It was 2003 when we lost our house in the Cedar Fire, what was the largest wildfire in California history. Over 2,000 homes were destroyed including ours, my mom's, my niece's, and two cousins' homes—we'd had the brilliant idea of living on the same road. Over 40 houses in just our little neighborhood were destroyed.
It was a harrowing experience. We weren't evacuated by authorities; there was no warning. We didn't even know there was a fire until we were awakened at three in the morning by my sister-in-law. We left our house within eight minutes, barefoot and in pajamas, with only a couple handfuls of photo albums. Two of my brothers and several cousins weren't able to get out. They dodged the fire, driving from one spot to the next, sometimes through flames in order to survive. They withstood exploding propane tanks and copious amounts of smoke, but all survived physically unscathed.
We were thankful for our lives since 15 people died in the fire, both to the north and south of us; one neighbor suffered severe burns. So, despite losing almost everything we owned, we felt lucky. My family had all shared a common experience and understood the devastation the others felt, but we couldn't rely on each other as was usual. We were all in the same boat and so had our own troubles to deal with. I couldn't count on my mom to babysit or my cousin to pick up my son from school when I was in a pinch or my twins were napping. We had always leaned on each other for these simple things, like picking up a gallon a milk, but I was suddenly on my own. Still, I realized that's what many without extended families do on a regular basis and though it was daunting, I felt lucky for that too.
All of our houses were a total loss. I had to replace everything we owned from our birth certificates to our toothbrushes to our kitchen table. I dealt with the insurance company, the contractors, the county permit office, and many other agencies while trying to replace my world and care for my three boys. We were exhausted. Sleep wasn't coming regularly (and wouldn't for years), I'd lost 30 pounds in the first few months from the stress, and my husband started his first year coaching varsity basketball a month after the fire so he was working 12-14 hours a day.
CHRISTMAS EVERY DAY
Parenting is tiring and troublesome in the best of circumstances. After the fire, it was debilitating and yet, it was what kept me going at the same time. One of my twins—two at the time of the fire—had just been diagnosed with autism two months earlier and I was also juggling his interventions and medical care. My energy levels were tapped beyond anything I could have imagined and yet, for my children, I kept getting out of bed in the morning, putting one foot in front of the other, and moving forward.
People from all over the country rallied to support Cedar Fire victims. We were the recipients of numerous gifts and donations—all greatly appreciated, but it was the generosity that finally made us snap. In a temporary rental house, my eldest, then five, came downstairs to another trove of toys delivered while they were asleep. "More toys!" he exclaimed, "It's like Christmas every day!" That sweet, appreciative statement made me realize I'd been shirking my parenting responsibilities. I just wanted to feel better and I wanted my kids to feel better too. I wanted to comfort them after losing their home and all their belongings, as did our generous donors, but as toddlers, I knew they were getting accustomed to people giving them things. They'd ask and it would show up. We realized their wounds would not be salved by things. We didn't want them thinking money could solve their woes, that some shiny new trinket would make it all better.
It wasn't easy. When your kids are small and they misbehave, the best course of action is to remain calm and physically return the toy they've stolen, take away the cookie they got on their own, or carry them to time-out. We had given up on all that because we were just too physically tired and emotionally drained. After our kids' twentieth Christmas morning in as many days, we forced ourselves to get back into gear. When people brought gifts, we thanked them profusely and hid them in the garage (we slowly brought them out one at a time for years afterward). We got up, both literally and figuratively, and became a physical presence in our kids' discipline and routines again. We cuddled in bed a little longer, read more stories, and made breakfast together. I knew all those things I'd lost and all those things I was replacing, weren't as important as my kids' health and well-being. I knew all the time I was devoting to county agencies, insurance companies, and contractors was necessary, but not nearly as important. It was still painful. I still cried myself to sleep many a night (when I could sleep at all) over something irreplaceable, like the wooden giraffe chair my dad had made for me as a child, but it was now my turn to give to my kids and their "things" were going to be special, not one more action figure, video game, or trinket.
The tragedies life throws your way are often mind-numbingly difficult to deal with and leave you debilitated. Your children, however, have one shot at this life and your actions can help or hinder them. It is sometimes difficult to put your children first in instances like these, but so very necessary. They don't need to be placated with toys or trips to Disneyland. They need consistency and stability and when their environment can't provide it, they need it from you. I was thankful for all those thoughtful people who wanted to help my kids feel better, not just because they spent their hard earned money to buy something for them, but because they taught me a lesson I couldn't have learned in any other way. I learned I was much stronger than I imagined when it came to my children. I could put them first and use them as my beacon. I could not only look to them for direction when life fogged my vision with fire, loss, autism, and any other misfortune to befall me, but lead them to come out better on the other end of life's adversities.
I'm now the proud mother of three teen-age boys who are empathetic, caring and devoted to family. They don't remember much of the fire, but the effects are lasting, they aren't materialistic or spoiled and truly appreciate everything given to them. I watch them now with gratitude that I was able to understand these things myself, on an incredibly deep and painful level, and pass them along to my kids.