December 4, 2017 was a seemingly normal day. I left work, picked my 3 kids up from daycare, and we started on our way home. We lived in a very quiet, remote area in Upper Ojai. We loved it there. At night, you could see all of the stars in the sky from our front porch.
When we first moved there in September of 2013, I didn’t like it at all. It was so quiet outside you could literally hear a pin drop on the concrete. There was little to no grass. Any shoes/cars/clothes got very dirty, very quickly. But it grew on me every day. I was so used to the quiet country life after a while that I couldn’t imagine myself living anywhere else. I would live in Ojai forever.
We ordered dinner and brought it home. I went outside to our big front porch, and noticed an ominous orange, smoky glow in our gorgeous upper Ojai view.
Honestly, I didn’t really think much of it at the time. I told my husband Ryan to come outside and look. It almost looked like a sunset. “That’s really pretty,” I thought.
We lived on Ryan’s grandparent’s property. There were two houses on their 5-acre property. Our home had once been a barn. It was later converted into a 2-story home in which three generations of Ryan’s family had lived in at some point in time. It had history.
Ryan’s grandparents are probably the most rational people I’ve ever known. Their property was a farm. There were chickens, goats, pigs, horses; everything you could think of. When I peeked over the railing of our porch and saw his family begin packing up the animals; I knew something was very wrong.
The smoke was getting closer. I could smell it. The once pretty orange glow was getting bigger and brighter. Panic set in.
“We need to leave,” I said to Ryan. For the first time in our relationship, he knew I wasn’t just being overly anxious. He agreed.
I frantically ran around our messy home trying to gather things that I thought we couldn’t live without. Medicine? Check. A change of clothes for everyone? Check. Passports, Social Security cards and birth certificates? Check. Couple of scrapbooks and albums? Check. Jewelry? Check. Laptops and hard drives? Check.
All I could think was, “Don’t go crazy, Aly. Bring the basics. You’ll have to bring all of this shit back upstairs tomorrow.” Oh, hindsight.
It was 10:30 p.m. We packed up in 20 minutes and woke up our kids. All they had with them were their school backpacks and a change of clothes each. We grabbed our dog Arya, and searched everywhere for our cat, Gobbles. He was nowhere to be found. He’s a badass though. We called him the King of Upper Ojai. “He’ll be fine, we’ll find him tomorrow,” we thought. Goodbye, house.
We drove away from our first home as a family for what would unknowingly be the last time.
We went to Ryan’s other grandparents’ house down in town and spent the night there. By the time we woke up, the fire and smoke were all the way down the hill and flooded the suburban streets. We decided to go stay at my mom’s house in Simi Valley. It was far enough away that our kids could breath clean air.
We started our drive to Simi Valley. It was slow. There was a ton of traffic. Everyone was leaving our small country town at the same time for safety and cleaner air. Both sides of the freeway were on fire; it was everywhere.
We got a phone call; it was Ryan’s stepdad. He and my mother-in-law lived about a mile and a half down the same road from us. Their home had been consumed by what was now known as the Thomas Fire. My heart sank. “I can’t even imagine,” I said to Ryan.
Our kids, concerned for their grandparents, aunts and uncles, asked if our house was going to burn down. “No, our house will not burn down,” we said with confidence.
A few minutes later, Ryan got another phone call. It was his stepdad who promised us he’d keep us in the loop. I watched Ryan’s face go pale. He was a ghost. His eyes welled up. He started stuttering. He couldn’t form full sentences.
My husband is a manly man; I can count on one hand the number of times I had seen that man cry. He didn’t have to say a single word to me. I knew.
Months later, I would learn that on the other side of the phone, these were the words being delivered into Ryan’s unexpecting ear: “It’s all gone, man. There’s nothing left. I’m sorry.”
Our home was gone.
I wailed. Consciously, I was aware that my kids were in the backseat and I was screaming, but I couldn’t control myself. I had never felt anything like this before.
This was the first home I had ever lived in without my parents. This was our first home as a family. My husband proposed to me there. We brought our youngest daughter home there after she was born. We laughed there, we cried there, and everything in between. Our kids grew up there. Everything we had ever owned in our lives was there. The place we called home for the past 4+ years was now a pile of metal and ashes.
The next 24 hours were a blur.
A couple of days later, the fire department would finally allow us to go see the remnants of our home with our own eyes. We bought boots and gloves so we could dig through the rubble for small treasures. We were only permitted to go into Upper Ojai if we had a driver’s license proving our place of residence. Apparently, when catastrophic situations like these happened, some terrible people liked to stick around to go looting through evacuated homes. Who knew.
The mile and a half drive up the hill to upper Ojai was surreal. The once luscious, green mountains were completely bare, and covered in black trees and white ash. It looked post-apocalyptic.
We pulled onto our driveway.
It was so much harder in person. I couldn’t believe my eyes.
You know that feeling you get when you finally come home from a vacation or a particularly hard day’s work? You kick your shoes off, put your comfy pants on, sit on your couch, and just melt? You finally get to relax and unwind? No matter where I went or what I did, I couldn’t get that feeling back. I was in a state of constant discomfort. I couldn’t sleep, either. I kept jolting up in the middle of the night thinking that we needed to evacuate again. Those nights were the hardest.
We lived with my mom for two weeks while we arranged for a more permanent living situation. We were overwhelmed by the generosity of friends, family, co-workers and complete strangers. We were inundated with messages, texts, phone calls, emails and visits. It kept our minds occupied.
While we were living with my mom, nothing felt real yet. It felt like a nightmare that we would wake up from any minute. The kids were almost a version of happy; they didn’t have to go to school and everyone was buying them clothes and toys. Clearly, reality had not set in yet.
But then it did.
After two weeks, we moved in with my husband’s grandparents. The night we moved in, reality hit us like a ton of bricks all at once. We looked around our new room covered in pink, flowery wallpaper and dusty antique trinkets.
We had lost our independence.
Ryan and I went for a drive that night and just cried. The loss was overwhelming.
We were incredibly grateful that we had such an amazing support system, that our community came together and raised money for our family, that complete strangers were donating clothes, toys, food, diapers, books and cribs. But that feeling of loss was immeasurable. This was grief.
This isn’t happening to us. This is happening to some other family. This is all just a nightmare. Denial.
All of the things that we lost were just that – things. “Things can be replaced, people cannot.” This quickly became my go-to line when people had questions. I couldn’t go too much into detail without crying. I tried to convince myself and others that all of our stuff could be replaced.
What about the outfit we brought our youngest daughter home from the hospital in? What about our kids’ scrapbooks that we didn’t grab? My baby blanket? My baby book? All of my deceased father-in-law’s belongings? Our family cat, Gobbles? Our elementary and high school year books? Our diplomas? Photos that can’t be replaced? Those art pieces we bought on our honeymoon?
Not everything can be replaced.
We should have grabbed more. We should have gone back. Maybe we could have done something. Other people stayed and hosed their homes down to keep them safe. Why didn’t we do that? Why didn’t we try harder? I wish we had done everything differently. I wish I didn’t stop Ryan from trying to go back and grab more stuff. Anger. Bargaining.
If I close my eyes, I can still walk through our home. I can open doors and drawers and I know exactly where everything is. I can smell it. I can hear our kids playing in their rooms. I can hear the dog’s nails click-clacking on the hollow hardwood floor. I can hold and feel my cat. He was the sweetest.
I still have dreams about him. Those are my favorite.
I felt guilty for feeling so unfulfilled after everything that everyone had done for us. I felt ungrateful for still feeling such immense loss amongst the most generous people I had ever known. Depression.
Just like that, I had gone through four out of the five stages of grief.
Fast forward through four months of house hunting, signing papers, replacing things we had lost, writing thank you notes and catching up on work – and we finally were able to purchase a new home.
Cue a sigh of relief.
We finally have a place to call home again. Not someone else’s home, but our own home. With our own stuff inside. This nightmare was finally going to be over.
Our new house is beautiful. It has enough rooms for everyone, we have a big backyard and we bought some really beautiful decorations and furniture.
Even after seemingly everything had been replaced, I couldn’t help but look around and wonder how amazing that one art piece would have looked on that wall. Or how great our old couch would have been in there. I didn’t appreciate those things enough. I didn’t appreciate anything enough. Why wasn’t I more grateful? Why did I feel like stranger in my own home?
I used to get so upset about the smallest things. One year, we bought a new kitchen table that Ryan and I loved. A few days after buying it, our middle daughter decided that she was going to carve a smiley face into it with a fork. I was livid. We’d just bought that table. She’d ruined it. It would never be the same. What a waste of money.
I could not have been more wrong.
You don’t want to know what I would do for that exact table with my daughter’s smiley face carved into it now. That smiley face is what made that table ours. It’s what made it unique. It had a story behind it; a history.
My whole life I have lived by the same saying: “Everything happens for a reason.” We may not know why at the time, but some day, we will. I still believe this with every fiber of my being.
I was an ungrateful person. I was an unappreciative person.
This was a lesson that the universe/higher power/what-have-you had to teach me the hard way. I had to lose almost everything I’d ever owned in my life, everything I had worked so hard for, in order to be more grateful for all the people and the things that I was fortunate enough to still have.
This experience proved to me that there are still good-hearted people in this world. Friends, family and complete strangers carried us through it. We would not be where we are today if it wasn’t for everyone’s help, love, and support. We went through all of this for a reason.
I still miss our old home sometimes. Mostly for the memories we had there, and the irreplaceable items I will never be able to physically touch again in this lifetime. Items I won’t be able to share with my children as they grow older. I still miss Gobbles, too. When I’m extra lucky, he still visits me in my dreams sometimes.
At the same time, in a weird way, I’m grateful that this all happened. I appreciate everything that we have so much more than I did before. My faith in humanity and my faith in my community was restored because of what happened.
We are stronger. My family is closer. We are all more thankful. We have a place to call home again. We got a new kitty named Harley; she’s really sweet.
If and when my daughter decides to carve a smiley face into my furniture again; I won’t give a shit.
There it is. Acceptance. Finally.