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It’s been more than three weeks. This was probably the right time to get COVID, as it has kept me in bed feeling awful for nine days. I still don’t feel good but I’ve broken quarantine a day early, as the Texas Baptist Men are coming to the house to talk about sifting, and perhaps to sift. I’m not sure which.

I think taking to my bed like some delicate Victorian has allowed me to sit with my grief. It’s fitting that my body has felt as bad as my soul. Perhaps now they’ll both start feeling some better together.

Driving in, I am aware again of the 991. Of being, once again, a member of a club I’d never want to join. And of how almost everyone I see is going about their daily lives as if the fire had never happened. Because it didn’t happen to them. I am reminded of the King Soopers shooting in Boulder that happened just over a mile from where I’m driving, and how for most of us, it was terrible, sad, and tragic. We mourned and we said “Boulder Strong” and were kind and went on with things. But for the families of the 10 who died, and likely for the many people who were present, life didn’t go on as usual. Everything changed in those few minutes. And that’s how it is for us now, the 991.

I am about ready to go back to the Retreat. Since the fire, I’ve been afraid to be alone, which is a never-before-experienced feeling for me, so I’ve stayed at MKL’s house, that he continues to fix up for sale. That feeling is ebbing now, and I want to pass through my valley into the woods and up the mountain to my fortress of solitude. To try to find my new normal. To get strong again.

Tiny painful losses continue to come to mind. My orange Bronco wristbands that were in the top drawer of the dresser and my white mesh John Elway jersey that was under the bed. My black Boston Ballet Company T-shirt. In remembering one thing, my mind starts grasping for others. What else was in that top drawer? What had I left in that jewelry box that ex-Pat gave me decades ago? Why didn’t I retrieve that muff from the antique store in Luray before this happened? Why didn’t I try harder to find that letter from Jeff that arrived after he had died, that voice from beyond the grave?

As expected, in my dreams I am continually trying to get home, trying to see my parents. Curiously, parking has been the biggest impediment. Dreams are funny things, especially mine.

I sit in the coffee shop, working, writing, checking in with A, checking in with K, trying not to cry but only half-succeeding when I speak of the house, of my feelings, of what today may hold. Still just taking it one day at a time. That’s better than one breath at a time, one minute at a time, which was how I was taking it three weeks ago. A little voice inside me says I am stronger than I think. I am starting to believe that again.

This painting at the coffee shop feels like the fire.

Replacing things. What an impossible concept. Of course you can go to American Furniture Warehouse and get a new recliner, a new mattress, a new floor lamp. Maybe you even needed a new mattress before yours burned to the springs in the fire. Yes, these things are replaceable. You may miss your old recliner. It fit your body after your years together. It was comfortable. It held the memory of how Dusty would come and snuggle with you when it was cold, and a mere nudge told him you needed to get up for a moment, so he would shift slightly.

You can hold onto that memory of Dusty as you settle into your new recliner, the one that’s not covered in cat and dog hair, that doesn’t sit unevenly because you only use one side of it. The physical recliner can be, will be, replaced. The rest of it, all those memories and physical energies that it held? Those will live on only in your mind.

When lockdown started waaaay back in March 2020 and none of us were leaving our houses for weeks at a time, I went on a shopping spree. Clothes I didn’t need because I wasn’t going anywhere. Books (because books are always needed – they’re my comfort purchases). Kitchen gadgets because I actually did cook more. I realized after a while that I was buying things to try to fill a hole, to try to fill the loneliness I felt during lockdown, to try to do something that made me feel normal. There was something about having things that made me feel secure and safe.

And here we are today. I lost things but they are not things that can be replaced. Perhaps some of the hundreds of books, my childhood favorites, my P.G. Wodehouse collection. Perhaps a few mugs or dishes if I could find identical ones. But much of what I left in the cozy house was one-of-a-kind, irreplaceable things. A T-shirt from the restaurant I worked in at 16. The beautiful warm coat my Mother made for me. The lovely dancing skirt my grandmother sewed for me. Hand painted plates from Germany from my great grandfather. My childhood Winnie the Pooh, half my size when I got him at age 4, who was my constant comfort and companion. (When I had bad dreams, my Mother would help me visualize walking hand in hand with him on a beach, looking for shells, to help me go back to sleep.) Things that held a place in the infinite puzzle of my heart. I left them there because that was the place that felt the most safe, the most secure, the least risky. I was wrong.

Replacements for things with strong sentimental attachments don’t work. They are just the thing, without the sentiment. I could find some vintage hollow stemmed champagne glasses, but they would not be the ones that were one of my Mother’s first grown-up purchases, that were a splurge over her post-war single woman budget, that she proudly offered to her guests the first time she entertained. That held the imprint of those tiny historical events.

I find myself looking for those kinds of things. And I’ll find some of them. I have a gift for finding things that are nearly impossible to find – not lost keys in the house, but maybe a hat that you had 30 years ago that blew off on a ferry ride and that you always wished you’d replaced. But I doubt I’ll acquire the things I find. Because I’m finding that acquisition doesn’t fill the holes. It – or the things tied to it – doesn’t make the loneliness of loss vanish.

The holes created by loss cannot really be filled. Loneliness is loss’ odd partner, the two being tied together by an invisible cord for reasons and in ways that I don’t understand yet. I’m working on unraveling that knot. Those holes though, they are there now, permanent features of the landscape of my soul. These days I see my soul looking very much like the fire-ravaged ruins of my beautiful yard. The holes will fill with snow, with rain, with mud. Some will backfill with dirt over time, untended and natural. Some will be repurposed and replanted, because why not take advantage of an existing hole to create something beautiful?

I’ve written myself into the brambles now, rambled away from whatever the point I originally had was, so I’ll just stop and sit with it all.

Quarantine cat photo.

I started back to work last week, working remotely as I have for years. Most days are all right, though it’s hard to keep my head in the game sometimes and the Rona hasn’t helped. Thoughts about the house, about K, about recovery, about the future flit through my mind as I’m trying to focus on what pays my bills. If a thought finds a vacant mind branch on which to sit, it will do so, wrapping its tiny talons around the synapse and singing a song of distraction.

Work friends who are also social media friends know what’s happened, because obviously I haven’t been shy about expressing myself there. But only a very few direct coworkers know. I don’t want to talk about it to people who can’t relate or who don’t know me well. I have always been shy to speak, which surprises many and is a therapy session for another day. Letting colleagues know feels like it would lead to an endless repetition of emotions, and knowing me, I’d try to make THEM feel better about feeling bad for me. I just don’t need anyone feeling bad for me.

All that said, in these days of Zoom calls and Teams calls, where we have to be on camera and where our backgrounds have been curated to reflect our desired self-image, I keep looking at myself on camera and wondering why I look the same. The background isn’t an issue, as I never worked from the cozy house. I am the issue.

I am damaged from the inside out. Shouldn’t it show? Shouldn’t my face reflect the blush of ash that skimmed my cheeks as I sifted through the ruins? Shouldn’t my eyes be hollow with the cold of the hearth that will never see another home fire? Shouldn’t my lashes be stiff with the tears trapped there by asbestos dust? Shouldn’t my lips be blue with unspoken sorrow and unshouted curses?

Isn’t the toll this is taking on my soul obvious? It is to me. When I look in the mirror, I see sadness in my eyes, an absence of a light that I’m used to seeing within me, one that glows through to the world outside. Perhaps those folks on Zoom know they’re seeing that something is off but they can’t put their finger on what it is. And they’re too polite to put their fingers on me regardless.

I know this lightless landscape within me. I have walked here before, via other paths, and I know I will walk out of it. It’s what I do. The light and the laughter will return. Because it does.

Quarantine Cat Picture

While I’ve seen reports that the Marshall Fire destroyed over 1,000 homes, the first number that I saw was 991. For whatever reason, that’s the number that has stuck with me. My little home was one of 991 that this cruel and capricious fire took.

There are around 140,000 houses in Boulder County. My house was just shy of its 100th birthday. It started life as an old mining cabin, as did many of the houses in the war zone that was our neighborhood. I know I’m rehashing points I’ve written to previously. But still foremost in my mind is ‘Why?’. Why did my house have to be one of the 991?

I know as much as I can know. Where it supposedly started (though not why it was so foolishly started). What the winds were like. I’ve heard excuses from our energy company. I’ve heard justification of choices made by town and county officials. I’ve seen too many people who didn’t lose their homes wanting to use this as an example of the dangers of climate change. But I still don’t care about any of that. It doesn’t change anything. It won’t bring back what’s lost.

I think I will get to a place where if there are things that we as a community can do to help others avoid this experience, I’ll be all for it. I am not there now. It’s been almost three weeks. Forever and no time at all. It’s still raw. I’m still raw. COVID has kept me from going back to the homestead, from talking about the future rebuild, from starting to fight City Hall. I’m sitting in a little limbo, waiting for the sifting teams to contact me, waiting for the debris removal teams, waiting for a little peace.

Impatiently waiting.

And that something is COVID-19. Yes, so far 2022, is, for me, just banging. Coming in hot on Friday night, with a positive diagnosis on Saturday, fully vaccinated and boosted me has the Rona. I feel my symptoms are somewhere between mild and death.

I’m doing all the right things to take care of myself, so I’m sure it will be in my rear view mirror soon. Right now (perhaps as a blessing in disguise?), it has fogged my mind and taken my thoughts off of the loss of Roscoe, Dusty, and the house. I’m safe with and well cared for by MKL. My dear friend (who has lost her house and all her belongings in the fire) wonderfully brought me at-home tests, beautiful flowers, hot cocoa, and her lovely self yesterday. She came down with COVID-19 about one week after the fire; at least the virus was considerate enough to wait an extra week for me.

So, I feel bad. Just a different sort of bad than only emotionally bad. Achy. Coughy. Sniffy. Feverish. Sore throat. Headache. And grateful for the love, support, and caring that my friends have shown me. I am indeed living in interesting times.

I got a letter from Anna. (Hi, Anna – I love you.) She’s someone I think of as a real writer, as opposed to my aspirational self, because she’s taken the risk of submitting work for publication and actually getting it published. She’s faced the fear of rejection, which is paralyzing for me, and met it head on. And defeated it, though I suspect its spectral form creeps and lingers every time she hits a submit button.

Her letter was handwritten, several pages, on thick cream vellum, the sort I imagine Jane Austen using to write to her sisters when she was away. In it, she advised me to write about the now-gone house, to go through it room by room, recording the memories housed in each, the appearance, the items, the events, the plans. Recreating it through words. I love this idea. I want to hold onto all of it, every carpet fiber, every window smudge, every seashell. Anna is a wise woman.

Writing here has been a comfort, an outlet, a place to spill my feelings when I’m spilling tears onto the floor or into one of MKL’s bandanna kerchiefs. I’ve also been writing in a journal, purchased especially for the purpose of recording thoughts about the fire. It’s turquoise, the color of my spirit. I opted not to get the orange one because I’m calling it The Burn Book (yes, a tiny homage) and I thought orange would just be overkill. The color is also slightly triggering just now, and I’m not a person who really buys into triggers. But here we are.

So I will likely use The Burn Book to capture the essence of the cozy home that for so long held my heart and dreams, writing when I am in a quiet place of solace, though that’s hard to find beneath the pain these days. And I will treasure it, protecting it as one of my prized possessions, because my fear of losing journals and books to flames is more pronounced than ever.

I wake each day hoping that the ache will have eased just a hair’s breadth, hoping that the flow of words and the busyness of living will help all that’s happened and all that’s been lost find their places in the mix of cells and stardust that is me. I’m sure one of these days, that will be true.

I am a visual person, which means I need to see something in order to have it make sense, in order to integrate it into my being. When ex-Pat used to describe something he was planning to build, he’d get frustrated with me because I’d need him to draw it for me. This is causing me not inconsiderable anxiety as I struggle to understand the fire.

I’ve seen pictures of the smoke. I’ve seen pictures of the flaming shed on the Twelve Tribes property. I’ve seen videos of people driving through ash. I’ve seen images of the fires after dark. And I’ve seen what’s left. But I need to know what happened to MY house.

I’ve heard things. A 100 foot wall of flame. Sustained winds as strong as a Category 3 hurricane. So much speed and power that the fire developed its own weather system inside it.

But how did it approach? Did the smoke envelop the house before the fire? How quickly did it roar through my property? What did all those trees surrounding the house look like on fire? Giant candelabras? What burned first? Did the walls collapse? The roof? Did Roscoe and Dusty just have one smoke-filled breath and pass out? What made it stop so that the house across the street is untouched? What did it look like as it was happening?

Unless some heretofore unseen video pops up, I doubt I will ever have these answers. I wonder if it is actually a blessing that I didn’t see it, that I can’t know. It might be just too much to bear. The limit of what I can stand or bear or survive has been stretched mighty thin these days. Hugs and closeness and lots of blankets and what I’m calling my emotional support wine bottle have helped.

The only thing that I know is that had I been there, I most likely would not be here. I have a long, complex relationship with fire, something to be explored on another day. I am also stubborn to a fault, and would have fought to save my cat, my dog, and my house, regardless of logic and circumstance, until the bitter end. As I’ve been wont to say of late, I’ve had a good run. So even though I may not feel very enthusiastic about being here right now, I’m still here. For the folks who love me.

It’s that faraway stare. I don’t think “faraway” is usually one word, but it feels fitting. I had started to call it “vacuous” but that implies a detachment, and this is far from detached. This is a survivor’s stare, one I engage in when I’m sitting on the remains of a brick wall amidst the melted glass that used to be my greenhouse. When I’m seemingly looking at a patch of unmelted ice or something beyond the sky.

Behind my eyes, I’m seeing the golden knotty pine of the living room walls. I’m seeing us rolling a ball from one side of the light lavender kitchen floor to the other, to verify the slope of the room. I’m seeing myself painting the cat room a lovely peach color. I’m seeing K’s blue carpet and sunny walls and the abstract statue of a mother holding a child – a statue my mother gave me, to represent us – that was on the shelf above the desk in K’s room, the desk that has been my grandfather’s. I’m seeing the corner of the garden where the moonflowers bloomed.

I’m seeing what was and what might have been, while looking through what is as if it isn’t. I don’t know if that makes sense to anyone but me.

Amber the Bloodhound came out with her handlers, Duffy and Brittany, to look for Dusty. We’ve concluded that my sweet little snuggle bug did not make it out. But the fire was so fast and the smoke so dense that it was likely only a single breath, and then peace. A small comfort but right now, I’ll take any comfort, no matter how small. As soon as they left, I found what looked like the tiniest glass paw print in the ashes. Thank you, Dusty, for letting me know you’re all right.

Roscoe, Dusty, and the cozy house are the truest of lost and irreplaceable things. Losses that can never be resolved, but will slip into the breaks in my soul, finding their nestled place to live until my soul once again shifts to stardust. Always a part of me. The kintsugi of my spirit.

But at night, memories of other things come, other things lost, things that only really matter to me.

The tiny harness brace that K wore for some weeks as an infant. In the womb, she positioned herself to jettison out of there early on, one leg straight and ready to push off, and one bent, knee to chest. That bent position gave her an underdeveloped hip socket. When she emerged, the doctor could pop her hip in and out of joint. And so she wore that little brace to make her hip socket perfect. Whenever I would see it, it would always amaze me that she was once that small.

There is so much more to say, but tonight I am at the Retreat alone and am struggling.

Not a lot of words today. Just a lot of frustration and emotions.

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