Dear Mom

Dear Mom,

Today is the day we celebrate moms. And while it seems it might be about cards and flowers and brunches, it’s really about celebrating the person who has a tremendous influence over our lives.

I am so lucky you are my mother. I didn’t always feel that way, of course. There were times when I wished you were more or different or other; but as I’ve grown up and become a mother I’ve come to understand that anyone else wouldn’t have been you.

You weren’t the perfect mom. Oh, you baked and cooked and cleaned like the cliche “perfect mom”, but you had flaws, too.

And thank you for having them.

You taught me it was okay to be an imperfect mom.

You were the mom who taught me compassion, to love freely and without condition and to live and embrace without judgement.

In this judgemental world, that’s a tremendous gift.

And when my daughter came along 17 years ago, I worked to bestow on her the gifts you gave to me.

She’s not perfect either. And she knows it’s okay to be imperfect, too.

Today on Mother’s Day I reflect on the woman who gave me not only life but pure love and the ability to believe in myself. There were times the role you took in comforting me was reversed; the final of those moments was when I held your hand as you slipped from this world seven years ago.

But even when you left the world, you didn’t really as your legacy lives on in me and in your granddaughter, who is both remarkably like me and completely different, much like you and I.

I miss you every day. I miss our twice weekly phone calls. And even after all these years there are times I forget you are gone. 

When you died I slipped a letter under the pillow where you laid your head for your final rest; it contained all my love and gratitude, as I wanted you to go wherever you were going knowing that you went there loved. I believe you did, even when I was an imperfect daughter who struggled to express it.

I wish you’d had more time with my daughter. I wish you’d had more time with me. I just wish you’d had more time at all.

But in the end I am just so grateful for all you were and all you did and the time I had with you and all of you that still lives on in the children you raised. You made a difference in the world.

You made every difference to me. 

Happy Mother’s Day, Mom. 

Love,

Theresa

Rounding the Corner: The Future Starts Now

I am gazing out the window of my car. I can see the first buds of green on the trees in the distance, and the grass, sharply yellow until just a day or two ago, is showing some sign of the brilliant emerald shade it will soon turn. Spring has arrived in Fort McMurray, and along with it of course came the first anniversary of the wildfire evacuation on May 3, 2016.

And as the trees begin to bud and the grass begins to green, something has sprung to life in me, too. I liken it to rounding a corner; somehow instead of looking back I find myself deeply keen to look ahead.

But in the same way that the trees are a bit thinner this year, and the view has changed in that I can clearly see far further than I once did, I think my personal clarity has become far sharper, too. I can somehow see a bit more clearly now, and certainly more clearly than I have done over the past year when it seems some lingering smoke obscured my vision.

In some inexplicable manner, the smoke cleared for me on May 3, 2017. Perhaps it was when I was able to return to my home that night and sleep in my own bed; perhaps it was even more so when I woke up on the morning of May 4 and realized I was far from the place I was a year ago, both emotionally and physically.

And perhaps it was when I took a moment to realize how far we have come as a community over the past year, and how far we have yet to go.

Someone asked me if it seems like it has been a year since the wildfire, and in truth it is one of those experiences in which time seems to both stretch and contract. It seems like the year lasted 47 months, and yet it seems like it was only days ago that the sky was darkened by something far more sinister than a thunderstorm. It was a storm of sorts, a perfect storm of weather conditions that led to tinder-dry forest and a spark that grew quickly. It was a storm which swirled around all of us and around the place we call home; and just as with a ferocious thunderstorm, it left damage in its wake.

The immediate damage was clearly visible. Thousands of homes lost. The blackened and burned forest. Entire neighbourhoods virtually wiped out and for a time uninhabitable. What was less obvious was the subtler damage, the smoke that infiltrated not just houses but hearts, minds and souls.

A few days ago I took a drive to Abasand and the neighbourhood in which I used to live. The sound of saws and hammers filled the air, and the streets which were so desolate a few months ago are beginning to be filled in with dots and clusters of new homes. These are such encouraging signs, along with the developments in Stone Creek, Beacon Hill and Wood Buffalo.

Far more troubling is the lack of similar progress in Waterways, an area that holds both the history and the heart of Fort McMurray in many ways. This little pocket community continues to struggle with uncertainty and challenges, and it is heartbreaking to see that even after a year construction in that area continues to be slow in pace.

Recently released population figures and growth projections show that the skyrocketing growth we saw in the years of the oil boom are likely past; in fact we may see modest growth followed by some decline and then the eventual flatlining in our population over time, a new prospect for a region that always believed unfettered growth would be our cross to bear.

Instead, as many resource-based communities eventually do, we may find ourselves grappling with the opposite of infrastructure deficits and uncontrolled growth.

The truth is that fire was only the latest body blow in a series that began with the falling price of oil, delayed or cancelled projects and layoffs. It would be foolish to think the problems we are facing, both now and in the future, are completely related to the fire. The fire simply intensified the challenges; and in some ways the artificial burst of employment and activity it will create may mask the harsh economic realities we may face over time. A construction boom will help the local economy for a time, but when the houses have been rebuilt and that lift in the economy has drifted away, then what?

The rebuild of lost homes and businesses is truly only one part of the challenges that lie ahead. Uncertainties such as Bill 21, which would reduce the taxes industry pays to the municipality and thus increase the taxes residents pay, the continued practice of fly-in, fly-out and the tenuous nature of the oil industry present another perfect storm, and one that could leave even greater damage than the fire.

And there is the reality that some of the things we thought true just a few years ago – unprecedented growth, a robust economy, population expansion – may never materialize, and as a community we may need to adjust both our expectations and our plans.

For the past year I have spent a great deal of time looking back and reflecting. But as a full year has passed, I find myself looking ahead and not only to the immediate future but far beyond. During a recent interview, the interviewer asked how I saw Fort McMurray in ten years. My response was that I saw it as a community of individuals who had reaffirmed their commitment to this community and a collective of people who had been through a natural disaster and were wiser for it, having learned the kind of lessons one only discovers in the hardest possible way.

The truth though is that thinking only ten years ahead may well be our undoing; at the same time we focus on the short-term goals of rebuilding and ensuring that every single person who has chosen this as home has a home to return to, we must also focus on the long-term.

I know this: if we rebuild this community in the short term only to see it falter in the long term, then we will have failed. My vision on this point has become crystal-clear, found through the knowledge that we avoided the entire destruction of our community in 2016 and have now been given the chance to not only rebuild it but prepare it for a sustainable, realistic, strong and resilient future.

The strength and resiliency we have displayed over the past year and that will be needed to carry us through the next three to five years as the immediate recovery from the wildfire continues will most certainly still be needed long after the thinned out trees have begun to fill in and the visible scars of the fire have begun to fade. I continue to have great faith in our ability as a community and region to not only survive but thrive, but we can only do so if we recognize that we must begin to look not only into the near future, but into a future for which we as individuals may not even be present. In this place where rapid change and fast-paced growth were the hallmarks of our existence, this kind of thinking may be a bit novel; but it is also entirely critical.

And this method of thought should be guiding every decision, particularly as we find ourselves in a year when the municipal election of our representatives will likely determine what our collective future will hold. The luxuries we had in the past of making mistakes is long over; every mistake made now holds the potential to forever alter the future and affect our destiny as a community.

There is a famous quote that seems quite apt:

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My friends, we must think about our future. And the future, as you may know, starts now.

The-Future

Thank you : Thoughts from a Fort McMurray Fire Viking Warrior

It is a simple email.

It originates from the contact form on this website, and all it really says is “thank you for sharing and writing your experience after the fire this past year – you helped me to find my way through it, too”.

It is one of a few of these I have received, thanking me for writing about my journey and my feelings since May of last year, but these kind people have it all wrong. I am not the one who should be thanked.

It’s them.

My friends, today I am consumed not by thoughts of fire and fear, but of complete and profound gratitude. It’s the kind of gratitude that makes my eyes well up with tears and my head hurt a bit as I try to keep them from spilling over. It’s the kind of gratitude that humbles me in the deepest way, because I know my ability to navigate the past year has been due entirely to others.

It has taken me some time to admit that at various points over the last year – far too many, in fact – I felt overwhelmed. While my personal losses due to the fire were slight, the losses I saw that impacted friends, colleagues and this community hit me far harder than I anticipated.

And so I did what I do, and I wrote it out. The fear, the anger, the uncertainty, the lingering sense of being smoke damaged in every way; when I could I blurted it out onto a keyboard and then sent it into space with the click of the “publish” button.

Sharing my journey has been incredibly healing for me. If it has been of benefit to anyone else, then I am the one who is thankful, as then it means that I have been some small part of helping others to heal, too.

A long time ago I learned the power of words. I learned you can use words to hurt or to heal, to provoke rage or to inspire hope. I made a pledge to always be careful in the manner I used words, because I knew they carried power. I came to understand that words can be a sword used to fight wars, both just and unjust.

Today, as I reflect on gratitude and the power of words, I know the time has come for some long overdue words of thanks.

Thank you to the first responders; firefighters, RCMP, bylaw, sheriffs – You saved my city. I have no doubt of that, and my gratitude cannot be expressed in simple words. I hope it shows in my eyes whenever I see you, because I know it shines in my heart. When I walk the Birchwood Trails, just a block from my home, I think of you and how you fought for all of us. And I always will.

Thank you to the unsung heroes – The municipal workers who stayed behind, the REOC team, municipal government, the industry partners, the camps, the businesses, the essential service personnel; without all of you we would not have seen this community come back to life.

Thank you to “the helpers” – The Canadian Red Cross, the United Way and every single local social profit organization, their boards, their teams and their leaders; they have been absolutely critical and integral and I appreciate all they have done and will continue to do.

Thank you to those who helped me rescue two ferrets and a hedgehog – On that day in May I was forced to leave my caged pets behind, never for a moment believing I would end the day having to evacuate the city completely. My gang was rescued by bylaw, the SPCA and other volunteers, and while I was evacuated kind strangers kept them safe for me until I could reunite with them. My entire fur family and I are so grateful.

Thank you to my friends – You made me laugh, you made me smile, you made me remember that life is good and goes on and that there are people around me who make everything better. I love all of you – you are the family I was not born into, but was lucky enough to find.

Thank you to members of local media – You told the stories of our community with compassion, with understanding and with kindness. And many of you lived through the experience beside the rest of us; I am so very thankful for all you do, and to consider myself your colleague.

Thank you to my family – I have four sisters, along with their families. I love them dearly, as they know me well enough that over the past year they simply let me be, forgiving the lack of phone calls and emails as they allowed me to heal.

Thank you to my colleagues – You will never, ever know or understand how much being part of our team has meant to me this year. Through all the challenges, the tough moments and the good moments, the fun and the work, there we were: together, making a difference every day. And that meant everything.

Thank you to my daughter – You are the reason I do everything and anything. You give me the strength and courage to get up every day.

Thank you to the kindness of strangers – You offered me everything from gasoline and food to a place to stay, shoes to cat food. Your incredible kindness and generosity and simple purity of heart and sincerity will always, always humble me beyond words.

Thank you to this province and country – I have always been proud to be Canadian. I have never been prouder of this country and province than during the past year when I saw my fellow citizens reach out to us time and time again. Your support is how we got through any of this, and I know I am so very grateful for it.

Thank you to my fellow community members – You inspired me every single goddamn day. You got up and went to work or sifted through the ashes of your home or fought with your insurance company or drove your kids to school or went to a baseball practice. You lived, you shared, you just kept going. I am so honoured to simply be among you, let alone be one of you.

On May 5, 2016, I sat down in a hotel room in Edmonton and hammered out the very first real blog post on this website. I sat there, surrounded by three unsettled cats and one anxious dog, crying while I wrote. I had barely slept since the night of May 2, and I had not bothered to shower, dress, eat or think. I was living in terror of what was happening to my community, and I poured out the entire shaky story.

Just hours later, on one of those contact forms from this site, came an email from a stranger in Toronto. She told me I was a gorgeous writer – but more importantly she used the words that would get me through the past year:

You are a fucking Viking warrior.

I read her email once, and then again. I didn’t feel like a warrior, let alone a Viking. I felt hollow, and empty, and sad and afraid and uncertain.

I read her email a third time.

Then I huddled the animals in the hotel bathroom with me. I took a shower and washed off the smoke and the sweat and the tears, and when I emerged I picked up my sword that looks suspiciously like a keyboard and I began writing again.

And I haven’t stopped, and every single time over the past year when I felt like stopping anything – writing, working, thinking, feeling – I told myself I am a fucking Viking warrior.

And I picked up my sword, and continued the fight for myself, my community and our future.

And this warrior thanks you, every single one of you, for reading. It means more to me than you will ever, ever know.

Signed,

 From one Viking warrior to another.