Irma and Harvey: The Long Road Home

Irma and Harvey: The Long Road Home

As I watch news of Hurricane Irma’s destructive progress across the Caribbean and southern Florida, I can’t help thinking about what will follow. Like thousands of people in Texas in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, those in Irma’s path will soon be faced with the calmer but no less agonizing challenges of her aftermath.

Some will go home to houses that are broken but still habitable. Some will go home to rubble. Some won’t go home at all. All of this brings back memories of the day I lost my own home to a wildfire in southern California. Around 250 other houses also burned down in that fire, and hundreds more were damaged.

A day later, when the fire had moved on, my neighbors and I began returning to see what was left behind. My house was a smoldering heap. The house across the street, which had been on fire when I left the previous morning, was still standing. If natural disasters were people, you’d call them fickle, unfair, and abrupt. Since they’re not, you just stand there in shock and let your mind fail at comprehension.

We were back, my neighbors and I, but we definitely weren’t home. “Back” was a quick trip from wherever we had sheltered nearby. “Home” was another journey entirely. For each of us, that second journey was personal, unique, and often lengthy. It had more to do with intangibles—family, relationships, future plans—than it did with blueprints and roofing materials.

One neighbor began the rebuilding process two days after the fire. Before a year had passed, an exact replica of his house was back. Not long after he and his wife moved back in, they divorced. Other families sold their now-vacant lots and moved elsewhere. Some built mansions to replace the more ordinary dwelling they had lost. Family restructuring was common, mostly in the form of divorces. As though the old home and its patterns didn’t fit any more, adult children moved away, and elderly family members moved into new types of surroundings. My husband and I moved into temporary quarters while we decided how to seize the opportunities that having no stuff offered.

I guess my point in describing all this is that none of us got “home” for a very long time, even though plenty of us found dwellings quickly. I lived in a motorhome for nearly seven years. I wrote a book about my travels, and somewhere in it I stated, “Home is where your dog is.” It seemed that way at the time. Our dog was the only thing I made sure I had with me when I left home in the face of a firestorm.

Now, though, I think I had it backwards. It was the dog who was always home wherever I was. I was always looking, but I know beyond a doubt that he never looked beyond my husband and me.

Losing all my worldly possessions and the edifice that housed them was like losing a loved one. “Home” was gone, and it would never be back. In the intervening years, I have found new homes and new definitions of “home.” But I have never—nor did I expect to—ever find that home, the one that held all my childhood mementos and photographs, my books, my family heirlooms, my wedding presents. They weren’t breathing before they burned, but their destruction was as wrenching as if they had been.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not whining, and I haven’t grieved in years. I sometimes still visit my erstwhile home in my daydreams, and occasionally I wish I had a photo to share on “Throwback Thursday.” But I’m also thankful for the opportunities and experiences I never would have had if the fire had spared my home.

So this is my wish for all those who are going back and realizing that they aren’t home again. In your grief for what you have lost and the shock that is gripping you, may you hold fast to the dream of someday finding a place in your heart and your mind and the real world that you will call home. It won’t be the one you lost, but it can still be one you love. Hug your dog or your partner or your kid and say, “I’m home where you are.” Someday, somewhere, you might find out it was the other way around all along. Somewhere, and maybe in place and a way you don’t expect, you’ll find home.

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