Don’t let the door hit your butt on the way out, October.
Ever since 1989 and the Loma Prieta earthquake, followed two years later by the Oakland Hills firestorm, I have not been a fan of October. Those two major disasters in two years leave me feeling uneasy the moment I flip the calendar from September—even now, so many years later. When the weather is hot and windy, I sniff the air for smoke. When I wake up suddenly, thinking I’ve felt the house shake, my heart starts to pound. Thirty-one days is a long time to be on high alert.
This year in particular, I’ve been especially anxious. I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s because I’m putting the finishing touches on the memoir about the fire I’ve been writing for so many years. I’ve been immersed in the events of October, 1991 as I’ve been writing this book, but in the last few days I’ve been deep into the manuscript and thus deep into the memories of those dark days of uncertainty and horror and grief.
So this week, observing the twenty-fourth anniversary of the fire hit me hard. I’ve been looking at the pictures and the newspaper articles and it dredged up a ton of memories: how I felt, how we faced the devastation, how our friends and families came to our rescue over and over again. I feel fortunate, sad, grateful, and amazed when I think about those days and weeks when we learned about other people’s experiences following the firestorm.
To look at the area today, you wouldn’t guess that twenty-four years ago my neighborhood was a blackened wasteland. Today there are houses and trees where once there were just chimneys and foundations. Most of the neighbors who live here today moved in years after the fire, and some may not even know about it. If they’re paying attention to the news coverage, they might have some inkling of what it was like here. But they can’t really understand it. How could they? It seems impossible, even now, to imagine a conflagration that destroyed thousands of homes in a day.
And this, too. May to October: five months since my sister died. It’s not any easier. Every day there are things I know I need to tell her about, or show her—like the latest cute picture of my grandson Sam, or what the other grandkids are going to be for Halloween, or the plays I’ve seen and plan to see. Or how I feel so lost sometimes. I can’t tell her about the stuff I’ve started squirreling away for the holidays: books and toys that I hope the little ones will like. So many things, every damn day.
And another thing: when October finally makes its exit on Halloween, we begin the month of my birthday. This will be the first birthday without the person who was there the day I was born, who wanted to hold me right away. She was the last one who knew me from day one. So you could say that this year I’m not that excited about November either. I’ve got a week full of activities planned leading up to my birthday, so maybe I’ll have a better attitude by the time the actual day rolls around. I don’t know yet if that will work out. I’m hopeful, though.
November is usually my favorite month. But this year? This year just feels different. It is different. I’m different too. A part of me is missing.
So, October—I’ll be glad to see the back of you soon. Take your pumpkins and your goblins and don’t feel you have to get rid of all that candy before you leave.
All the firsts are hard, Perhaps the second, third, fourth and so on. I don’t know when it gets easier; I just think it becomes different.
This was a beautiful and haunting piece and I wish for you much comfort and love from those around you. Big hugs, Risa.
Thanks, Cathy. I was just thinking this is the first of the lasts, from the poignant to the trivial: birthdays, holidays, mani-pedis together… Many thanks for your thoughts.
I am an only child. I lost my best friend of 52 years in September. I don’t know what it is like to lose a beloved sister and I never will, so I can not pretend to understand your pain, except in this one aspect: I have no one now (well, actually, I do have someone – her older sister, but I’ve never been that close to her) who remembers me as a child. When she passed, I felt like I had been set adrift. I hope things get better for you as time passes.
Alana, my heart goes out to you. Being set adrift is such a good way to describe this feeling. Let’s hope things get better for you too. Thanks for writing.
October is my “bad month” too. My brother died right before the earthquake that year. Glad it’s November!
Oh, Anne. So sorry to hear this. I’m glad it’s November too!