The Woolsey fire in California, November of 2018. (Photo: U.S. Forest Service)

The Burning

Navigating grief amid disaster

TWO SHEEP PEERED OUT the window of a Tesla next to us, their woolly rumps bumping together each time the driver hit the gas. Cries rang out from the back seat of our truck, where my three children were stuffed into car seats—two with soggy diapers and all of them hungry. Not even the sheep could make them smile. The beach had practically been a petting zoo all morning, with horses and goats and llamas all carted down from the fiery canyons and tied up in makeshift corrals on the sand. My daughter was eleven weeks old, and each time a soft infant cry escaped her mouth, pinpricks of milk letting down from my breasts leaked through my black T-shirt.

Our truck crept along the Pacific Coast Highway, from bluffs high above the ocean all the way down to the water. I opened my window and held out my hand from the passenger side as tiny particles of ash floated through my fingers. My husband, Alex, was driving, and again and again we glanced sideways at each other, then into the rearview mirror. From inside that small rectangle, we watched the fire threaten to overtake us, then fade from view as we inched around another bend. I clenched my gut and held my breath. If we had to make a dash for the ocean from here, would we survive the leap? I pictured us making it, Alex buoying the boys above the tides as they struggled in their wet clothes, and me treading water with a baby strapped to my chest, only to be swallowed by the freezing Pacific or the ominous black cloud of smoke that was the reason we left the beach in the first place, taking our chances trying to outrun a wildfire at jogging speed. 

Nothing I packed made sense. Somehow, I thought we’d return home later that day. For some reason, we had Raisin Bran, even though none of us ate cereal, but no shoes for our two- and five-year-old boys; we had beach towels, but no extra underwear; I packed five thousand onesies with zippers for the baby; I had three sweaters despite the temperatures, but none of the lip balm I was used to applying maniacally every fifteen minutes. I was trudging through that early, debilitating stage of grief that made my thinking dark and muddled, made the most mundane activities feel monumental. I dreamed regularly of crashing my car or tumbling downstairs so I could go to the hospital and disappear into a land of caring nurses and painkillers; I didn’t want to die, but the load I was carrying suddenly seemed more than I could bear. Each day felt like I was swimming through honey with children in tow. It was never mud or quicksand or clay; I had three kids under five. It was honey. It was postpartum depression. It was heartache that left my full body aching like a raw nerve. After my mom died, it was a miracle each morning when I dropped our two boys at preschool and made it back home safely with the baby. Retracing a route I had traveled so many times when I was a woman with a mother now without one took an inordinate amount of resolve each day. My own duties as a mother kept my tires on the road. 

I was trudging through that early, debilitating stage of grief that made my thinking dark and muddled, made the most mundane activities feel monumental. 

That morning—the morning of the fire—was November 9, 2018. It had been exactly three months since the short and gruesome assault of brain cancer shut down my mom’s body for good. I was shoved onto the fast track of the full human experience when clumps of gray-brown hair fell on my shirt as I held her wilting body against mine for the last time, then boarded a plane back home to California where I birthed a baby, who arrived with warm supple skin and a healthy patch of black hair on her sweet-scented head. My mom was no longer alive when the impulse to call her struck. The doctors sent in a social worker when I lacked the elated emotions expected of a new mother. The woman said only one thing I can remember, and she said it again and again: Hold the joy with the pain. Just hold the joy with the pain

Three months in and there was still no joy. Only pain. Only honey. Night sweats and nightmares. I fell into an abyss of loss I was wholly unprepared to navigate—where harrowing tunnels and blinding lights spun me around and around and dropped me to a dungeon in my soul I never knew existed. No matter how much light my new baby or other children brought, I couldn’t see a way out. 

I wished I had grabbed my baby book before leaving. Most of the vehicles on the road were stuffed to the brim with clothing and bags and boxes I imagined to hold wedding albums and scrapbooks and precious family heirlooms. I thought of the yellow book with the padded cover where my mom had taped hospital bracelets and new baby photos, written the time I was born in her swirling sweeping cursive. Even as an adult, the sight of her handwriting on the birthday card that never failed to arrive in my mailbox a day early was enough to remind me I was tethered to the earth in some way, that I was mothered. 

I dont know how many more hours we sat on the highway. I fielded text messages from friends: 

Our house is gone.

I couldn’t find our cat.

We left with nothing. 

Some people we knew were holed up in hotels to the north. Others had gone to the airport. It was a time you went to family if you had it. Most of Alex’s was too far. What was left of mine was still reeling from my mother’s death. So, we inched on without a plan and finally the baby slept and we stared in silence out our windows at the other people on the road. I tried to imagine where they had come from, what they’d seen. Their faces were sullen and scared, shocked and weary. I felt the unexpected urge to reach across lanes of traffic and wrap my arms around them, or put my hand on my heart and give them a warm smile in solidarity. I’m here, I longed to say. I’m here in this underworld of grief, and you are not alone. 

Traffic relented just as my breasts demanded I take the baby out of her car seat and nurse. A photo posted to Twitter revealed our neighbor’s house, and the one next to it, up in flames. The canyon in the background was an ashy moonscape, with smoke still rising off the charred remains of a giant eucalyptus. The rope swing our boys used to sneak over and play on still hung from the squat tree in our neighbors’ front yard, but their house was now a pile of rubble scattered on the ground. A lone firefighter in a helmet and yellow overcoat stood nearby, hose trained on the bushy, overgrown pine that grew on our property line. I thought again of my baby book, my grandmother’s ring, and all the photos of our life sitting in my closet. My mom had hand-delivered these things to me the previous spring after following the pull to downsize her life. I thought of our neighbor who insisted on staying in his house and fighting the fire, and the single mom down the street who refused to leave the smoky beach with her son. 

As we approached Pepperdine University, all four lanes of the highway were opened to traffic heading south. For the first time in hours, our truck moved at a speed that had me believe we might actually make it out.

“Where should we go?” I asked Alex. 

He pressed his foot down on the gas, the baby stirred in my arms, and I thought how strange it was to cross over in an instant from fearing for our lives to wondering where we could stop and eat. Alex stared ahead at the road without reply.

Our children’s trampoline looked like a melted candle on the deck, and strewn around the yard were Halloween masks with liquified faces. Our yard’s many succulents were shriveled and black. Later we learned these ice plants prevented the fire from burning our house from underneath.

Our truck crossed over the border into Santa Monica, a world that—besides a barely visible scrim of smoke against the sky—was as it always was. Expensive SUVs honked at traffic lights, thin people with green juices sat in meditation on park benches next to unhoused folks, and young start-up types hustled down Wilshire Boulevard with takeout boxes for lunch. We merged onto the I-10 without speaking, and then Alex took the exit for the I-405. He called his cousin who lived in Sherman Oaks, and we showed up on her family’s doorstep twenty minutes later. 

They fed us homemade fish fingers and gave us warm blankets to sleep under. They asked us to turn off the news on the television because footage of the fire was disturbing the children. That night our whole family nestled in the guest room. Alex and I tucked the boys in sleeping bags on the floor, and snuggled tight as we read as many books as they requested. I put the baby next to me in the bed and held her soft cheek to my chest. 

When I woke in a sweat to the desperate cries of my mother in her final days, I was relieved to find myself in this room, with my family. I sat up and gazed into the light of my phone. A message came in from a neighbor, with a photo of our home standing strong. 

Two days later, Alex would illegally enter the wreck of our neighborhood to retrieve our most treasured possessions. I didn’t try to stop him when he walked out of our room in his big work boots, a back pocket stuffed with N95 masks. Spot fires were erupting everywhere in Malibu, and looting was on the rise. Together, we made a short list of things he would gather, and I told him to please be careful, please be careful. 

He sent photos from our ravaged street in Point Dume. I could see extensive damage to our home and the land around it, but it still stood. The once lush canyon our small house looked over was charred to ruin. I could no longer make out where the coyote dens had once been. Our children’s trampoline looked like a melted candle on the deck, and strewn around the yard were Halloween masks with liquified faces. Our yard’s many succulents were shriveled and black. Later we learned these ice plants prevented the fire from burning our house from underneath. Inside, ash coated our kitchen countertops and a trail of ants made their way over an abandoned plate of food.

Later, when Alex handed me the soft covered yellow book I’d been desperately waiting for, I turned the pages like I had so many times as a child, tucked beside my mom in our old recliner, asking her to read it again and again. Hold the joy with the pain—I heard the social worker’s voice in my mind as I traced my finger over the swirling, sweeping cursive that spelled out my name.  

Erin Joy Henry is at work on her first memoir. She recently moved to New England, where she lives thirty miles out to sea with her husband and three children.