Late last night when I looked at my arms I realized they are a road map of fading bruises.
The bruises vary in size and shape, but most have moved from the black and blue shade they have when they are fresh to a dull brown-yellow colour. They don’t hurt quite as much as they did initially, but if I press on them the pain is still there. I have no idea how I acquired most of them, but they all date back to the same day: Tuesday, May 3.
The bruises are one of the visible reminders of the day I, and over 88,000 others, fled my home in Fort McMurray, Alberta. The approaching wildfire, now a part of Canadian history of great natural disasters, forced my entire community to flee, driven north or south to escape the flames.
There are those who claim no lives were lost in the mass evacuation, but of course two young lives ended when their attempt to escape resulted in a tragic vehicle accident. This wildfire may not have claimed any lives through its flames (at least, not as far as we yet know) but it was responsible for at least two deaths. We have not escaped unscathed.
And then there are the missing pets, many of whom may never be found. Their loss as family members will be grieved. And then there are the homes lost in the fire, taking with them not only possessions but feelings of safety, security and comfort.
Added to this are the over 88,000 traumatized evacuees, some who will undoubtedly develop symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder as we work through our experiences, our memories and what we have each lost as individuals and collectively.
I see it in myself. Those fading bruises are just the external manifestation of the bruises I now carry on the inside – the ones that make me feel slightly panicked when I see a traffic jam, and the ones that make me feel vaguely alarmed when I see a simple sign that says: “In case of fire”. The bruises on my arms are fading far more quickly than the ones on my heart and my mind.
There is no way one can experience what tens of thousands have just experienced and not be forever altered. This year I will celebrate five decades on this planet, and I have perhaps learned more in the past week than I did in most of those years, despite all the other experiences I have had. Nothing can compare to the feeling that you may well lose your life, and your thoughts as you drive away from the city you love not knowing what will be there when you return.
My house is still standing. I am incredibly fortunate in this, and I am profoundly grateful to the fire fighters who worked so hard to try to save our entire community. What they gave to us – what they sacrificed and what they endured – is almost beyond imagining. We throw the word hero around a great deal, but for me that word is now reserved for individuals who are heading towards a fire when people like me are headed away. They are heroes, but they are more than that. They are responsible for us having anything to return to at all.
I cannot begin to count the many kindnesses I have been shown over the past week, and I have been glued to social media as this country poured out its love for Fort McMurray. I am so profoundly grateful to all who donated, volunteered and offered money, accommodations and support to my fellow community members and myself. It is truly a remarkable thing to witness.
It is even more remarkable to be a beneficiary of that kindness, and it brings me to tears every single time.
There are those who suggested this fire was some sort of karmic retribution, but I realized that people like that don’t even deserve my anger. Instead they deserve my pity, as I can only hope they never experience the things I did or see the things I have seen. I hope they never find themselves as bruised as I, and tens of thousands of others, find ourselves a little more than a week after we fled our homes.
There have been moments when I have acknowledged that while I survived physically I was not sure of my emotional survival. The constant smell of smoke, despite the air being quite clear. The incessant sound of sirens as I sleep, despite no emergency vehicles anywhere near. The tendency to simply begin to cry for what appears to be no reason, but is in fact for every reason: sorrow, gratitude, fear, uncertainty, joy.
It is overwhelming.
So many left comments or contacted me after I wrote about Fort McMurray and my experience just days after the fire. One in particular has stuck with me, and in my darkest moments being called a fucking viking warrior has perhaps given me the strength I needed to keep moving.
Fort McMurray is now a city of fucking viking warriors. And we will need to be as we rebuild – and reclaim – our community.
For the last week I have lived a bit of a nomadic life, first landing in Edmonton, then Calgary and now Saskatoon. All that time I spent alone in my car (except for the pets, of course) has been tremendously helpful, allowing those bruises to begin to heal. The ones on my skin are far ahead of the process than the ones on my heart, however.
There are times when I feel empty of words, and times when I feel so filled with them I cannot get them out quickly enough. There are the moments when I stop in front of a national newspaper and simply wonder at how my community has become front page news because of a natural disaster. There are moments when I speak to friends who have lost so much and I wonder how they can be so very strong, and yet they are.
I intend to go back to Fort McMurray as soon as possible. I want to be there for every step of this journey, to reclaim and to rebuild and to rise. I want to be part of that experience, because I have come to realize that the only way the bruises will mend is to be part of the healing. And we will heal.
It will take time. It will take support, long after the national media has moved on to other stories and other disasters. It will take strength and courage, but I know where we will find it. We will find it where we always have in Fort McMurray: each other.
Thank you once again, Canada. Thank you for reading, for loving, for caring, for sharing and for supporting. Thank you for seeing Fort McMurray as I always have – resilient and brave and home to tens of thousands of really amazing people. Thank you for being there as we fell to earth, and thank you for helping us to fly again.
Every day the bruises on my arm will fade a bit more, until they disappear. The bruises on the inside will take a bit longer, but I have faith that in time they too will fade. But the memories of this experience will never disappear, and I will be forever changed, just as Fort McMurray will be changed.
Change is not something to be feared. We have been through the worst. We have survived, bruises and all. We have a long road ahead, but we have everything we need to travel it. I know that with more certainty now than ever before. And in the end I know just one more thing.
We are bruised, but we are not broken. And that is all that matters.