Tonight is the third time that I have returned to our temporary house from a trip. Thankfully it was over a month after the fire before we traveled anywhere. Early after the fire losing even the tenuous connection to something as impersonal as the hotel room pushed us across the boundary of loss too far.
The first time we flew out to see our Mom and returned home was the hardest. I knew it would be. To leave home, go on a trip and then return home to a not-home was devastating. It hit me as we were waiting for the luggage at our airport. I stifled a sob but not before it was obvious to those who stood around the small baggage carousal waiting to be reunited with the things in their suitcases. I was embarrassed that anyone would witness such a private and personal experience. On a hundred previous trips, I got off the plane tired and glad to be headed home. That time, I got off the plane tired and had no home to head to.
The second trip we made to see our Mom was easier. It was not a shock to know that we were going to our temporary house and that our old house had burned. It was a heavy inevitability. On both of those trips my spouse a\and I traveled together, leaving and returning together to this temporary house.
This weekend I took a 2 day trip alone. When my spouse picked me up at the airport I was happy to see him and everything seemed normal. We drove the 20 minutes or so from the airport toward our temporary house. It is the same route as it is to the old house. The difference is when you turn right. The turn off of the highway to the temporary house is about 2 miles before the turn to our old house. Tonight my spouse was making the turn when I remembered that I did not live where I lived. It just sneaked up on me unaware. I saw the lights of the convenience store that we usually passed materialize in the middle of a right hand turn. It did not have the devastating quality of the first return home, or the heavy inevitability of the second return home. I remarked as we were entering the turn that “this was the part I cannot get used to.” Embedded in that comment was the reality that there were parts of having lost our home to wildfire that I had gotten used to.
I did not realize it until I was almost through unpacking.
I am one of those people that cannot, not, organize things. When I travel, I pack in the little zipper bags and my closet has clothes organized by type and color. I have a place for shoes that is different from, but adjacent to, the place for socks. My “just hanging out” clothes are not hanging next to my suits. My sweaters are stacked by color. It is to me one of life’s great conundrums whether to organize clothes by color or by sleeve length. I long ago decided that tee shirts and turtle necks should not be hung with blouses. That does not resolve the problem of what one does with three short sleeve tee shirts and two long sleeve tee shirts. They can be ordered by color. They can be ordered by sleeve length. They can be ordered by color and sub-categorized by sleeve length. This last solution seems the most satisfactory except for the fact that the long sleeves hanging in front of the short sleeves obscure the short sleeves behind the long sleeves. Clearly this is a problem to which there is no satisfactory answer.
Tonight I unzipped my packet of clothes and mindlessly sorted them by “return to the sweater shelf,” “dirty clothes,” and “hang up with dress clothes”. I did not look up to examine the whole closet that has been organized now for a few weeks. I simply went to the spot where the clothes belonged and deposited them. After flipping expertly so that it did not come unfolded, the sweater onto the sweater pile and turning to drop the dirty clothes into the hamper, I was suddenly struck by the fact that my behavior was not one of decision like how to hang the long sleeves and the short sleeves tee shirts but one of automatic behavior. I had become used to this closet, and to this place.
As I considered what it meant to put something on the shelf in this temporary house in an automatic, practiced manner, I considered that I actually had a place to put things. Still musing on this thought, I turned with my little packet of jewelry, a necklace and earrings, and opened my jewelery box. I pulled open one of the drawers and thought to myself, “wrong drawer,” and reached to open the other drawer to deposit my necklace. At that very moment I was struck by the fact that not only was I getting used to things, I actually had something to put in the something I had to put it into. I had a necklace and I had a jewelry box. The thought hammered through me like a spike driven by a sledge. Even when I was young and everything I had fit into my backpack, I had things. Now I had no things, I had replacement things.
This is not a blog about things. It is a blog about loss and understanding what it is to have to redefine one’s self because of it. Loss demands that you change. Losing things defines us but having things also defines us. I did not understand that until tonight. I understood that the loss of a parent or friend or child to death was a defining moment. I understood that it required re-thinking and accommodating the empty place left by the person. What had not occurred to me before was that the defining moment rested on the the necessity of having something to lose.
The destination is fine but it is profound. Dealing with loss defines you but it is defining the “you” that had something to lose. So it seems that dealing with loss is, at the core, learning who you were.