Where’s the Sun?

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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.

8 thoughts on “Where’s the Sun?

  1. deborah oak

    My condolences, Anne.

    Thank you for this post. My father killed himself at winter solstice, many years back, and your post reminds me of the relentless that winter of the rain. Creeks and dams were overflowing and there was water, water, everywhere.

    This summer is different. I don’t remember one with as much fire. My sister was evacuated once from her home and last week her husband had to evacuate from his work. Santa Cruz is plagued with fires. I guess the whole state is…

    May the wheel turn and that which is inflamed be soothed. In the midst of the water, my father electrocuted himself. I find it so strange that yours died in water in the midst of fire.

    Again, my condolences. I love you.

  2. Inanna

    Dear Anne, I am so sorry to hear of your loss. I am also grateful to hear of your father’s long life and his swift passing. Blessings, condolences, and love.

  3. Pandora

    Hi, sweetie.

    much love to you — may you have good and loving and powerful grief, and may you and your family have joy in the midst of the grief. A deep loss.

    love, Pandora

  4. Donald Engstrom-Reese

    My condolences Anne.

    I wrote this poem this morning thinking about you and your father.

    When One’s Father Dies
    Donald L. Engstrom-Reese
    © June 28, 2008

    When one’s father dies,
    A line of possibility ends,
    A poem of relationship slips
    Into the Realms of Memory and the Dreamtime.

    When one’s father dies,
    The conversation ends,
    A dialogue of living words
    Transforms into the liminal languages of the newly dead.

    When one’s father dies,
    An unquenchable thirst fills the beating heart,
    An insatiable longing sticks in the torn throat,
    A liquid fire flows down tender flesh
    Pooling in the stills of bitter transmutation.

    After forty three years,
    I still forget that my father
    Can only talk to me
    In dreams or in the Ancestral Lands.

    There is not a single day that goes by
    That I do not miss him walking beside me,
    Living father and living son,
    Thriving flesh exploring the multiverse together.

  5. Chas Clifton

    Sorry to hear of your father’s passing. You will remember this summer as his funeral pyre, perhaps, and how you realized that you were becoming “the older generation.”

  6. Laura Mills

    I just found out today about your father’s passing. I’m so sorry and send my heartfelt condolences. I don’t know what to say or how to say it…I’m pleased that he was able to enjoy life fully until his day arrived. I would like to say “thank you” to him through you for all he did for me after my father passed. I wish you and your family a heart full of joyous memories to sustain you when you miss him most. I know that’s what works for me. Peace and love.

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