28 days. 4 weeks. 1 month.
And tomorrow, the exodus reverses, and some of the 94,000 residents who fled in the face of approaching flames begin the long journey north – and home.
In terms of distance, it isn’t actually that long for me, as I have been hovering in the area for this entire time, never far away enough to be more than a few hours from the Fort McMurray city limits. It was almost like I was on a leash, stretched as far as I could go but no further, tied to my community by the kinds of invisible bonds that are far stronger than any fire. Flame proof, perhaps.
In terms of emotions and my heart, the distance is immense, and the journey home that I will embark on this week is one fraught with perils. I swing between joy at returning to my home and sorrow over the many who cannot. I look at the aerial photos of my little house, still standing there and looking just as I left it (including those damn tires I meant to take to the dump weeks ago, taunting me in their clarity in the pictures as a reminder of my procrastination) and then I look at photos of a friend’s house left in rubble.
I don’t know if there is an emotion I have not experienced over the last 28 days.
Anger, happiness, sadness, confusion…they have all melted together in some sort of goo, an endless pit of emotion I wish I could cap with the kind of plastic substance they are now spraying on the burned buildings, keeping the ashes from becoming airborne in the same way my emotions threaten to do.
It has been overwhelming. Exhausting. And a trial by fire for all of us.
When I drove away from my community – the home of my heart – 28 days ago I could not have imagined where this journey would take me. That exodus now reminds me of the scene from The Ten Commandments – you know, the one where they are fleeing the Egyptians with all manner of children and oxcarts and horses and goats? It was the moment when I saw the photo of someone escaping with a lamb in their back seat that clinched it. The Red Sea that parted for us wasn’t one made of water, but rather of flames, and now, with the flames past us, we begin to turn ourselves north.
Well, some of us do. There are some who will choose to not to re-enter our community at this time, given that this is voluntary and many challenges remain: a boil water advisory, limited services and other unusual circumstances. Each decision is as individual and unique as we are, and each and every one as deserving of respect.
And some cannot go home, learning this week that their neighbourhoods have been deemed too dangerous for them to return at this time.
Oh, how my heart hurts.
How can one be happy when others are in pain?
But I know I am being pulled north, this leash around me tightening as my day to re-enter my community draws ever nearer. I cannot stand to be away one more moment than necessary, dutifully following the guidelines laid out for an orderly repopulation of my community and yet tempted to flout the rules and return the very instant I can.
But I will wait. On Friday morning I will load up three cats, two ferrets and one hedgehog, the latter three rescued by the kindness of others, and we will point ourselves north. I don’t know what we will find when we turn the key on the place where we all live together, my crazy little menagerie and I (missing the dog who is on vacation until a later date, which will delight the cats when they realize they are home and she is not). I know that I will find my community still there, a bit battered, a bit bruised, a bit frayed at the edges and torn at the seams and weary and tired…and home.
I learned so much over the last 28 days. I suspect most of us did, the 94,000 who were part of that crazy exodus one month ago. Most of all I learned exactly how much I love the people in my life and my community. It is far deeper than even I knew, but I know it now.
There remain many unknowns. How we will rebuild (and rebuild we will, just watch us!), and how we will take this experience and let it rebuild us into better people and a stronger community. But for all the unknowns and all the questions, I know one thing very well:
I’m coming home.