Thursday, January 29, 2009

One Year Ago

A year ago today at this time, I was wandering around in huge clouds of black smoke with my niece and her two little girls, carrying my dog, trying to stay in an open spot where the air was still breathable, and wondering if any of us would get out alive. Wondering if my brother-in-law, who had disappeared into the smoke as he tried to save his house, was still alive. Wondering if maybe, just maybe, the fire would miss the house, as it had appeared for a few minutes that it might. Wondering if there would be anything left.

Well, you know the answers. My niece and her girls are fine, my brother-in-law is okay and did save his house, thanks to the timely arrival of one volunteer firefighter and a little pumper truck, and the fire didn’t miss the house. We salvaged a few tools and a lone pulp, a 1936 issue of ARGOSY. Quite some time later, my daughters found a Norah Jones CD in the rubble, cleaned it up, and that sucker plays just fine. In a year’s time, we’ve gone from staying with my wife’s parents to living in a mobile home for nine months to living in our new house. The girls are fine and have good jobs, Livia and I are rolling along in our writing careers, and life is pretty much back to normal, thanks to the efforts of literally hundreds of people – friends, relatives, and total strangers – who have helped us.

Here’s a story I don’t think I’ve told before, but if I have, bear with me. The day after the fire, I was at the library using their computer to post the news of what had happened on this blog. I had told the librarians about it, and as I was leaving, a fellow who happened to be there in the library stopped me. He was probably in his seventies, wearing a cowboy hat, not very big but you could tell by looking at him that he was tough as whang leather, as the old saying goes. He told me that he’d heard me talking to the librarians and said, “I just want to shake your hand and tell you that ever’thing’s gonna be all right.” So I shook his hand and thanked him, and when he let go, there was a ten dollar bill folded up in a tiny square in my hand. I don’t know who he was and have never seen him again, but I’ll never forget that man. Or all the rest who have helped us get through this.

A couple of days after the fire I was talking to someone else who had lost his house the same way. He said, “You never really get over it. But you find ways to go on.” That’s true. I don’t think I’ve “gotten over it”. There are still the occasional dark nights of the soul when I feel like I should have done something to stop it. I still mourn the pets we lost and the things from the girls’ childhood and a million other things. Something comes up and I think, “Well, I’ve got so-and-so out in the studio”, and then realize that, nope, I don’t. The same thing happened when my folks passed away. It was a good three years before I stopped thinking from time to time that I was going to ask my dad about something or other. And just the other day some question came up about a relative of mine, and I thought about how my mother would know, and for a second, the impulse was there to call her up and ask her. Then there’s that abrupt stop, that instant when you realize, nope, can’t do it anymore. It’s the same way with the things that we lost a year ago today.

But the good thing is, there are a lot of days when that doesn’t happen. Most days, in fact. Most days are spent thinking about the chores we need to do, the doctor’s appointments coming up, the pages that need to get written (and boy, they really need to get written!), the books I want to read next. In other words, looking forward instead of looking back. So, in that spirit, this is probably the last blog post I’m going to write about the fire. Something might come up that would call for a mention on here, so I won’t rule it out, though.

A year’s time is an odd thing, a blink of an eye in one way, a lifetime in another. So again, thank you all for helping me make it through the past year.


pattinase (abbott) said...

I guess the saying, "what doesn't kill you, makes you stronger" applies here. But going through it makes your knees shake for an awful long time. I dread losing my mother which is about to happen, I'm afraid. Who will remember me as a child? Who will want to hear the things I tell her?

Vince said...

Beautiful post, James. Thank you.

Charles Gramlich said...

That last sentence really said it. A blink of the eye, or a lifetime. It's very easy, at least for me, to get sidetracked by thoughts of what I might have lost rather than looking forward. But looking ahead is what makes the time magical and happy.

Randy Johnson said...

Fine post. Looking forward is the best way. You never get completely forget the bad stuff, you just compartmentalize and add the good stuff that arrives.
You've given me many a pleasurable times reading your books and anything we did to ease your mess was deserved.
You just keep entertaining us all.

David Cranmer said...

My sentiments echo Randy Johnsons and I'm glad you were able to recover (if that's the right word) from this ordeal.

David Jack Bell said...

So glad to hear you're moving on, James. We need your stories!

Ad Libitum said...

Glad I found you--I was Googling James H Cobb (who has written a couple of great near-future naval stories) and came across your blog. I will be following it!

Ad Libitum said...

I discovered your blog Googling the author James H. Cobb. I'll be following your postings--Thanks,
Ad Libitum

Anonymous said...

My Grandfathers have been gone for over 20 years and 10 years, respectively. I still want to talk to them about certain things. I guess that never goes away.

This was a huge event in your life. It's only natural that you'd reflect on it and wonder "What if..."

My grandmother used to say, "All in a lifetime. Right?"

I think she was on to something.

Anonymous said...

When I was in college a fire brought out in the common room of my dorm (next door to my room, actually) causing us to evacuate in the early morning and live with just what we were wearing at the time til they let us back in the next day/ And only them to collect our things as we were assigned to other dorms when the floor was repaired. It left me with a morbid fear of house fires. When ever one of our neighbors lights up their fireplace I find myself prowling the house, to make sure that the smoke I smell isn't coming from inside. It's a scarring experience. I'm glad you've recovered so well this past year.

Juri said...

Earlier today when I was out with Kauto, my 4-year old son, I saw a dog and almost said to Kauto: "Look, there's Vincent", only realizing that I had thought he wasn't Vincent, the dog of our acquaintances who'd passed away over six months ago. He just looked the same.

Over 15 years ago, when I was at the university, I heard that a friend of mine had died, apparently committed a suicide. For months I kept seeing him in crowds, just waiting to be shouted at: "Hey there, wait for me!" But of course it never was him.

I guess the same applies for our relatives. We want to see them, hear them, even if we know they're dead.

The story of the total stranger is a beautiful one, James. You could write it into a short story.

Juri said...

Oops... the sentence that says:

only realizing that I had thought he wasn't Vincent,

should read as:

only realizing that he wasn't Vincent,

Cap'n Bob said...

It must take a special kind of courage to be able to go one after such a terrible experience, and to cope with the memories that slip unbidden into your mind from time to time. I'm glad you're able to stay busy and concentrate on the future.

Your post, by the way, was beautifully written.

kc heath said...

An amazing story... and no, you never get over stuff like that. My husband was burned in an industrial accident 25 years ago and still has the scars--physical & emotional.

I saw in our local paper last year where a young man went into a burning home to save his niece & nephew. Someone had nailed shut the back door due to high crime in the area, and all three burned to death.

When I was young, I worked in a burn unit at a hospital...that was in the 70s and I'll never forget the stories I heard while there.

Fire is a terrible thing. I'm so glad you & yours got out safely.