I am in my shed, four months later. For the most part, my life has returned to normal; there are no scorch marks on my house, no melted shingles and no red flame retardant. I open a bin of seat cushions, one that has been unopened for a year, and out spills not only the contents but a sharp, acrid odour, one I have come to recognize well since my return to Fort McMurray on June 3rd.
It happens at the most unusual times and in the most unexpected places, a sudden quick reminder of a day that has ever so slowly begun to recede into my memory instead of appearing in my every day thoughts. The smell of smoke, not of campfires but the odour of burnt memories and homes, is quick to bring it all to the surface again and remind me of how much has happened since that fateful day in May.
I was lucky, so much luckier than so many others. My home escaped the flames, but I did not escape the fire, as in some way I too am smoke damaged, not burned perhaps but still altered by an experience outside of what I once considered to be possible.
I think in the aftermath of May 3rd I am both stronger and more fragile than ever before. The simple smell of a freshly mowed lawn can bring me to the brink of tears; a quick glimpse of kindness can make my heart feel filled to the brim with joy.
I don’t know how to describe this as anything other than some sort of growth, thrust upon me perhaps but growth nonetheless. But with this growth has come some pain. There is, undoubtedly, some residual smoke damage.
There was a point when I thought I would one day return to “normal” – you know, the person I was on May 2nd, 2016. It has taken four months for me to comprehend that this is never going to happen, and I will never be that person again, because what has happened to my community – to me – has altered me.
There are so many different experiences and different perspectives; they are as unique as we are, the intriguing collection of people who have chosen this northern community as our home. I know there are those who are struggling to get through every single day, and it breaks my heart to witness it; I know there are those who have returned to lives virtually untouched and who seem impermeable to the events of the past four months.
For myself, I have managed to go days without saying the word fire, and there have been times when it has been quite far from my thoughts, but the truth is that in some way it is omnipresent. I suspect to some degree it always will be, and accepting this has been both the hardest and simplest part of the entire experience.
I pull the bin of seat cushions out of my shed, and leave the contents outside in the cool air overnight. The next morning they are almost as good as new, covered with a soft sheen of fall dew, but with an ever so faint smell of smoke clinging to them. They are quite usable, and they will be good for many seasons to come, but they are also forever altered.
They are smoke damaged, just like I am and just like the city I have come to love with a ferocity that astonishes even me is. But it is the kind of damage that doesn’t mean the end; it’s the kind where a reminder of the past exists even as you move into the future. I fluffed up the pillows, placed them on my deck chairs and sat and listened to the birds while my neighbour mowed his lawn. As the sweet smell of green grass filled the air, the faint smell of smoke simply faded into the background; still there but not centre stage.
And maybe that, in all its simplicity, is all I truly need.