The sky has always been something I can’t quite wrap my head around. You touch it and cannot touch it at the same time. It cannot fall, but is always falling. The earth, however, is something less mysterious because it is something to be smelled and tasted, touched and seen. But after the California wildfires in October 2007, the sky was the same color as the earth, and sometimes when I tilted my head one way or the other I couldn’t tell the difference between the two. They mirrored each other, with deep mahogany hues and charcoal rivulets.
But life continued, and I realized I was the only one with this problem. To everyone else, the fires were simply an inconvenience. They coughed and inhaled and didn’t recall they were filling their lungs with the remains of 1600 homes and 85 bodies, and exhaled lamentations as they headed for clearer skies.
Then just days after the first fires were contained, my friend crashed the small aircraft he was piloting during a flight lesson. He had been working on getting his pilot’s license for several years. They said it was soaring, and then turned belly up, as if to say it just didn’t want to go any further. He was rushed to the hospital with broken bones, cuts, and bruises. His instructor died on impact. The crash stained the sky with barbaric fervor, bleeding into the destruction that the flames were already playing in. I will never forget it.
Still, this was not enough. One week later, November 10th, my best friend’s father died in a motorcycle accident. He drove too fast on an icy mountain road, and to save himself from slipping off the edge, he slid into oncoming traffic. Of course a death is terrible to understand. But she had to simultaneously grasp the death of her father and her mother’s terminal brain cancer; she wasn’t expected to live more than five weeks longer at that point. At first, my friend couldn’t do it. None of us could. How could we? As adolescents, we don’t even understand ourselves, let alone other mysteries, like boys who don’t call you back, and what shampoo to use.
What I’ve realized is it’s not possible to find meaning in such devastation, but it’s also not possible to give up trying to. I lie awake many nights just inhaling and exhaling, inhaling and exhaling, wondering if, mixed in with the oxygen and carbon dioxide, I can gather remnants of homes and the aircraft and her father. What I believe is that I don’t know what to believe. I don’t know how or what to salvage from the wreckage of the autumn of 2007. I just feel so desperately that I need to carry something more than memories away from it. So I keep inhaling and exhaling, because I don’t know what else to do, and because maybe the answer is out there somewhere, waiting to fill my lungs and put meaning back into my life.
If you enjoyed this essay, please consider making a tax-deductible contribution to This I Believe, Inc.