I'm writing from my brother-in-law's couch in the more southern parts of Edmonton. I'm safe, my husband is safe, the cat is safe, our friends and their families are safe. There is a light rain outside, gray skies, a wind with autumnesque undertones - and my chest feels empty.
By now, I've recounted the story of how I left Fort McMurray numerous times to Swedish media, recalling the smells, the orange dim light enveloping the world and the calm and levelheadedness I experienced all the way to Greywolf Lodge, 80 km north of the city, where I subsequently broke down. During every interview, it has felt as if I'm speaking about someone else, regaling a country far far away with horror stories of fire and ash, retelling a scary story I read in a book. It hasn't felt real. It still doesn't. But it is.
"Following a natural disaster of this magnitude, it is normal for people to feel a wide range of intense emotions, reactions that usually come and go or may persist for a while."
The personnel at Greywolf were absolutely fantastic, dealing with thousands of evacuees arriving thirsty and scared. They kept us fed and watered, they worked tirelessly through the night to create an atmosphere that was calm and safe. All I could feel was a numb kind of panic. Being caught alone in between the vast nowhere of the north and the raging wildfire that has now been dubbed The Beast, I found it impossible to sleep. My only thought was to leave, to go south, to get out. Now.
I waited until early morning before I repacked the car, stuffed an affronted cat into his carrier and took off once more - only stopping at Syncrude to give Kyle a kiss and his toothbrush. The drive through town was surreal. Smoke enveloped everything, the streets were deserted, fires sputtered along the way. It looked apocalyptic, bathed in that odd orange light from the sun trying to shine through the smoke. I was one of the last cars to make it through before the highway was closed. Me and the cat were heading south.
Since then, reality has taken on a tilted quality. It’s off kilter, askew. Time ceased to function correctly. I spent a couple of days in Grasslands in a trailer on a farm, feverishly updating social media. I was surrounded by great friends, listening to them sing and sometimes crack jokes. At one point, I accidentally called the time at the farm ‘a vacation’. Laughter died quickly in my throat afterwards. We are all safe – but this is no vacation. I found myself speaking less, withdrawing. I still am.
On Friday, me and Michelle repacked the now extremely affronted cats into their respective carriers and pointed the compass further south. In Edmonton, I felt safer, being around Michelle kept me sane. The Beast seems to be ever growing, but distance helped, if only a bit. Kyle was still up there, tucked away at Syncrude and my heart remained in my throat – but the clench eased somewhat as news came in of friends being flown out or driving in convoys through a smoldering Fort McMurray. That they were safe. That night, we were determined to celebrate Michelle's birthday and reunite with the friends that had made it to Edmonton. By now, we were starving for a bit of normalcy.
I saw my friends walk into the restaurant and my heart crumbled, I cried. The relief and joy was indescribable. Later that night, Kyle flew in. It might be a few years before I let him out of my sight again.
The gratefulness I feel towards everyone who has reached out with kind words and offers to help is extreme. The humanity and love shown throughout this is astounding; people from all across Alberta, Canada and the world are opening their homes to evacuees, donating food and clothing and necessities by the truckload, volunteering their time to ensure that we are safe and fed, offering discounts and paying for hotel rooms, giving out hugs and encouragements. Last night the Buckingham on Whyte held a relief concert featuring 9 incredible bands with all proceeds going towards Fort McMurray. In Prince Albert, a Support the Fort art show is being held on May 18. More are happening all across the nation.
The compassion and generosity, more than anything, has had me in tears repeatedly. I can’t seem to help it. When the lovely man gave me a hot dog at the evacuation centre, I cried. When an anonymous woman from the Northwest Territories paid for our hotel room, I cried. When Michelle’s incredible relatives took me in and let me sleep at their farm in Grasslands, I cried. People's kindness has touched my heart.
Trust me when I say that the kindness and love is felt and greatly appreciated. But what I – and many with me – need the most right now is time. We need time to regain our bearings, time to settle, time to start breathing again. If we aren’t rushing to the help centres to collect things, it’s not because we don’t need or want them – but because many of us are still in shock and even in denial. Making plans for the future or even going about a daily routine is almost an emotional overload to many of us right now. The compassion and generosity is so heartwarming and incredibly beautiful, please give us time to process it all. Many are living in limbo, not even knowing whether their home and sometimes pets are still there. I am really, truly and incredibly grateful - I just need some space.
"Many people will feel jittery and anxious or disconnected and numb. It is normal for people to feel shocked and have a difficult time accepting the reality of what has happened.” - University of Alberta
I know our house is gone. It’s reduced to a little pile of debris and ash, the fire relentlessly consuming memories and photographs – taking with it that warm and pulsating sense of security a home can give you. I know that what went up in flames are material things – perhaps not irreplaceable and "only stuff" after all. Or so I thought. The loss of our home has struck me harder than I thought it would, it has left me feeling as if I have one foot firmly stuck in the ground while the other continues to move with great urgency. I’m dizzy. I’m numb. I’m very, very tired.
Our house was our home, a haven that we took care of and loved, molded around us and our lives. A place where we collected memories from all over the world, meaningful gifts, paintings and notes left when beginnings were made. It's where we had music and safety and dreams of the future. I also had an amazing bottle of red wine and a ginormous chocolate bar from Sweden waiting to be consumed. It bothers me that we won't be able to enjoy them. I will mourn and miss our home, no matter what the new one looks like.
Suddenly realizing that my wardrobe has now been reduced to a pair of floppy hippie pants and the shirt I wore to work on Tuesday, I went out with the determination of getting a couple of basics. In the store, I almost broke down. It was sad, scary and absolutely overwhelming. That such a simple task - buying a t-shirt and a pair of leggings - could feel so intense scared me. The same thing happened again when we went to the Relief Centre in downtown Edmonton to pick up some items to get us by; I almost had my first panic attack in many years - all from trying to choose a sweater.
It is more than losing articles of clothing or old books, it's about the loss of security, of normality. That your life can change so rapidly that all you manage to bring is an ukulele.
“People may feel fearful that they may break down or lose control, and they may feel intensely sad at what has happened.” - University of Alberta
The cat and I seem to be in very similar mindsets right now. He will come out and demand food and pets and play time - only to suddenly and without warning withdraw to a closet where he sleeps and peers out cautiously. I want food and laughter and everyone together all at once, only to feel an urgent need to be alone, to sleep, to curl up in a ball and not speak for a while. For now, it is okay not to be a buzzing ball of productivity.
"After the fire has been put out, many people will begin to feel relieved that the worst is over and they can begin the process of rebuilding their lives." - University of Alberta
All the while, the urgency and positive spirit shown by the evacuees is inspiring. There are already plans to rebuild like the United for Fort McMurray Campaign and positive messages being spread - such as the lovely writings of Chris Bowers. If you feel overwhelmed, distressed, depressed, please get in touch with someone to talk to. It's okay not to bounce right back, it's okay to ask for a hand to hold - it's okay not to feel okay.