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In the cozy house was a little wooden two drawer filing cabinet. In this little two drawer filing cabinet were words. So many words.

I had files of letters from my Mother and Father. They’ve been dead for 16 and 17 years, respectively. It was tough losing them within 21 months of each other. The loss from the fire is the only loss that’s been anywhere near similar to my heart. And I suppose the loss of my pets before Roscoe and Dusty.

My Father in particular was a prolific writer. He sent me newspaper clippings about my hometown or other stories he thought I’d be interested in, along with a little one or two page note, usually on his Duke University notepaper. I kept them all. And now they’re gone.

K has a letter that her grandfather sent to her. I think that may be the only letter left. I don’t know how or why I took that one with me when I left, but I’m glad I did. I have some old files in my basement that may have copies of letters he’d written to others, but none to me. My heart tears just a little as I write that, one more tear that will need to heal over time.

My Mother did not write letters to me often, but those she did are gone. However, she, like me, kept journals. I took all of them that I could find with me. That’s a blessing. I have a lot of her words, her history, her thoughts, even documentation of some of our nightly phone calls. I haven’t been able to see what years are missing yet. I don’t want to know, because knowing won’t change anything and it will just magnify what’s lost instead of what’s left. I don’t need that right now.

I hadn’t thought about the letters and my parents’ handwriting until today, when, while leafing through a cookbook that I took with me when I left the cozy house, I found one of my Mother’s recipes. She always used little yellow lined notepads. Then I remembered. Another memory of what’s been lost.

I’ve written about losing my journals, my words, those memories. But as a photographer, I’ve lost thousands of images that were taken in a pre-digital era. And that really hurts. I’m not alone in this. The images that I’ve shared of the cozy house were sent to me by a professional photographer from town who also lost decades of her beautiful work.

Believe me, I continue to beat myself up with “Why didn’t I transfer all those images to a digital platform?” Because it took time and money and resources that I didn’t have. “Why didn’t I take those photo albums on the top shelf of the bookcase – there were at least 15 – with me?” Because I didn’t have space for them yet. “Why didn’t I at least take the notebooks of negatives?” Because, and so much of it comes down to this, I thought the cozy house was a safe place. I thought it was invincible. I was wrong.

Perhaps I should have known better.

In 2013, the cozy house was hit by the 100 (or 10 or 1,000 or 10,000) year flood. The root cellar filled with water and the kitchen and two rooms had about four inches of muddy water, but the cozy house stood firm. Some boxes of photos were close to the floor of the cat room at the time. Much later, Ex-Pat brought them to the Bungalow, damaged as they were and I tucked them away to sadly deal with later. I guess today is later.

I brought some up from the basement today. Decades of photos stuck together. So I’ve spent some time meticulously pulling them apart. The mud has acted like glue in some cases, so if I can get a fingernail inserted into a stack, I can flex them a little, then a little more, and then still a little more, until I can gently separate them. Sometimes I lose a little backing. Sometimes some of the photo tears off. But overall, I’m making some progress.

These are mostly images from my travels, and that’s nice but what I was hoping to find are images from K’s childhood. There are some – of her and her best friend at the Renaissance Festival, of her time at Calwood – but not what I’m looking for. And none as yet of the house. I’ve lost my pictures of Scotland from when I was pregnant, and that’s a tough one. That was a very happy time. And the picture of K and ex-Pat taken right after she was born. You’ve never seen any newborn look more like she was saying, “WTH. PUT ME BACK.” She wasn’t even crying, just glaring at the camera from under her tiny knitted hat that hospital staff put on her little head.

On one bright note, I have one box of albums from my Mother (another was lost to the flames). When K was born, my mother asked me to get duplicates of the pictures I took and send them to her. It gives my heart a flare of hope that I have some of those. Now I just have to find the box in our Indiana Jones movie warehouse of a cellar filled with boxes.

A rescued favorite. Tortola, 2004.

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.

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.

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 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 been a week since the fire. It doesn’t feel like a week. I’ve lost track of days. I wasn’t even sure what day it was today. But a week? It feels like it’s only been two days. Or maybe two weeks? I don’t know.

It snowed and was freezing today. I didn’t go to the ruins. I feel oddly like I’m abandoning them by not going every day, searching for more of anything. I don’t want the house to feel cold and lonely and unloved. I know that doesn’t make any sense. I remember after our Mikhail chose to end his life nearly three years ago that I asked the funeral home people to keep a blanket on his body because I didn’t want him to be cold. Again, it made no sense, but it feels somehow similar.

So today was spent helping ex-Pat find an apartment. Really, it’s been K and A who have been most helpful. I’m so glad that A is here, as she’s a wonderful support for K, who is managing all these things for her Dad while trying to process her own sense of loss and other emotions. For all of us, whatever emotion we’re each feeling at any given moment is okay.

This experience has reminded me that grief is not a linear thing. Decades ago, Elizabeth Kubler- Ross’ five stages of grief spoke to me: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. I can say I’ve felt each in the last week and not settled on any one in particular. I feel different emotions from minute to minute, depending on what I’m thinking of. Thinking of the loss of Roscoe and Dusty elicits one feeling, while thinking about the loss of the contents of the house elicits another.

Despite where I am in the supposed grief continuum, there is one overriding feeling: exhaustion. I remember this from when my Father died. I just wanted to lay my head down, to sleep, to rest. I was constantly drained and I couldn’t make sense of it. Much like how I feel all the time now.

So tomorrow. I have clean clothes (except for socks, which I forgot to buy.) We’re going to hang a Colorado and an American flag from the chimney at the ruins. We’re going to see if we can meet our congresspersons or the President. And then I will go back to MKL for a night or more to wait for next steps. Whatever those may be.

It’s hard to even wrap my head around the struggle. What is breaking me most? The loss of my pets, my slightly neurotic big old dog and my seemingly immortal tiny, cuddly cat? The guilt that I wasn’t there to save them because I moved out over a decade ago?

The loss of my past? Of the things I had saved in that house for my daughter? For when I had a steady place to call home that I could take them to? Of the things that I treasured there, kept there because they seemed safe?

The loss of that cozy little house that felt like home for 18 years? Which means the loss of the concept of home, a concept which I have struggled to understand for most of my life?

The loss of the sheltering cottonwood trees and the 10 foot tall lilacs? Of the greenhouse that my ex built for me, from glass-fronted doors salvaged from a long gone saloon? Of the vague trickle of the creek and the scream of a fox on a summer night?

The loss of my daughter’s childhood? The wall above her bed where she tacked concert tickets? The journal by her bedside where, at ten years old, she recorded the exact time of her grandmother’s death? The little back deck where she would call for the bats at twilight and laugh when they would come to flit around her head?

So many losses that I don’t even know where to start to grieve. And yet, grieving I am, though neither day nor night will stand still enough to allow it. While, I fear if either did, it would swallow me whole.

You start
with my neck,
turning tendons into tangled iron bars.

You move
next
slowly
up,
slipping a shadow cap of pain
on my skull.

You creep
towards my temple,
signaling your arrival
with spot flashes of stars,
bright against the white walls.

You mock
the light I love,
driving me into a darkness
that still won’t quiet the
throb.

You linger
as an unwanted guest,
your departure date
a well-kept secret.

You will
go,
and I will be left with a
faded reflection of the ache
you so generously bestowed.

I will
not miss you when you’re gone.

Daily gratitudes:
Conversations with K
Teddy the goober dog
The menagerie
Lentil soup
Dreams with dead friends



December 12, 2006:

My uncle and my brother both marked the time, the exact time – somewhere around 3:43 am.

We sat for a while with her, there in the darkness, holding her hands, holding her heart.  I could still feel her.  Still feel her.  Someone turned on the lights, blew out the candle, started doing the practical things.  Calling the mortuary people, calling my “Aunt” who had been my Mother’s oldest friend – the one who had  aided in my parent’s elopement, had driven her to the hospital to give birth to me, who now lived just upstairs.

It felt wrong to have all this stuff going on.  I stayed in the room with her, pulling up her covers so she might not get cold, trying to fully close her eyes.  They wouldn’t stay closed.  I went into the bathroom and looked in the mirror and saw her looking back at me through my eyes.  I saw her eyes in the mirror, in my face.  I called my husband and told him, had him tell Kelsea.  She wrote the date and time down on a napkin and put it in a special scrapbook that she has.

My aunt came.  She put her arm around me, and I said, “I don’t want her to go.”  And she said to me, “She’s already gone.”  I did not know what I was going to do.  I loved her so.  We were such a part of each other.  I just did not know what to do.  As the minutes passed , her body looked less and less…occupied.  I could feel it, feel her soul moving away, as the minutes passed, drifting away, flying away, floating away, soaring away, farther and farther away, without even turning to say good-bye, just excited to be free and exploring.  Leaving me behind.

Things happened then.  My brother put ice around the back of her head to keep her brain cool for the Brain Autopsy Study she was a part of.   I knew it was still nighttime, the middle of the night, but time had become irrelevant.  I just remember again the light, the brightness of incandescent bulbs all over.  The night nurse had slipped out.  She had been hiding in the other bathroom for hours.  She never even came in the room.  She was afraid of dead people.  Everything just felt so surreal.

The funeral home men came, two of them, with a stretcher and a big plastic bag.  Somehow, though she wasn’t a big woman, they just couldn’t seem to manage her.  I don’t know why.  But I wound up helping to put my Mother’s body in that bag.  Wrapped in one of my sheets, one of my favorite sheets, that looked like a sandy beach with seashells on it, that we had put on her bed particularly because she loved those sheets too.  I could never have that sheet back.  That action was the worst part of this whole memory.  I should never have done that.

Then everyone left.  It was morning.  I called my best friend at work.  I started making calls to the people who needed to know.  It was horrible.   I heard her dear friend, whose wife I spoke to, explode with grief – “Oh, GOD!”, he said.  I let her go to him.  I lay down to try to sleep and I just cried.  Cried and cried and cried as if my heart would break.  But it was too late, it was already broken.

I thought about the morphine in the refrigerator.  I could do it.  Could do it so easily.  Just take the rest of it and follow her.  I wasn’t thinking about Kelsea.  I wasn’t thinking.  I was so consumed with pain, I didn’t feel like I could live.  I didn’t want to live.  I was tired and tormented.  I was mad with grief and exhaustion.  I wept myself to sleep.

Later, I told E-Bro about it, and he said he would kick my corpse if I did such a thing.  We started to pack up her things.  We went out to dinner.  We didn’t feel normal.  We were orphans now.  At least we had each other.

Now, four years later, I have come to have some peace with her death, but it has taken almost this entire span of time.  But it has happened.  I still miss her.  I know she’s still with me in her own way.

And I know, with all certainty, that she is having a marvelous time.

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