[Usually I write about writing. But what is writing about if not life? This post is a window into mine. Don't look too hard for the writing wisdom here. Sometimes the story is enough.]
Like so many others, we couldn’t turn away. At first we eyed it with simple curiosity, my 18-year-old son and I – the fire teasing above the horizon, peering down the foothills at the houses below. But then the wind picked up the fire dripped down the mountainside like angry red tears and the curiosity fell away, replaced by unvoiced fear.
We had been watching from a ridge a half-dozen miles away – a safe distance – snapping pictures with our cell phones; held and repelled by the surreal beauty of nature’s fury. But in that quiet moment, we knew. This was going to be bad. Really bad.
A family of four joined us on the ridge. They would be strangers in any other circumstance. We shared a story in this one.
“Pretty wild, isn’t it,” said the father. His wife was pointing to the west, their young children straining to see something they didn’t quite understand.
Just a few hours earlier I had collected my son from rehab. Twenty-eight days after he’d been delivered there at his request.
It was his second twenty-eight days.
As we drove back to Colorado Springs, watching smoke trails from the Waldo Canyon fire drift skyward in the distance, we had talked about our plans for his move to Michigan – a move away from Colorado Springs, the city where he’d both found himself and lost himself.
“You can’t run away from drugs.” They were my unspoken fears, but his wise words. “It would be naive to think that,” he continued. “And dangerous. I know who I am. I won’t forget the lessons I’ve learned. Still…I’m looking forward to a fresh start.”
Twelve hundred miles from here.
Later that evening as we watched the breaking news, we tried to disbelieve the images of a mountain on fire.
“It looks like the end of the world,” said my son.
We already knew what that looked like.
An hour later I got a call from a friend.
“We’re being evacuated. We need a place to stay.”
As my friends arrived with the belongings they had quickly grabbed in escape, we continued to pack my son’s things for his cross-country move. Boxes and bags crowded the small apartment. Some were filled with important things. Some with unimportant things. Most with missing things.
Days and nights blurred by, adding stress to the surreal. And then, some good news.
“We’re free to go back. Our home is safe!” said my friend.
It was a small joy, muted by heartbreak. Three hundred and forty six families would not be able to say the same thing.
As the losses were solemnly mourned and the heroes were quietly celebrated, the mayor spoke these words: “We will rebuild, we will come back stronger.” They were sincere words. True words. But there are no guarantees. Fires will burn again someday. Literal fires. Figurative fires. Life is full of ‘em.
There is no safe distance.
My son has been clean and sober now for 33 days. We look forward to 34. There are no guarantees. But he is determined to rebuild, to come back stronger. His words are sincere. True.
This afternoon I drove by the ridge where my son and I had watched the fires burn. If you keep walking along that ridge you will come to a park. There you’ll find a baseball diamond. A BMX track. A playground. A grassy field for playing soccer or flying kites. To the north, apartments. To the east, a high school. To the south and west, single family homes. You can see a shopping mall from that ridge. This is a residential neighborhood.
As I drove by, I looked up at the ridge. Silhouetted against a cloudy sky there was a six point buck. He was out of place, far from home, but standing tall. Lost, but determined.
I don’t know the rest of his story. It’s still being written. But I do know this: There is no safe distance.
And that is how it should be.