Eight years ago this summer my family was evacuated from our home in Littleton while the Hayman fire raged just miles away.
When the call came to prepare to evacuate, I alerted my two children and we began scouring the house for valuables. Within minutes, a pile of things-too-precious-to-leave-behind had been accumulated by the front door.
The first thing I noticed was the inflatable plastic shark.
I said, “What’s this shark doing here? We can’t take an inflatable shark.”
Kacie, seven, looked at me like I had just suggested sacrificing her sister to a pagan volcano god. She said, “Mom, I LOVE that shark. We CAN’T leave him here to die in the fire!”
Not wanting to provide more fodder than I already do for my daughters’ sessions with their future therapists, we kept the shark.
Kaitlyn, fifteen, added cheer poms and her favorite goose down pillow.
I grabbed the avocado green Kitchen Aid mixer that sat in my mom’s kitchen for years. When my grandmother died, her avocado green Kitchen Aid got passed down to my mom, who then gave me her own. Under those circumstances, what woman wouldn’t save a mixer from a fire?
We rounded up the dogs, fish, photo albums and Kacie’s collection of several thousand Chuck E Cheese prize tickets (she’s saving for the Grand Am).
Kaitlyn rescued the Texas license plate she had salvaged from our former car.
And as we were pulling away from the house, Kacie beamed and brandished a small plastic bag of gum and said, “Look, Mom, I saved the Double Bubble!”
I said, “Thank God. Now we won’t have to turn around.”
We were lucky. We had several hours to gather our treasures. But what surprised me was the ease with which I left the rest behind. Thousands of dollars of placemats, trinkets, compact disks, doodads, artificial plants, sofas, paintings, office equipment, books, kitchen gear, video games and more. The stacks of mail order catalogs I love to save. Forty-seven pairs of shoes. The lamps I bought at Target. Stuff that—as I lingered in the doorway on my way to the car—I realized I could live without.
We spent the next two weeks staying with family in Colorado Springs. Every day we eyed smoky skies and watched the news. As the fire continued to spread, I tried to prepare my daughters for the worst. I said, “Years from now, out of the blue, you’ll suddenly remember something that was lost in the fire, something precious you’d forgotten about until that moment. When that happens, take a moment to think about it—close your eyes, take a deep breath—then let it go.”
We are not unlike small planets, each one of us our own center of gravity. As we orbit through life, we gather things to us: Belongings. Relationships. Dreams. These things in hand, we take great pains to build some sort of personal civilization for ourselves.
But sometimes we lose it all and have to start from scratch.
We were lucky. Our house was spared. But it did make me wonder about the things we keep and the things we can’t. Remember the ol’ icebreaker standby? “If you were stranded on a desert island and could only take three things with you, what would they be?” Sometimes it stops being a game.
Desert island. Divorce. Wildfire. Death of a loved one. Bankruptcy. Loss of a home or job. Health crisis. Whatever. Sometimes the worlds we’ve crafted crash and burn and we have to begin again.
If we’re lucky, we get to carry a few treasures from the world we lost to seed the one we’ve yet to build. But even when we don’t, well… we’re a hardy lot. We grieve. We survive. In time, we can even thrive again.
With or without our inflatable sharks.