I live in one of the few places in Sonoma County where there is a shred of freshness in the air today. The wind is blowing fierce, the sky is like a milky soup with streaks of rust from all the fires burning, but at least here the smoke mingles with a layer of fog sitting just off the coast, and it is possible to see small patches of almost-blue in the sky, to the west. They are faint as phantoms, and if you focus hard they disappear, but even the hint of a clear sky helps restore sanity.
A few days ago I joined a California disasters email group, where it is possible to get hourly updates on all fires and other critical conditions in the state as they unfold. The traffic is so heavy on the list that I opted for the digest version; even then I have been getting two or three email digests per day. I scanned the messages once but couldn’t bring myself to read them. I was safe; the fires were striking other places; that was all I really needed to know right then.
I spoke with a good friend in Willits today, who said that the air was so thick with smoke it was impossible to even take a walk without feeling sick. He was in Santa Cruz over the weekend, and standing on a bluff looking south toward Big Sur he could see the enormous black thunderheads come in off the ocean, striking dry lightning across the landscape. And from every lightning strike there soon rose a column of smoke. Literally hundreds of fires were set this way over the weekend, some of which are being left to burn as firefighters concentrate on the most threatening ones first.
I went to Oakland this Saturday, the morning that my father collapsed at the pool and died. As I sat with my sister and my mother, who was still in shock, I noticed the air getting hazier outside. I had to do something, in between calling people, reminding ourselves of other people to call, waiting for the coroner’s report, and answering calls from those who had heard the news.
So I checked my email on his computer, the new one I helped him buy and that he never fully mastered. He was frustrated by the tremor in his hands; no matter how I adjusted the keyboard sensitivity he always ended up pressing the wrong keys and his letters to friends ended up looking like a scrabble game.
I had been planning to spend time with him this coming weekend, maybe all of Monday morning, helping with his latest email woes and teaching him again how to use his scanner. Instead I cleaned up his desktop, deleted all his junk email, and started sending notices to his friends and colleagues. I re-set the keyboard to how I like it, and then, unable to begin writing his obituary, I started reading about all the fires.
My mom and I went outside for a while, I forget why, and the air had gotten palpably thicker. I was on the verge of pointing it out to her, but then thought the better of it. There are some moments of personal crisis which are made transcendent by knowledge of simultaneous collective “disturbances in the Force.” This would not be one of them. For her, at 74 losing her mate of almost 50 years, a reminder that the hills were a blazing inferno would be in no way comforting.
So I kept the news to myself as I read the laundry lists of fires, each identified by acronym, with details of how many acres were affected, what percentage was contained, and which neighborhoods were being evacuated. I wrapped myself in quilts of town names, roads closed, and evacuation centers opened. I tried reading other things, but somehow the short, declarative statements of the fire reports were all I could absorb.
For years I tried to get my father to write about his life, but he always resisted. Maybe I was really talking to myself all those years, because now when I try to remember the stories he told me, I find that I can only think of the ones I wrote down. I wrote about one memorable lunch here, and our most recent lunch here. It turns out that was the last time I ever saw him alive. We spoke on the phone twice after that, but were due for another visit which now will never happen—at least, not on this side of the veil.
There are tragedies, and then there are tragedies. My father died on the Summer Solstice. He was 81 years old, had led a full life, and left swiftly while surrounded by friends, doing what he loved. If there must be a sacrifice at the sun’s zenith, let it be this. I will miss him terribly—I do already—but I can’t begrudge him a quick death before his growing infirmities robbed him of joy.
The sky now at sunset is tinged red all around. There is no escape from the smoke, and the black thunderclouds are riding across the Valley, slowly advancing on the tinder-dry Sierras. We are being hit hard this fire season, even those of us not in the path of the flames. Tomorrow I will view my father’s body. Monday I will speak at his memorial. In between, there are countless tasks and trials. The wind outside is cold and damp, acrid, and stings the eyes. It also carries the faint whisper of freedom.