A fine mist and a hint of sun. After several days of heavy rain, the day is beginning to clear. My son, Jake, decides to take my granddaughters to the community park. I help five-year-old, Marie, pull up her fleece leggings and zip her into a dark-blue sweatshirt, the one with the large, round sequins. Marie hates shoes, but I eventually slip on her silver tennies with the promise of ice cream. We walk to the car. Our feet sink deep into soggy pine needles.
As I set Marie into her car seat she says, “Pony,” in a wistful, drawn-out sigh. Her voice rises, and she cries, “Pony, pony, pony!” Marie points under the driver’s seat. I look where she points but see only a tiny plastic paddle.
“I’ll get it,” I say. I reach under the seat for the paddle and hand it to Marie. Her eyes brim with tears. She grasps the paddle tightly, folds herself in and rocks back and forth.
Marie is autistic and speaks in short phrases. “Pony gone,” she says.
“Yes, pony is gone.”
She looks at me for reassurance. “Fire gone?” she asks.
“Yes, fire is gone.”
It’s been three months since the Camp Fire in Paradise, California, forced Jake and his entire family, including my sweet Marie, to evacuate. There wasn’t time to think about what to take or what to leave behind. Marie and her sister, Annie, grabbed a few toys and were quickly loaded into the car. Strong winds made the fire erratic, and a few neighboring homes were already engulfed in flames.
Jake’s family was gridlocked as the entire town tried to flee the inferno. Marie and Annie, draped in sopping-wet blankets to block the heat, were steamed by the suffocating swelter. Smoke and sparks whirled around them as their car crawled through the conflagration. They zigzagged around burnt-out cars blocking the road. Those who had abandoned their vehicles ran on foot, some with babies in their arms. The typical thirty-minute drive to Chico, where they were headed, took over three hours.
The firestorm raged through Paradise for seventeen days. Marie lost her belongings, her home, the park we played in, the school she attended. But Marie’s memories are in the moment. “Fire gone?” she repeats.
I close my eyes, press my fingers into the ache under my ribs. We’ve had this conversation before, and the sting bites each time. I hug Marie gently. When I speak, my words are worn and weak. “Yes, the fire is gone.” In Paradise, Marie attended a school for autistic children, where she thrived. Now, without a home and her school routine, Marie is regressing. She’s wearing diapers again, she wants her bottle, and she rarely sleeps.
A sudden sadness overwhelms me.
I’m exhausted by so much gone.
It will be days before I can connect the paddle to the pony and to my granddaughter’s grief. Annie will tell me about Pinkie Pie Pony and the Row and Ride Swan Boat. “The boat played music when she pushed it, and Pinkie Pie Pony rowed the boat.”
I can see the before picture: Marie pushing her little boat around the large living room floor of her family home. And the after: five moves to five different places since her home was leveled to ash.
The fire is gone, but the embers still flare.
STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/Cal OES