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Yesterday was another day with hard and soft spots. It was wonderful to have breakfast with dear A, who gave me some lovely art and the good kind of bath salts.

I went to the cozy house in the afternoon as the sun started its lowering behind the mountains, which I can now see clearly since all the trees in town are gone. They had sprayed the ruins with some kind of greenish material to keep the ashes from blowing around in the winds. I knew this was going to happen after the sifting. Maybe I thought they’d let me know when they were going to do so, but they didn’t. Somehow, it made it harder to be there. I reclaimed a few pieces of yard metal and then just sat on the few remaining bricks of the patio by the greenhouse and bawled. I really need to remember to bring a handkerchief. And I really hope the town tells me when they’re going to bulldoze and clear all the debris. I will need to be there for that. It will be a funeral of sorts.

Once again, sitting there, I could see the trees that shaded parts of the yard, see little K running barefoot across the little bridge ex-Pat had built, see my herb garden, my perennial bed, my center bed with the moonflowers that smelled so luscious at night. The circle bed where I tried unsuccessfully to grow honeysuckle but had great luck with Cosmos, California Poppies, Bells of Ireland, and the occasional sunflower and pumpkin before the squirrels had their way with them. The vegetable garden. The new garden with my wonderful hammock. All lost. It’s still so hard. One of those unexpected hairpin curves on the grief road. I’m thinking about just making the space a huge garden until I can figure out this whole rebuilding thing.

Since I got so very sad, I stopped to visit a dear friend for some puppy therapy and delayed returning to the Retreat until this morning. It’s always nice to take the drive at sunrise. It’s lovely and quiet here and the snow is melting. Spring is on its way. It can’t come too soon for me.

I keep trying to find the right analogy for this particular grieving experience, which is different from any other. Rollercoaster feels wrong because there are no highs. ‘At sea’ works for me often, in part because of my love of the sea and how well it knows me. It is always changing, sometimes still, sometimes raging, always beautiful and unpredictable. At sea, you don’t know quite where you’ll wind up. The shore is not always in sight. You can be under your own power, at the mercy of the wind, or simply adrift. It depends on the day. Or the hour. Or the minute.

Lately, I’ve felt that my grief is like a drive on an unfamiliar mountain road. I can be cruising along, feeling like I may be okay, like I may have a handle on my emotions, and all of a sudden, there’s a curve. A sharp curve. A curve where, if I don’t take it just right, I’ll crash into the side of the mountain or fly off the edge of the earth. Those signs that say “sharp curve ahead”? Well, I’ve never been one to pay much attention to those, until I’m in the curve and discover I’m going too fast.

Today was a day for hairpin turns. A neighbor a few doors down from the cozy house kindly and at my request shared some images from their Ring camera that gave me an inkling of what it must have been like. I needed that, needed it to try to visualize it. And I was okay with it. Until I was driving back to MKL’s house, along the magic road, and a cloud over the mountains looked like smoke and some piece of music came on the Bluetooth, and I started to cry. Again. How many tears can one body produce over two months? That sounds like one of those word problems from the unforgettably evil little green spiral math book from the 5th grade.

But it’s okay. I’m okay. I’m continuing along the road, curves and all. This morning at the Retreat, the sky was so blue that I noticed it and then did a double take to really appreciate it. And I was grateful for it. For me, that’s a good sign.

Two nights ago, I somehow found myself going down an online rabbit hole of the timeline of the Marshall Fire. Maps, pictures, videos that made me sad and shocked. I didn’t sleep that night. I didn’t sleep for 38 hours. This was not my “let’s see how long it takes me to start hallucinating” sleep challenge that I go through too often when I travel. This was just a disturbance in my internal force, one that fed some fight or flight instinct with a weird, insomniac response.

It happened again this morning. I did sleep last night, because there’s only so long a body can go without it, but once again, someone shared on social media the timeline they’d put together on the path of the fire. And they specifically mentioned 2nd Avenue, where the cozy house was, at 2:24 pm, which was shortly after I had hung up with ex-Pat. I know the exact time because I had just messaged a co-worker about it.

I want to ask the person who created this timeline, “What about 2nd Avenue? Did the reports you source mention my house?” A question that they can’t answer, as they are just the messenger who has assembled this data to help them make sense of what happened. I think all of us who lost houses, pets, memories, histories, and futures want to know what happened, want to be able to truly see it in our minds’ eye, so it could make sense. It would somehow give us comfort. Though we certainly don’t need anything to make it more real.

Part of being an empath, at least for me, is the need to completely immerse myself in the experience of tragedy. It helps me understand it and process it. But I have to draw a line at some point or I will drown in this immersion, particularly when the tragedy is personal. Being at the Retreat has helped. It has kept me a few hundred miles away from the ruins of the cozy house, which has kept me from going there and losing myself in thoughts and ashes.

But social media can be a fair weather friend or a horrible enemy. This week, it has been more of an enemy, spitting small knives at raw wounds — burns — that were just starting to scab over. So once again, I go through the painful process of debridement. That’s how the process works. Debridement happens over and over until all the dead tissue is gone. Of course, I could stay away from articles and stories that hurt, but I know me. I know I won’t. I know that for me, it’s part of healing. As a friend says, it’s part of the phoenix rising from the ashes. No one ever said it would be quick. Or painless.

It’s a cold, quiet, snowy day today. I had a few good cries over the weekend over Roscoe, over Dusty, and over the reality of thinking “Oh, I have one of those,” followed seconds later by, “No, it burned up”. On some days, depending on what I’m doing or where my untethered thoughts drift, that last thought sequence can happen a dozen times a day. It makes me pretty sad when it does.

Yesterday was a work holiday and I ventured into in the quasi-big city for groceries. A stop at a thrift store dropped the blessing of a baker’s dozen of books by one of my favorite authors, P.G. Wodehouse. My well-curated collection was lost in the fire, and these were even the same editions. I felt like I was looking at my own now-gone shelves. Granted, I have a long way to go to build back my library of his work, but this gift made me feel that my angels were with me.

When my angels are with me, one of two things happen. If it’s at night, I see twinkling blue lights in front of me. I think of it as the “Blue Light Special”. The night of December 30, when I went to bed, there were so many of them that I was reminded of the fireflies in the backyard on summer nights when I was young. During the day, the angels let me know they’re with me by a tingling on my scalp and a warm gentle feel of an arm around my shoulder, or a brush of a kiss on my cheek. All comforts that make my heart ache with joy and gratitude. I have not forgotten them and it’s so nice to know that they have not forgotten me.

Night has been difficult since the fire, at least nights alone have been. My mood seems to darken along with the sky. I am cold, which makes me think of the cold ruins of the cozy house. I still have those sad magical thoughts that maybe there’s something I can do to fix it, to bring it back, to make it not have happened. I get teary thinking of it.

I am so grateful for the friends who’ve walked with me along this rocky road these last seven weeks. Know that I am better than when I started. Grief is just an uncharted path.

Photo credit: Megan Williams

As I was trying to cook and not set the Retreat aflame, it occurred to me that I’d always thought I’d wind up a wizened and mysterious old woman, living in my little white house at the edge of town, growing flowers and tending old dogs and cats, and all the children would think I was a witch, which would make them a little hesitant and very curious and then they’d discover how wise I was. Now the the cozy house is gone, what am I to do?

Losing my journals from ages 18 to 40 something is one of the hardest losses. I was a prolific journal keeper, with descriptions of days, feelings, relationships, and encounters. Hundreds of poems. Practically every thought I had. I asked ex-Pat to bring them over on one of his visits, but he brought the wrong box, and I never got around to going to the cozy house myself to find them. That’s on me.

Of course, I can remember a lot, fortunately, but remembering is different than reading my own words and feelings. Going back to old journals, particularly during tough times, helped me gain perspective. I could see how I transitioned through challenges, how I mulled over decisions, and how I grew as a person. It gave me confidence that I’d been through the muck before and found my way out, so I could do it again.

What I have now is the internalized knowledge that I can face things with courage and wisdom. That’s good. But I’m never not going to miss the details. I always hoped that K would someday read them (preferably after I was gone so I wouldn’t have to answer any questions) and get to know her Mother even better than she does. That’s not a possibility now.

It’s funny (well, probably not) but lately, when I start to think of the specifics of the loss of something, and start to feel that too familiar pain in my heart, I turn it off; I mentally distance myself from that grief. Pulling a Scarlet O’Hara with an, “I’ll think about that tomorrow,” or using one of K’s favorites, which is “that’s a thing for another day’s Seasweetie.” Perhaps grief is no longer serving a purpose. I guess that’s what healing looks like.

I’ve always loved the smell of wood smoke. The wildfire has taken that away from me. Arriving back at the Retreat just as the sun ducked behind Greenhorn Mountain, the aroma of a neighbor’s fireplace hit me when I got out of Truck. In the past, that would have struck me as homey and safe, warm and relaxing. Not now. Not anymore.

Now, that scent raises an anxiety and mild panic that I didn’t even know were in me. My response is instinctive, to look around for smoke, to think about getting things out of the house. These feelings are mercifully brief, as rational me steps up to quickly calm instinctive me. But that initial response makes me sad, sad that I’ve lost that comforting association that the smell of smoke used to have for me. At least temporarily.

MKL and I have a gas fireplace and a pellet stove in the Retreat. We’ve never used a pellet stove and I find it rather intimidating, so we’ve talked about replacing it with a traditional wood burning fireplace. Now, I’m not sure. Will cinders spark a wildfire? What if the chimney catches fire? Will I feel uneasy about the smoke and flames? Will it stir my living nightmares of the Marshall Fire? Or will it help? Will it help me reconnect with the comfort that a homey fire used to bring me? I can’t say. I guess my feelings are as unpredictable as Fire itself.

MKL and I went back to the cozy house today. We dug and sifted through ash, snow, and mud. We focused on the area by K’s bed, part of the kitchen, and a continued fruitless quest for the hardware from the antique family rifles. We found very little. The brass bull boot puller. Another mystery ring in terrible shape. A couple of things that might be K’s Ultimate medals. A whetstone. Not much.

Today, I am asking, when is it enough? When am I done digging, done searching, done trying? I called K and she said not to keep digging for her. In her wisdom, she said that there’s nothing I will find that will bring back the cozy house. What we want is for this never to have happened. That’s something we will never have. I will never have the cozy house back ever again. It is gone. Period.

Those who know me know that I don’t give up. Not on people, not on things, not on goals. I could have sifted every inch of ash on the property since the fire, given the opportunity. I could go back today and sift forever. But at some point, I have to stop. I think that point is now.

Searching hurts more than it helps. My attempts at discussing rebuilding with ex-Pat have been met with nonchalant hostility. For him, that part of his life is over. It sucks that he has zero sentimentality about our family. It really sucks. But there we are. I can’t afford to rebuild on my own. I can’t afford to buy him out. Maybe I’ll just come down from the Wet Mountains with a tent and camp on my land and plant flowers to recreate my amazing gardens. I don’t know. I’m sad. I’m at sea. But I’m moving forward, even though I don’t know what’s up ahead.

Dreams. Not always the friendliest place to find yourself. Particularly after something breaks your heart. While my dreams have always been exhausting and vivid and usually make me feel like I need a nap, they’ve been particularly poignant since the fire.

I don’t dream about the fire itself. Last night though, waking at 3:00 a.m. from a dream in which I was living in the Lamplighter Motel in Longmont, K hated me, and I couldn’t find my truck, my half-conscious brain went to a tough place.

What if I had still been living at the cozy house when the fire happened? I’d have been working from home. How would I have known to leave? It seems just sheer luck that some neighbors up the road happened to notice workers running to their personal vehicles and someone shouted at them to go. As stubborn as I am, would I have listened?

Would I have bundled Roscoe into the cab of the truck and tried to find Dusty, carrying him unrestrained to the truck as well? What then? Would I have noticed the smoke? Would I have seen the flames coming? I know I would have grabbed the wood box with the important papers and the rock doorstop. Would I have thought to get the photo albums? My wedding dress? The blowfish? Would I have tried to load the two trunks into the back of the truck? Would I have had the presence of mind to do anything? Would I have had the time? Or would I have pushed the clock too far to be able to get us out?

One time, years ago, it looked like Coal Creek, which runs by the cozy house, was going to flood. That actually happened twice, but only one time was I home. Ex-Pat and I calmly loaded the car with the most important things we could think of, letting a small K think we were having a fun adventure. The creek didn’t flood that time, but the house did flood in 2015 when the 100-year flood happened, ruining floors, carpets, the root cellar, and some books. I think I’d have felt more panic,more adrenaline, facing the fire than facing the flood.

My Mother always told me, “Never think about anything important after 2:00 a.m.” It’s some of the best advice I’ve ever gotten. In the wee small hours this morning, I could almost place myself in the house as the fire was coming, almost see the trees catching and burning like matchsticks, almost feel the heat as the walls disintegrated west to east. In a half-dream state, I could almost crossover, playing with time and reality. I understand why she gave me that advice.

Image from visitlongmont.org
February 2022
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