of the responses I received…
- love, laughter, safety, squealing grand kids
- peace, protection, stability
- our safe, comfortable place where family gathers
- a place where you don’t have to worry about being you, no worry of ridicule or judgement
- a place that makes you feel safe and where you are surrounded by the people who make you safe
- my EVERYTHING. Home is wherever my family gathers
- a place where you don’t have to worry about being you
- it’s not the size of the place that makes it home, it’s who you share that place with
- something I work on, somewhere we create with each other and our pups
- unconditional love, support, your safe haven
- my family is my home
One of my friends who lost everything in the Camp Fire described her feeling of Home so eloquently. When she spoke of Home, she used a capital H. She said,
The use of that capital H is very deliberate in this context. It’s a purposeful definition for me. Yes, we had a house and an address very shortly after being displaced but we didn’t have a Home until recently. And we work every day to make it feel like our space, our place, like us.
I love this. I love the way she made me feel Home as an emotion…a feeling… a spirit…a creation…not just a structure. Not just the place we hang our scrubs. Home is something so much more.
And guess what? The black smoke is gone. The sun is a happy, bright yellow-y orange. We are beginning to see the mustard seeds sprouting on our windowsills. We HAVE windowsills again! Home has been defined for me in ways I may not have thought about before. Home is friends. Home is family. Home is coworkers. Home is my doggies. Home is people. Home is shared. Home is memories. Home is love. And you know what? I’m not from that town 15 miles from the burned one. Ever heard of Sierra Nevada or Chico State? I’m from there.