On May 3, 94,000 people fled the approaching flames in Fort McMurray, Alberta. Since that date, 94,000 people have been seeking not only safe refuge, but an elusive sense of home.
I am one of them.
After the devastating events of May 3 and subsequent days, I, along with tens of thousands of others, found my entire world up-ended. Every routine, every sense of normalcy, every vestige of life-as-it-was disappeared in plumes of smoke and waves of ashes. Every single thing in my world became uncertain, but perhaps none more so than the recognition that my city – my home – was facing a very uncertain future.
Initially, like many others, I evacuated to Edmonton, spending the first few days in shock. Those days are a blur to me, and there isn’t much I remember other than simply feeling hollow and numb. After three days I headed to Calgary and a reunion with my daughter, one filled with tears and both sorrow and joy as we waited for news on the city where my daughter grew up.
It was with both relief and guilt I learned my house is still standing. The place where I work, the heart of my community (and a place which is so integral to my experience of my city that I don’t have words to express it) also remains intact. But so many others have lost their homes, their places of work…it is hard to explain how it is to feel both happiness and sadness at the exact some moment. It has been an overwhelming mix of emotions, a virtual tsunami, and the one place I usually go to process these feelings was denied to me.
I cannot go home.
And so I packed up three meowing cats (the family dog now with my ex-husband and my daughter, happy in their care and happier still to be away from hotel life). The cats and I hit the highway, and we aimed the car east, running back to Saskatoon.
There are exactly three places in this world I have truly considered home: Toronto, where I spent my young adult years, Fort McMurray, where I have spent the last 15 years, and Saskatoon, where I grew up. Toronto is too far away for a drive with the cats, and Fort McMurray is denied to me, so it made sense, somewhere in my head and heart, to make Saskatoon our destination.
What I didn’t realize is that I was seeking home.
Saskatoon has always been, and remains, a lovely city. I have family here, and it has been wonderful to reconnect with them, even under unfortunate circumstances. And while my head and my heart are slowly recovering from the trauma of driving away from a city in flames, I have been chasing the ghosts of memories in the city where I grew up.
I drove to the school from which I graduated, remembering all the jokes about reading the local newspaper Court Briefs to keep up with what some of my former classmates were up to, as my school was on the rougher end of town. I graduated so very long ago though that my memories of those years were faint and dim, coloured undoubtedly by all the years in between.
I drove to the elementary school I attended and poked at my feelings, trying to see if I felt any connection, but the memories there were even far more distant and removed.
And I drove to the house I grew up in, the ranch style home with the enormous pine tree in front where my parents lived for almost thirty years. I parked in front of it, longer than I should have most likely, and I remembered this house and the street. The neighbour across the way with the hair salon in her basement. The blue and white house down the street where the mean black dog had lived, the one who pulled kids like me off their bicycles. The house where my bullies lived, the kids who made my life hell for a couple of years before I resolutely went my own way, never caring what they said or thought again. The step in front of my house, where I spent so much time just sitting and playing and thinking. And even the giant rock one of the uncles brought from their farm for my parents, and the huge wooden wagon wheel, still there almost forty years later, kept by all the people who owned the house after my mother sold it.
And, finally, I went to visit my parents. I drove to see them as the sun was setting on a warm spring night, finding them at Woodlawn Cemetery, side by side in death as they had been in life.
It was there that I both broke down and rose up again.
When I decided to go to Saskatoon in the days after the fire I had not understood why I was going. I thought it was to see my sisters, to fill the time until I could go return to Fort McMurray – but in truth I needed to see my parents and to return to the city I once had considered home.
I sat on my parents gravestone and I told them so many things. Through tears I told them of the fire, of my fears and of my sadness. I told them about my escape, and about how there were tens of thousands of people who were, at least for the time being, homeless in a way because we were far away from our homes and not by choice. I spoke to them of how I had perhaps somehow hoped coming to Saskatoon would heal me, make me feel at home again, and how instead it had made me realize one core fact:
Home is Fort McMurray, and nowhere else.
As I sat there, in that peaceful place where my parents now reside, I found the healing I sought. It was not found in finding home in a place where it had once been, but in realizing that home, no matter the challenges, no matter the struggles and no matter the obstacles, was the place I have chosen for the last 15 years.
I needed to find the place that was no longer home to remember where home is.
As I drove away from the cemetery, my heart and head at peace for the first time since I drove through smoke, flames and fire to leave my city, I searched through my song list to find the perfect song.
And there it was, from decades ago but perfect in every way.
I don’t know the date and I don’t know what I will find when I arrive, but I will be there and I will be ready to rebuild.
And I know this:
I am coming home.