Day 10: When it Hit Me (Part 2)

Tuesday, the morning after the Thomas Fire Mudslide I’m writing the word mudslide and thinking what a euphemism that is. The slide. The mudslide. The debris flow (floe?)

No. Imagine your town, only built up the side of the foothills of a beautiful mountain. Now imagine that mountain kind of folding over onto itself, with all the houses and trees and stuff from the top part folding down onto the lower part, gaining momentum, snowballing down, tsunami like, a sheet of mud, houses, parts of houses, boulders, trees, power lines, gas lines, wrecked cars, and of course, people, bodies, tumbling down within seconds in a white-water rapids kind of flow only dark brown mud that sucks people from their homes as it passes.

Calling what happened here a mudslide is like calling what happened in New York on 9/11 a building collapse, technically correct but in no way capturing the wreckage on every level.

So. So I’m at pizza at about 11:30am the morning after the slide with about half a dozen kindergarteners who live just above the part of the hill that came down, or like me, to the side of where the creek beds overflowed. It’s stopped raining. It’s sunny. And we are all pretty clueless.

For example, we don’t know that we’ve lost one of our own, our dear Team K member Pasta, along with another schoolmate, some parents, grandparents. We don’t know that so many of our community, our parents and kids, will have stories of being rescued, pulled from the mud, after long stretches of time thinking they would not survive, that will trickle up from the “we’re fine,” habitual responses over the coming days.

We’re fine, this happened. We’re fine, voice cracking, eyes welling. We’re fine, rushing off to four hour line at the post office wearing the same clothes as yesterday, and the day before. Trying to re-humanize.

And it’s not Hawaii here. It’s cold. It’s especially cold in the middle of the night when you are neck deep, chin deep in mud waiting, hoping for a helicopter to see you, stuck below the tree boughs, in the dark. Or a tank-like thing to come through, young men, and they are mostly young men on the tanks, joking to my mud-covered girlfriend that didn’t she think they were the handsomest rescue team in town? Giving her that as her story to share. Not the story she told me. Now my eyes welling, thinking about her real story, the one she’s not smiling about at gatherings, maybe not ever.

I told her, “I actually really benefitted from talking to the counselors at Ax’s school and that center is open to all residents. Just, you know. They have granola bars.”

“Oh no, I’m fine, I’m really fine.” She said, red-eyed.

So, we’re at the pizza parlor across from the jumping zone, about fifteen minutes north of ground zero. Some parents and kids from our, I wouldn’t call it rival, but it’s the only other public elementary school in town, and we think we’re pretty different from them since our school is maybe two miles away, further up the hill, and has a much more earthy vibe.

But we all kinda know each other or at least recognize each other, because our kids do soccer and preschool and Halloween parties and summer camp and all kinds of stuff together. We see them at the coffee shop and the grocery store. It’s a small town. So this posse from the school closer to mudslide ground zero comes in and they are grey-faced. Their kids are hot for the video games and pizza but the parents are zombified, in a different way from the usual parent zombie way. And they start talking to us.

I say hi to one guy, a kind of usually silent manly type whose son does karate with Ax. They lost their home. The family is safe. He is smiling in a weird, resigned, “What can you say?” way. I give him a hug, this stranger, and let him check on his son who is playing a racecar simulation game with five other kids, including Ax, over by the salad bar.

And then I get scared, and I move away from the group, now maybe fifteen parents, all chattering in various stages of grief and panic and gossip and skepticism and lurid detail-mongering. And I call Mike, who’s still learning to clear plates from the table consistently, but is rather phenomenal in an actual disaster. Which I thought was quirky and like, “ok whatever 9-1-1 guy,” when we got married twelve years ago and now it’s like, holy moly thank Godfrey. Thank you, Mike.

So I call Mike and he’s in some meeting or galactically critical conference out of town and he steps out and I don’t remember what I said. Something like, “Uh, uh, uh, Tell. Me. What. To. Do?” I’m coughing phlegm uncontrollably and having 9/11 flashbacks and kinda sweating kinda shivering, got my I-phone plugged into the pizza parlor wall for charging. Still no power at home, my neighbor texts me. Ax is begging me for quarters while I try to hear through those headsets I should have replaced.

I hear Mike say, “Go buy as much water as you can handle. Fill your car. Then go home. You are safe at home. You don’t have to unload all of it.” So I left Ax with the other moms, grabbed one other mom who was maybe gonna fall apart right there in front of all the kids and I took her by the arm and dragged her out into the parking lot. I looked her in the eye with her two kids in the pizza parlor eating pizza and I said, sternly, “We’re getting water. Come with me.”

She said, “But what is going on? What if I can’t get back in my home? Where is Elaine? We haven’t heard from Elaine! Have you heard from Elaine?” Elaine was on the text string, but hasn’t said anything since Monday afternoon. I said, “And I don’t know anything but I know Mike knows what to do. Mike told me to get water. Let’s go. I need you to come with me.”

And we walked across the parking lot to the unfamiliar supermarket in that mini mall, standing like a oasis. We each got a big grocery carts and went to the water aisle, which was thinly stocked. Already? We took the last cases of water on them, distilled, not spring.

Then she went to get something else and I lost track of her in the store and I got scared and then we found each other at the front of the store near the check out counters and we both were like, “Oh my Gd I thought I lost you.” We were keeping it together, but barely. It was sunny outside.

We checked out, me with just water, her with water and some uncooked chicken and broccoli. Dinner?

Went to our cars, loaded them, then back across the parking lot to the pizza parlor. Our posse starting to exit. Ax insisting he go to his friend’s house to play. Okay. We go to his friend’s house, who happens to be the son of parking lot mom, who I like from drop off and pick up but actually have never hung out with before. But now we are friends.

We drive to their house, high up the hill, which still has power and water and gas. The boys take off to do lego or whatever six-year-old boys do and I plop down on her sofa and realize it’s really nice to be somewhere I can charge my phone and just sit. Parking lot mom brings me a box of Kleenex. All I know is I need to go home, if I can, before it gets dark.

To be continued ….

Today I am grateful for sleep and for my family, among so many other things.