I wasn’t always tired or ill. For sixty years, I led a furious-fast-paced life and knew, with certainty, that there was something wrong with other people. Why did they move so damn slow? What I hated most were the high school hallways where I had taught English classes. Anytime students spilled into the halls, there were traffic jams. Some students shuffled sluggishly, tucked into their sweatshirt hoods, while others stopped smack in the center of the hall to chat with friends, completely oblivious to others (me) who tried to pass them. And this was a school with a population of two hundred. Light traffic compared to city schools.
I was often shocked at how little work others completed in a day. Work ten hours? No problem for me. Stop for groceries after work, go to a two-hour practice with my women’s drum group, walk the dogs, cook dinner, clean up, grade essays. I’d cram it all in. And if someone in my family needed help, I’d up my frantic spin to meet their needs.
Until I couldn’t.
After six months in bed and a long hiatus from work, I was diagnosed with Epstein Barr, and worse, I had lost my vibrant mania, lost the lightning-fast creature whom friends had nicknamed Taz, a reference to the Tasmanian Devil in the Looney Tunes cartoons. Although thoughts and images still flashed in swift succession in my mind and I retained my rapid speech, my tornado powers had vanished. Occasionally, I could muster up a small dust devil and hold onto the illusion: mental toughness, perseverance, and fierce loyalty were my superpowers.
Life in the Maybe
One day, new symptoms emerged: left-side abdominal pain, low blood sugar, spurts of high blood pressure, dizziness. My husband, Lloyd, drove me to the nearest hospital, a forty-five-minute ride down long, winding roads. We made it to the emergency room, where I was admitted to the hospital for an overnight stay for CT scans and lab work. For Lloyd and me, the drive to the emergency room was déjà vu. We had made the same trip a year earlier when I showed similar symptoms. That visit resulted in a four-day hospital stay due to a mini-stroke. The memory heightened my anxiety. Lloyd tried to reassure me with words. “Take a deep breath. We’re almost there,” he said. Lloyd focused on the drive, but there was tension in his body and voice.
The test results came back as a host of maybes. Once I was released from the hospital, my doctor, Tammy, ordered more tests. As I waited for the results, I tried to create some type of routine, but I had lost my drive. Brain fog kept me from writing; fatigue kept me hidden in the house. Pain, like liquid fire, burned through my muscles and joints, confined me to bed.
When my test results finally arrived, I went to see Tammy. She walked into the room dressed as a fairy. A fluttery, lime-green tutu flared over dark-green tights. Sparkling whimsical wings were attached to her back. A Robin Hood woodsman’s cap made her look taller than her six-foot frame. Tammy’s festive Halloween outfit conflicted with her businesslike manner. After three months, three CT scans, and an MRI, the results were hardly encouraging.
“You have an adrenal tumor with mottled enhancement. The findings aren’t typical of a benign tumor, and this is worrisome for possible malignancy. Don’t get worried by the maybes or all the dire information on the Internet,” Tammy advised. “We’ll order a biopsy to determine definite results.”
But I’d already pored over the dire information on internet sites for words like adrenal tumor, malignancy, and cancer. Something in the grim possibilities pacified me. Anything was better than the unknown.
Hope from the 1960s
My maybe diagnosis was hard on my adult children. My sons, Jess and Jake, called more frequently, but both had difficulty articulating emotion. My daughter Karen’s fears were more evident. I could hear the worry in her silent response to my updates on the possible cancer. We needed a distraction, and Karen had the perfect antidote—tickets to see Joan Baez in a small theater at Chico State University. Joan’s ballads of peaceful activism, social justice, and hope offered much-needed light. The concert was scheduled for November 2nd. That afternoon, I drove north to Chico for the concert and an overnight stay with Karen. I had dressed up: flowered bell-bottoms, brown shirt, sandals, and my signature makeup-free face and long frizzy hair. Karen was in sweats when I arrived, but in ten minutes, she looked tastefully sassy in her brightly colored Frida Kahlo T-shirt, an olive-green corduroy jacket, and jeans. Karen looked great in anything.
The night was warm. Star-shaped lights were strung across the brick patio in front of the auditorium. In no time, we were following an usher to our seats, just six rows from the stage. Joan came out with her acoustic guitar, dressed in jeans, boots, and a dark shirt. Her gray hair was cut short. At seventy-seven, she was still hippie cool.
Joan sang songs I used to play and sing for my children: “Baby Blue,” “Forever Young,” “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “Diamonds and Rust.” As Joan sang, Karen rested her head on my shoulder, held my hand. After the concert, Karen told me how she had felt like a child again. Joan’s clear, strong voice had transported Karen and me to another time where youth, love, and song could change the world. We were ecstatic. Optimistic.
Critical Fire Weather
After the concert, I drove home to our mountain cabin in the Sierra Foothills to wait for the biopsy. We also waited for rain, but the sun blazed hot in a crisp blue sky. Dry pine needles littered the ground. Not a drop of rain since spring. Spot fires had hopped around our mountain cabin all summer. A few months earlier, our neighbor’s house had burned down. The memory of shooting flames and intense heat set me on edge. The occasional sound of planes or helicopters overhead brought teeth-grinding, heart-pumping panic. Lloyd raked leaves, cleaned the gutters, the roof.
The Pacific, Gas & Electric company (PG&E) sent out calls. Critical fire weather. Our power could be turned off in the coming days due to dry conditions and strong winds. That evening, Lloyd readied the camper in case we needed the propane-fueled stove and refrigerator. I set out battery lamps. We were prepared, but the power shutoff was never activated.
November 8, 2018. I was awakened by ringing, stumbled to the living room, picked up the phone.
“I just want you to know we’re OK. We’re on our way to Chico.” Jess was on the line, and “we” most likely included Jake.
“What do you mean?” I said, blurry-brained and confused. Jess told me there was a fire in Paradise; they were told to evacuate. “I’ll call you when we get to Chico,” he said.
Jess hung up, and I set down the phone, dazed. I fumbled around the room, searched for my iPad, found it, then checked the local news. At first, it seemed routine: “8:04 am. EVACUATION ORDER: Due to a fire in the area, an evacuation order has been issued for all of Pentz Road in Paradise East to Highway 70.” My sons lived on a small dead-end road off Pentz.
I read how the one-thousand-acre fire had exploded to five thousand acres. An hour had passed. Chico was a quick twenty-minute drive from Paradise. I sat on the couch in my tattered flannels, stunned and shaken. My ponytail a mess of tangle. I was a fidgety, fist-clenching basket case. I jumped when Jake called from Barnes and Noble.
“We made it to Chico,” he said. Jake told me his ex, Heidi, and my granddaughters, who also lived in Paradise, were on their way to Chico, too.
“The fire is moving fast,” I said. “You’d better get a motel room as soon as possible.”
Now I was frantic. My hands gripped the iPad as I read with horror the news of the growing mass of flames. By 10:00 a.m., travel out of Paradise had become dangerous. Heavy smoke and fire chased vehicles as the entire community fled. The news became more heart-wrenching by the hour: people were trapped in vehicles; others ran on foot clutching animals and babies. My granddaughters, ages five and eight, were on that road. Later, Heidi told me, “Heat melted the plastic parts on my car. The fire engulfed both sides of the road, and the air inside the car was suffocating.” They made it out, but fears trailed like smoke.
Too Much Missing
It wasn’t long before we found out the inevitable. Jess and Jake had lost their home, so they came to stay with my husband and me. My granddaughters, Annie and Marie, and their mother had lost their home as well. Since there was no longer a school, my granddaughters stayed with us a few days a week to relieve the stress of living in motels.
Eight-year-old Annie ran through our combo living room-dining room. Our black-and-white pit bull mutt, Jackson, scratched Annie’s leg as she flew by. She burst into tears. I held Annie in my arms. We sat on the couch together as she gulped in sobs. The scratch was tiny, barely visible, but it was the excuse Annie needed to release the sadness of her loss.
“I miss my pony collection,” she said, referring to her My Little Pony toys. “I miss Rainbow Dash and Twilight Sparkle.” Her favorites.
“We’ll get new ones,” I said. Useless words. Too much loss: her tiny grocery store toy collection of Shopkins, her Monster High dolls, her cherished blanket.
I held Annie, let her cry till she slipped into sleep.
Karen, too, had to make adjustments because of the fire. She was a teacher in Oroville, in the same district as Paradise. School was canceled the day of the fire. She left work and traveled towards Chico, usually a thirty-minute drive. Black smoke had settled into the valley, making even the daytime dark. As the flames blasted west towards the highway, a long detour and traffic extended Karen’s commute to a grueling three-and-a-half-hour ride. When Karen pulled into her driveway, her father, my ex-husband, Craig, sat waiting on a bench on her front porch. He wore his Army Special Forces cap, a T-shirt, and faded jeans. Next to him were his two dogs, a white Chihuahua, and a new Lab puppy. These would be the only possessions he saved from the fire. He had nowhere else to go, so Karen welcomed him into her home.
The summer before the fire, Karen had learned she could not have children. There was now emptiness instead of babies. Mothering was Karen’s MO. She had worked with children since she was a young teen as a volunteer for The Boys and Girls Club. She worked as a teaching assistant in college and had been a teacher for over a decade.
One day, Karen and I were on a walk. We stopped on a hilltop, watched as the sun fell between the trees below.
“I have to let this go,” Karen told me. This was two years of trying to get pregnant. “The monthly disappointment is too much.”
I wrapped my arms around Karen as her shoulders shook with sadness. I had no words of comfort. For months, Karen had been working through the stages of grief, but the fire had hindered her progress.
She put her focus on her dad. Craig didn’t make much money on social security, so Karen paid to get his car fixed. Later, she took him to the Veteran’s Center to sign up for services. When FEMA arrived, she was the first to sign up via email. She drove her father to look for places to stay— motel rooms, old migrant-worker barracks, and trailer parks. For the first two weeks after the fire, Karen gave her dad all the energy she could muster. Like the rest of us, she was exhausted.
Some days later, Karen told me over the phone, “I have to go back to work, and I need some time to take care of myself before I return.” She felt guilty, like she was abandoning her dad during his loss and grief. Who would protect him? Karen told me she had talked to a counselor, and with help, she was able to confront her dad. “I told him he could do this on his own.”
Karen didn’t really leave Craig alone. With monetary help from her aunts, Craig’s sisters, Karen bought Craig a trailer and helped him move in. It wasn’t much, but it was a start.
My home filled with family. They were a welcomed distraction from my maybe cancer. I could focus on the tangible. We drove to the Disaster Center in Chico. The center was inside an old Sears building, recently cleaned, and the scent of antiseptic lingered. Tall ceilings and vast floors made talking difficult; voices echoed from every direction. Services were set up at long tables. One side of the building was for FEMA: staff stood ready to help individuals sign up for housing or reimbursement for contents lost in their homes. Another side of the building had tables for postal services, the DMV, unemployment assistance. People gathered around large boxes of donations placed throughout the store: blankets, sheets, coats, shoes, and pantry foods were handed out freely. Addresses and DMV records were changed. We collected donations of toothbrushes, razors, socks, and soaps.
Later, there was shopping to be done. An activity I typically found grueling now got me out of bed. There were clothes to buy. Plastic tubs for storage. Toys for the girls. Shopping was my new one-day-a-week profession, something I could commit to even in my weakened state. I still believed the false narrative: somehow, I could smooth the road ahead.
December 11. One month after the Camp Fire. I drove to Paradise with Jess. The ride up the ridge was bittersweet. The valley fog opened to blue skies and expansive landscapes. The morning sun gave the hillsides a soft orange glow, and the world looked spring-clean as bright green grasses rose out of the blackened soil. Shades of brown, rust, and tan covered the land. The scorched earth produced a pleasant aroma: a sweet, after-the-rain-campfire scent.
As we ascended, the scenery changed. Utility workers cleared fallen trees and charred brush. Burnt-out cars littered the roadside. Houses had vanished. In their place were thick layers of ash, melted glass, twisted wire, a chimney. We turned onto the street where the boys’ house once stood but were disoriented. We had to get out of the car to hunt for the stone driveway. The two-story, A-frame house had shifted into a stretch of ghostly-gray soot. The patch of powdered remains looked small surrounded by the wide-open space. I felt sadness for the loss of the house, but the destruction of irreplaceable items was harder to grasp. Jess and Jake were artists. Their paintings, drawings, and sculptures were gone.
“Maybe we’ll find something if we dig up the soot,” I said.
Jess and I shoveled through the ash, found bits of pottery, but when cradled in our hands, the clay crumbled to dust.
“Look what I found,” Jess said, holding up a small wire dragonfly. His only treasure.
Later, I looked at photos of that day. Jess stands, gazing at the rubble. He wears a green sweatshirt; a gray beanie covers his short brown hair. His shoulders slump. He’s holding the cardboard box we had hoped to fill with items spared in the fire. The box is empty.
Anxiety pressed on my chest. I put the photos away, pushed my thumbs into my temples, hoping to relieve the throbbing in my head. I wondered how much more I could endure.
The long days were taking their toll: my energy waned. I started spending more mornings in bed. I didn’t have the stamina to make coffee, and if I got up, I would have to put the kettle on. Then, I would have to feed the dog, or make the bed. Instead, I fluffed my pillows, picked up my iPad from the bedside, and read or wrote. Lloyd fed the dog and stoked the stove, and the world didn’t fall apart.
Before my illness, I was the tenacious warrior, capable and strong, determined to sacrifice self to save others. What a stupid delusion. I decided to desert my post.