They say there are five stages of grief. Having gone through grief I’m not entirely sure I agree, as “stages” make it sound like there is some pattern to it that is true for everyone, and yet I think it is as unique as each of us. And yet there seems to be some kernel of truth to it too, as anyone witnessing the last month and the displaced residents of Fort McMurray can likely attest.
I know I have gone through some fairly distinctive stages, although there has been some overlap, too.
Denial would be when I refused to believe my own eyes. Hey, those weren’t flames across the Snye. Naw, that was an optical illusion. And hey, those billowing clouds of black smoke didn’t signify things had gone horribly wrong. No way. My city couldn’t burn, right?
Um, wrong. So very, very wrong. I was in denial until I saw the pleas from friends trapped in gridlock trying to escape the fire and watching houses burn down beside them. And then, when I watched a tree explode – not catch fire, but literally explode in a way I had no idea trees could explode – denial was over.
Shock hit me as I was in my trusty SUV, loaded with cats and a dog and litter boxes and enough clothing for a couple of nights (see? Denial helped me pack, too). Watching things burn beside me and in front of me, shock sat in the passenger seat as I drove. Shock was likely in my voice as I did an interview with a radio station in New Zealand as I drove south, agreeing to it really because I needed to hear human voices to keep moving forward.
Shock lasted for a few days. It was there in the hotel room, and with me in the lobby when I appeared there, disheveled and in my pyjamas, at 3 in the afternoon on the second day after the evacuation. I needed a new room key. I needed something from their little concession. I needed shock to fuck off, because it had pulled me to a standstill.
Shock finally left when I reunited with my daughter in Calgary and we spent the weekend together. Slowly, she healed me, her voice and her laugh and her love and her encouragement to buy pretty shoes pulling me out of my tail spin. She helped me move into the next phase: acceptance.
I had no control. Now this was almost worse than shock. I like being in charge of my life, probably too much so. But the fire had wrestled that away. I couldn’t go home, even when that was the only thing I wanted. Whether my house was ok was out of my hands. In fact the only thing I could control was me – and so, cautiously at first, I began to take little steps towards that goal. Making plans but understanding they may need to change. Accepting that I could only control limited aspects of this experience – and allowing myself to simply feel the ones I couldn’t.
There was a very brief bout of anger, too. Fuck you, wildfire. Who do you think you are, destroying the homes of people I love? Fuck you, national magazine. Remember all the shitty stories you published about my home town and all the times you rejected my offers of a viewpoint from a local? Fuck you and your glossy coverage of our tragedy, like you actually give a damn when all we are to you is the latest sob story you use to sell your crappy magazine.
The anger burned out quicker than the wildfire, though. It was pointless. Sound and fury signifying nothing, it was snuffed out almost as quickly as it was lit. My anger would change nothing, and it burned no one but me.
And, finally, optimism. Real optimism, the kind that wells up from within. Not the kind of bravado you put on for others, but the one you feel right in your chest, squeezing you so tight it hurts a bit. And with it came laughter, like the moment when I realized the already iffy bag of potatoes in my cupboard was likely to have grown legs and meet me at the front door by the time I came home, strutting it’s bad potato stuff around my house. Like when I began to rue the vow I made May 2 to clean the already over-ripe litter boxes and animal cages on May 3. On the upside the evacuation meant I didn’t have to spend that Tuesday night cleaning cat poo, but then again the prospect of month old cat poo was even scarier.
And as I moved through the stages I learned so much about myself. I am, in many ways, a bit reserved. It’s very likely I open myself up far more through my written work than I ever do in person, finding that intimate vulnerability very difficult. I don’t know my neighbours all that well, and while I have friends and a busy life I spend most of my time alone, by choice. At least, that was my choice.
Things have changed.
I have changed.
Nobody can live through this experience and remain the same. At least that’s what I believe, but again I think we can control how it changes us. When I go home I intend to meet my neighbours. The ones with the baby? I think I’ll offer to babysit. After all, I’ve raised a child and she turned out pretty okay, so I think I can be trusted with one for an hour or two. The young ones next door? Those late parties won’t bother me anymore. I’m glad they are enjoying being young. The sound of their laughter will be something I welcome, even at 3am.
And then there’s the dog across the street. A little black and white scruffy thing, some mix of Chihuahua and terrier and God-knows-what-else. Well, little Taco has been known to stand right in front of my car when I drive down the street and bark, while I roll down my window and shout “Taco, get out of the road!”.
But you see in the cup holder of my SUV is a dog treat. I got it during the shock phase when I went through a Starbucks drive through and they gave me two treats. I gave one to my dog, but I told her that the other is for Taco.
So when I drive up next time and Taco is standing in the street I am going to stop my car (and I’m very sorry if you are behind me, but you’ll just have to wait), and I’m going to ruffle his fur, and I’m going to give Taco a dog cookie. And then I’ll guide him onto his lawn to eat it so I can go home.
Yes, home. Home for me and for Taco and for my neighbours with the baby and for my rather boisterous young neighbours and my entire neighbourhood and my city. Beginning next week, we will start going home, none of us knowing exactly what we will find but I know one thing everyone who encounters me will find.
Open arms. A hug that comes from a lifetime of experience that was compressed into one terrible, horrible, incredible, amazing and life-altering month. And maybe that’s the final stage for me; the point where I embrace the changes and decide to allow them to guide me for the rest of my life. To become the kind of person who goes out of her way to meet her neighbours, who organizes block parties, who lives life with genuine passion and love and honesty and vulnerability and truth. Very simply, to be a better person returning home than when I left it that terrible night, and to never forget what I have learned.
A.A. Milne, creator of Winnie the Pooh and his gang, may have expressed it best. Piglet says to Pooh: “Promise me you’ll always remember: You’re braver than you believe, and stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think.”
And so we are. So we ALL are, Fort McMurray. I promise I’ll always remember.