This Thanksgiving, instead of rolling out pie crust, I put signs on trees I wanted to save.
Two years ago, a wildfire ripped through Northern California, and along with 2,000 other structures, it gobbled up our sweet rural house on Cobb Mountain. Later, we discovered that our homeowner’s insurance policy was mostly worthless.
Last month, another wildfire roared through Northern California, and this one swallowed up our home in Northeast Santa Rosa. The odds of suffering two catastrophic infernos while in cancer treatment do seem unlikely. But life is funny that way.
My family and I learned a few lessons after the Cobb fire. First, we got a new insurance agent, who I hope is better than our last one.
And second, we learned that clean-up efforts after a declared disaster can be nearly as damaging as the disaster itself. On Cobb, huge crews, which were paid by our federal government, sawed down every living thing on our mountain landscape. Where once there were trees of astonishing variety, now there are stumps. Artlessly clear-cut. It looks like a cowboy with a chainsaw was in a race against Paul Bunyan. Nothing’s left.
Some have been dumping construction debris on the spot where our house once stood. One day, if my cancer diagnosis allows me to live long enough, I’m sure I’ll get a certified letter from my county threatening all sorts of nastiness if I don’t clear off their mess. Again.
Meanwhile, we have a new lot full of ash and burned trees.
This time, my husband and I decided to take preemptive action. The day before Thanksgiving, we roped off our glorious California Oaks, which can survive even if only 10 percent of their canopies are intact. We put signs on our driveway, begging FEMA subcontractors not to remove it, even though they get paid by the pound or the truckload or the hour or however else to rip out what we won’t be able to afford to replace.
That night, after tromping around in ashes and labeling trees all day, Gary and I drove with our daughter for 11 hours to my 91-year-old mother-in-law’s house for Thanksgiving dinner. Our frozen turkey rolled around in the back of our truck, and I hoped it would be sufficiently thawed by the time we arrived, although I confess that on some level, I didn’t really even care.
When we got there, bleary-eyed at 2 in the morning, I saw a purchased pie on the counter. A purchased pie. Unprecedented.
I’m a stickler for pure food, for vegetables I grow myself and beverages free of high-fructose corn syrup. That pie was a bleak moment in a holiday season that’s barely underway. Briefly, I wondered how I’d get through it.
Turning inward, I looked to my soul for strength to find happiness, for the wisdom that resides in all of us, all the time, and I asked for the gift of gratitude.
Remarkably, there it was.
I’m grateful that my loving husband, our precious child, and our tenant of 20 years survived these horrible fires. I give thanks for a warm safe place to stay, with comfortable furniture and clothes that fit, even if they are a bit tight around the waist. And I appreciate that the first oncologist I saw about my diagnosis was wrong. He told me I had three months to live unless I got treatment, which, he said, there’s no way I could afford. And in the off-chance that I did survive, I’d be left with a “frankenboob,” a word that still takes my breath away – and not in the way that a girl wants to be left breathless. That was nearly three years ago.
Growing up, my parents pounded my six siblings and me with a mantra of gratitude. Once, when my brother Patrick wiped out on his banana bike so badly that he had to sip pureed food for two solid weeks, my mom never stopped talking about how lucky he was.
And she was right. He could have suffered permanent damage. He could have died. Or someone else could have fared badly in that incident as well.
Instead, Patrick sucked his meatloaf through a straw and we all marveled at his incredible good fortune.
Yes, I have two more long years till my cancer treatment is over. But I already can visualize the party I’m going to host in my back yard, which, ironically, will involve a huge bonfire. I plan to burn cancer in effigy, to torch all the unpleasant moments my family and I suffered in its path. We’ll situate seven or eight large fire extinguishers in strategic locations, have a fire engine standing by, and then light it up.
In the meantime, I have work to do. We have ash to clean up, school lunches to pack and Christmas gifts to wrap.
In spite of everything, life is full of delightful surprises. The purchased pie? It was delicious. And for that, I’m grateful.
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