Emotional Health

After the Inferno, Grief that Heals

It’s 1993. Television news reveals that the Santa Monica Mountains are aflame once again. I am watching the inferno from the safety of our home 470 miles north of those mountains, 15 years after I witnessed firsthand a similar conflagration. (See “California Drought: Millions of Trees Lost, Constant Fear of Wild Fires.”) Fifteen years after my family fled the blaze that demolished our home, I had time to cry, time to be physically sick.  Others’ loss became my loss as I relived, through strangers, the heartache, the disappointment, the impotence one feels when confronted by a wall of flame whose power overpowers yours.  I had time to grieve.

I speak from experience when I say to victims of fire, flood, hurricane: Grieve with your children.  Grieve for yourself. Loss needs to be acknowledged or it sneaks up on you years later to reignite flames you thought you’d extinguished. In 1978 we had no time for grief, or so I thought.  We had each other, we had our pets, and we had a hell of a lot of work to do.  I thought I had to be strong for three youngsters whose world had just turned upside down.  I acted as though houses burned down every day.  The fact is, houses don’t burn down every day, and it was no use pretending they did.  No one told me that strength resides in tears; reconstruction was our primary goal, and tears seemed a shaky foundation.  I wanted bedrock but neglected to excavate the detritus of the past.  Had I but known the healing power of grief when that big machine arrived to remove the remains of our home, we all should have stood in line for some psychic bulldozing.

Grieving helped me recognize that through adversity we learn, even if the lessons are a long time in coming.  A week after the fire that changed our lives, a friend, Perina Wiley, whose life was a triumph over adversity, presented handmade quilts to my children, and acted as though it were the most natural thing in the world to create three quilts in a week’s time.  All three children—adults now—held on to those quilts, talismans of the past.  The point is, my dear friend, now long since passed away, was far wiser than I; she gave my children something to cling to when there was nothing to cling to.  “They’re made from scraps,” she said.  Scraps of her life warmed theirs.

Take solace in the comfort of friends who offer compassion, clothes, a place to live.  For us, it was the Magnusens, who didn’t bat their eyes when five people, a horse, two ponies, assorted dogs and cats took up residence on their property for a few weeks, until the federal government brought in trailers for those who had lost their homes.

Through adversity we learn that the most important things exist inside, and no one can take them away. The images still endure, each fragile moment captured forever on the raw canvas of memory.  My favorite is the late-afternoon sighting of a mountain lion racing across the firebreak to the safety of thick chaparral.  One of my daughters shared that moment.  The scent of ceanothus hung heavy in the air, as did the sweat of horses—sweet and dusty. No one takes that away.

Within us all resides the capacity to stop time.  In my personal instant replay, my children are young. The day holds possibility.  Pinkerton, the bloodhound, snoozes in the sun, while Archie, the goose, makes editorial comments about his luck at finding garbanzo beans in the leftovers from last night’s salad.  The girls, pigtails switching, groom their ponies and bicker with each other over whose turn it is to rake the corral.  My son, quick to spot opportunity, offers to kill horseflies—for a price.  We negotiate; it is after all, the American way to reward enterprise.

You don’t need a camera to relive the moments of your life.  In memory the pictures are always crystalline: no blur, no grain, no sunspots.  No video captures sound as clearly as the sounds that reside in my head: goose mutters, horse snickers, the absolute conviction of a ten-year-old with the purity of logic on her side: “Yes, but I raked last week, plus I put the dishes in the dishwasher.”  Your recollections may not include a garbanzo-loving goose, but they are as vivid as important to your spiritual welfare, as mine are to me.

Rewind memory.

And wait.

In the age–old process of rejuvenation, the valleys replenish themselves, fire-swept hills endure, return to their former glory.  You, too, endure.

Fifteen years after the fire that took our home, I grieved others’ loss.  And, for the first time, our loss.  Fifteen years after the inferno I learned that grief is a centering act, and through it comes recognition: Your scars are a gift from which others can learn.

For seventeen years I lived in the Santa Monica Mountains, hiked her hills, rode her canyons, taught my children the names of her plants.  Today, 470 miles north, those mountains permeate memory and remain, though scarred, a spiritual home.

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