How to Not Mourn

Everyone who’s heard about the fire at our house has had the same reaction: “That’s terrible! You must be so sad! I’m so sorry! That’s awful!”

I tell them “I’m fine, really. It’s okay.” Everyone thinks I’m putting a brave face on things, but I promise you, I’m not.

Here’s a typical day at our house.

My husband wakes up before me and lets the dogs out into the yard. He makes himself a coffee with his obnoxiously expensive coffee maker that can be programmed to make anything he wants, and knows that he wants a double espresso in the morning and a decaf Americano in the afternoon.

I wake up, step into my slippers, put on my bathrobe, and wander out of my room. I kiss my husband and tell him how wonderful he is, and he hugs me and says “We have a really great life.”

I go into my office, but about twenty times a day, I come back to where he is, sometimes to talk, sometimes just to peek at him. When I’m in my office, I look out the windows at the birds mobbing the feeders. Sometimes, I go out on the deck and lay in the hammock and think “This is the best life.”

After dinner, my husband and I might snuggle up on the couch in the living room and watch something. Or we might go into the library and watch something in there, or maybe put on some music and drape ourselves over the furniture in the library and read. And every once in a while, we’ll look at each other and say “Our life is amazing.”

I sit in the library and look around myself and think about how much I love the room itself, and how all the books in it have meaning to me. I look at the art on the walls and think about how much I like it.

And before we fall asleep folded up in each other, my husband and I say “I couldn’t ask for anything more.”

From the outside, I’m sure it sounds just disgustingly saccharine and fake, but let me be crystal clear: I appreciated the life I had. Truly. Deeply.

I grew up with a lot of siblings and not a lot of money. The things I had were often hand-me downs, things I didn’t pick for myself. There were so many things I wanted that were out of reach, and so many experiences I wanted to have that seemed like they were for other people, not people like me.

The upshot is that when I had things, I loved them. I saw them. Every day. They were a reminder of all the good things in my life, and expressing that delight never got old. Expressing my happiness and love and joy never gets old.

When we lost our house, I was certainly sad that everything was gone. But I didn’t have the regret that comes from not recognizing or appreciating things until after they’re gone. On the other hand, the person who appreciated all that with me, the person who created that lovely life with me, the person who stands next to me and looks out at all we had built and agrees that this is the best life – that person is still here. He was the most important part of that life, and he’ll still be the most important part of whatever we build going forward.

With that on my side, how could I be sad?

I Want My Cigarettes

There’s a scene in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest where the men are sitting in their group circle talking, and Cheswick tells Nurse Rached he wants his cigarettes. Murphy tries to get one of the other men to give him a cigarette, and Cheswick gets angry, shouting that he doesn’t want anyone else’s cigarettes, he wants his cigarettes.

I’ve had a hard time going shopping. There are tons of things I need. New bras. New socks. New toothbrush. But every time I go into a store and see all the things I used to have, my mind just stops, and I stand looking at things like I’m hypnotized, which, in a way, I guess I am.

In addition, everyone has been beyond kind in offering things to us, especially our mothers, with whom we’re staying. It’s hard not to seem rude by refusing these very kind offers. I have two perfectly valid excuses: we don’t have the space to store anything, and there are plenty of things we won’t need until we have our own place anyway.

My husband and I went and visited the house, partly out of curiosity to see what might be left, and partly out of the need for pictures to prove to our insurance company the house is not salvageable. What we saw was like every apocalypse movie you’ve ever seen. Random bits of metal sticking out of drifts of ash, with occasional nonsensical, whole, undamaged things amid the carnage.

a pot, a pie server, a mug

Our 6-gallon stockpot, a 3-tiered pie stand, and an antique shaving mug belonging to the Pirate’s great-grandfather.

The stockpot was seldom used for food, and we got the pie stand out perhaps once a year. The shaving mug wasn’t technically whole, but it had been in the Pirate’s family forever and had an interesting history. I had no emotional attachment to these things, and am, at best, indifferent to their survival.

two and a half foot celtic cross made of metal

The Celtic cross from the front gate of our garden – the thing I saw as I came down the driveway, and as I went inside the house from the garage.

This Celtic cross was a newer addition to our house, but one that gave me a lot of joy. We’d gotten it at the Highland Games four or five years ago, and affixed it to our front gate, where the wisteria slowly surrounded and framed it. Every time I looked at it, its beauty struck me. This is the one and only thing whose survival touches me.

I went today to replace my Doc Martens. I wanted the exact pair of sandals I’d had, because I loved them and thought they looked great, but the store didn’t have them in my size. And then I realized that I didn’t want a replacement for the things I had.

I didn’t expect shopping to be this hard. I tried to go by myself once, and ended up having to call the Pirate for emotional support from the middle of Costco. I can be upbeat and optimistic about constructing a new house, but now I know that replacing the things in it will be a very different story.

Because I don’t want your things, or their things, or new things. I want my things.

Material Ghosts

Sometimes, the logical links along a chain of thought aren’t clear, and one needs to be walked from one thought to the next to make sense of it.

Like why being cold made me cry last night.

It was hot when we evacuated* our house. I took tank tops, low-top sneakers, no-show socks. I took one sweater, but it’s more like a cloak that hangs down past my knees and has huge, floppy sleeves. Great for going around town, less great for trying to get work done at my desk.

Now that we’re in San Francisco, my warm-weather gear has been useful for only two of the 19 days we’ve been here. Last night, even though I was wearing sweatpants, a t-shirt, and a sweater, I couldn’t stop shivering. I got online to check on the delivery status of a coat I had ordered, and while I was online, I checked to see if the red shrug I had from Universal Standard  was still available.

The red shrug sweater, and some other clothes I no longer own.

Of course it wasn’t. It was perfect – a high neckline, long sleeves, the perfect weight. Comfortable and striking looking. And no longer for sale. I went to other sites where I’ve bought clothes and looked at their current offerings. None of them were as attractive, practical, or cool as what I’ve lost. I’ll never get back my 25 year old butter yellow silk frock coat. I’ll never get back the long, single-breasted glen plaid wool coat with a rose pattern that had been made to my design. My beautifully warm, yet light, oversize gray sweater. My overalls with the zipper sides instead of buttons. My favorite socks. My warm beanie that said “sláinte” on it.

When one is sad and tired and raw and bereft, being surrounded with the familiar can be comforting and soothing. But the familiar is gone, and I’ll never have it back.


* I keep typing “left,” but I don’t like how it makes it sound like we walked out of our own accord because we felt like it. Leaving at least has the strength of choice behind it. Being evacuated is a circumstance imposed upon us.

The Popularity of Tragedy

We’ve all seen it. A beloved celebrity dies, and people who have never once mentioned that celebrity’s name, let alone their work, is utterly distraught and demands comfort. Someone at school dies and people who had never known the kid’s name, let alone said as much as “hello,” are front and center with their disconsolate weeping. Disaster strikes, and people who were not only not affected, but who didn’t even know anyone who might have been affected need to insert themselves into the event. People are fascinated by tragedy, and there is something about being close enough to touch it that seems irresistible to people.

When we were evacuated, close friends and family called and texted. It was lovely to know that people were thinking of us, but this was in the first couple of days after we’d left our house, and before we knew whether we still had a house (spoiler: we didn’t), I didn’t know what to say. I was overwhelmed by the need to give them clarity I didn’t have. I stopped answering the phone.

Next came people at a bit of a remove from me. People I knew, but with whom I’m not especially close. They expressed support, they said very kind things, they made offers of staggering generosity. Nearly everyone wanted to know if we needed anything, but with our very most basic needs (shelter for us and our four dogs, food, money to purchase necessities) already met, I didn’t have the least idea what else I needed. People came forward with fabulously helpful resources – the name of a public adjustor firm, a recommendation for a builder. These things were solidly helpful, and not resources that everyone would necessarily know about (I’d never heard of a public adjustor prior to needing one, so why would anyone else?), so I was utterly grateful for the information, but still warmed by the other offers.

Next came people I didn’t really know. This was the weird bit. We’ve heard from the daughter of our real estate agent (a woman I’ve only met a couple of times) who now lives in New Mexico. We got a very surprising and incredibly sweet call from a woman whose father had built the house we lost. She grew up in it, so the loss felt very personal to her. She offered to come and help us clean up, and I suspect that her offer was motivated by a desire to walk the property and see what was left of her childhood home, but that didn’t make it any less touching to me.

But now we’re coming to the last group, which makes an interesting coda to those first days after we evacuated. Now I’m starting to see Facebook posts by people who used to know people who used to live in the area, people who vacationed here once and remembered it fondly, people who used to live in another town that caught fire but not when they lived there. These folks are expressing trauma and grief of their own, not even on behalf of people who’ve actually been affected.

As in the first days after our evacuation, I don’t know how to process the feelings of someone who is claiming the same trauma I have. Honestly, I don’t really think I have to do anything, but there is a part of me that’s a little angry that there are people demanding comfort and sympathy that I’m uncomfortable receiving.

I have gone shopping for necessities nearly every day since we got here, and not once have I told a store clerk “I’m buying new sneakers because my house burned down.” “I’m buying dog dishes, toys, and food because my house burned down.” “I’m buying storage boxes and a new hairbrush because my house burned down.” It seems manipulative to me to put that information out there, not because it’s at all relevant to our interaction, not because it’s a way of making small talk, but because I’m expecting to receive something for it – comfort, sympathy, a fat discount.

It makes me wonder what the people who need to feel a part of trauma they haven’t experienced are looking for, and whether maybe I should start looking for that thing, too.