It doesn’t take much.
It is my usual early Monday morning drive to work, Starbucks in hand as my car heads down Thickwood Boulevard, surrounded by trees on either side as I glide down the hill towards the juncture with Highway 63. My thoughts are filled with the week ahead – the must-be-dones, the should-be-dones, the things-likely-to-be-left-undone, just as every week begins.
I see it first as just a wisp at the top of the trees, a small shadow of smoke; as I draw closer, it becomes a column of smoke and suddenly, irretrievably and irrevocably, I am yanked back in time to the beginning of May.
It doesn’t matter that I know controlled burns are taking place as part of the FireSmart program. It doesn’t matter that the smoke is grey, not that black shade I will never forget as long as I live. It doesn’t matter that it is the dead of winter, snow covering grass and ground that would be resistant to flames now, unlike the tinder-dry conditions of several months ago.
None of that matters, because the connection between my brain and my heart has been severed by a thin column of grey smoke, and I can feel emotions that I thought I had put aside for some time beginning to rise.
I don’t feel panicked or afraid; I feel instead a form of nausea, a fundamental shakiness rocking me to the core. My head keeps telling my heart that everything is okay and all is fine and this is controlled and there is nothing to fear, and yet my heart is continuing to pound.
It isn’t until I reach my office and look out, seeing a clear grey sky with no smoke in sight, that I begin to feel normal again, because of course on May 3 what I saw across the river from my office was a wall of thick black smoke and bright red flames.
I do not believe I have PTSD, although I know others in my community suffer from this after the experience of May 3; I believe instead I have become hyper-aware of fire, sensitive to the sight, sound and smell of a natural phenomenon that I have contended with for as long as I have lived in northern Canada (now more than twenty years). I have always respected the power of wildfire, but now it is more than respect. It is an emotion for which I do not think a word exists, at least not a word I have yet been able to find.
There are experiences in life that alter you forever. I have experienced three.
The death of my mother.
The birth of my daughter.
The fire that I thought I might not survive.
And that is the truth, the real core of it all; on May 3, for the very first time in my entire life, I questioned if I would survive. There was no certainty of it; I remember watching a wall of flames and smoke and realizing how vulnerable I was. How vulnerable we all were.
And while I am here to tell the tale, to write these words, I will never forget that for a moment in time, no matter how brief it was, I questioned if I would be. And it seems that feeling will never leave me, much like the emotion I felt when I held my mother’s hand as she took her last breath and the one I experienced at the moment my daughter entered the world, altering my universe forever.
Life changes us. Experiences, the good ones and the bad ones, change who we are, how we see things and how we feel about the world around us. I suspect that no matter how many years pass, the sight of smoke will always trigger a cascade of feelings that were first felt on a beautiful sunny day in May that turned into a horror. And this is neither a “good” thing or a “bad” thing – it just is and will always be.
And that’s okay, too.
Over fifty years, I have learned that trying to suppress the changes experience has created is when you truly begin to suffer, as those changes do not like to be denied. You can pretend they don’t exist, stuff them down, try to shove them in a mental closet or the glove compartment of your mind, but they are always going to be there, lurking.
So, you may as well accept them.
This morning, a wisp of smoke forced me back to a day months ago, one that feels like it happened in another lifetime. As I allowed the feelings to wash over me, I focused on all the things I have learned since that day; most significant of all being sheer gratitude for surviving. Once again I felt deep thankfulness for those who fought the flames, a strong connection to the others in my community who lived through the same experience and a profound wonderment at how life can change so quickly.
All too often in life we cannot control what happens to us; our only control lies in how we respond to it. I will always be proud of how members of my community responded to a natural disaster that threatened us all. I will always find hope and comfort in the way we reached out to each other in those early days. I will always feel more deeply connected to my community as the result of an experience that impacted us all, each of us in different ways and with different stories to tell.
And I will always see a wisp of smoke and think back to a bright and sunny spring day when life as I knew it was altered forever. My heart will always take the lead in this one, because it will never forget that day, those moments or that experience; and I will treasure it as the time when I learned the true meaning of courage, resiliency, gratitude and strength.
Just a wisp of smoke.
It doesn’t take much.