Apocalypse Now, and Again

***Please note that I began working on this particular essay toward the end of last year, so the setting of it takes place around that time, pre-COVID.***

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Planning doesn’t equate preparedness. I experienced this lesson for the umpteenth time recently. Surely the passing of weeks and months will cause me to again slip the blindfold of comfort over my eyes, causing the familiar but somehow unexpected reaction of foolish surprise when things derail again.

With gratitude I took advantage of a new free ride service for seniors in my hometown, arranging Friday rides for Mom to and from her home and the health club. The drivers are volunteers. The coordinator, operating out of the local senior center, is an upbeat and organized woman whose proficiency I respect and appreciate immensely.

For several weeks I followed the protocol and made requests for a driver precisely one week in advance. A ride was always arranged for us without incident. The volunteers were kind and timely, making the new routine enjoyable for Mom. I didn’t work on Friday mornings so I was technically available to drop her off myself, but I needed some relief from my duties and for Mom to get used to other people assisting her. She relies on me. A lot. Now that I live with her she has a newly developed habit of asking me for simple things instead of doing them herself.

“What time is it?”

“Where’s my breakfast?”

She has a digital watch on her wrist and packets of oatmeal in a clear canister on the kitchen counter. She is still capable of checking the time and making herself instant oatmeal, but I have unintentionally caused her to be more dependent on me by often doing the work for her. I’m trying to be better about encouraging her to retain some independence while she still has it.

“Why don’t you check your watch and let me know what time it says.”

“There is some peaches and cream oatmeal in the canister if you are hungry.”

For an equally important reason, I introduced the ride service to Mom’s routine so that I could go on vacation. I desperately needed some self-care, but as her Alzheimer’s advances it becomes increasingly challenging to leave her for more than a day or two. Keeping her in line with a routine as much as possible not only benefits me, but greatly affects the symptoms of her disease. Anything out of the ordinary can cause her to become more forgetful, disoriented, emotionally fragile, and prone to poor judgment.

All in all, I needed the ride service more than she did.

The post-summer getaway plan was to take five days off for a road trip up to Bend, Oregon to visit a close friend of mine, Rachael. Her sister, Sarah, would be accompanying me. The three of us had previously lived together and often reflect upon those years as a highlight of our young adult lives.  

Everything was set in place for Oregon. Mom was to be picked up on Thursday and Friday by the ride service and again on Saturday by my dear friend Niamh. This would make it so Mom had multiple opportunities to get out of the house and hours of exercise and socialization. Sunday and Monday would be her “weekend” of rest and time at home.

Around 5pm on Wednesday, October 23rd Sarah and I left town and began the straightforward drive north in my Forester. We had booked a hotel room in a small town half way to Bend so that we could break up the drive and avoid traveling late into the night. Fueled by anticipation, podcasts, a close call with a buck crossing the freeway directly in front of us, and a pit stop for pizza, we made it to our destination with a gratifying spread of road trip experiences.

By 10:35pm the seam of our perceived safety and exuberance suddenly began to unravel. Simultaneously our phones dinged with an alert from Nixle, the public safety notification system we had previously subscribed to during the horrific multiple fires that consumed our county in 2017.

Another fire had started. And just like two years previously it was a handful of miles from my dad’s house, and less than a dozen miles from mine and Sarah’s respective homes in the bordering towns south and north of him.

We called our parents to warn them and began scouring the internet for more information. Then the texts and phone calls started coming.

No longer were we languidly gathering ourselves to tuck in for the night. We became alert, on edge for the potential danger. After midnight we finally forced ourselves to put our phones down and get some rest.

At 6:24am a mandatory evacuation notice was given for my dad’s entire town. I woke him with another phone call.

Sleepily he answered, “Hey Lauren. Everything is okay here.”

“Dad. No. There’s a mandatory evacuation notice. You guys need to leave right now.”

By the time Sarah and I had breakfast and were back on the road my brother and dad had left home with their dogs and were figuring out accommodations elsewhere. I was relieved but understandably, mildly manic. I tried to contain the rapidness of my thoughts and the vibrancy I felt in body, but I’m sure Sarah easily picked up on my state. There wasn’t anything I could do. The opportunity to save anything of value to me from the house had slipped away while I slept. And I didn’t have the ability to dictate the outcome of a wildfire, so I relinquished a portion of my anxiety to the will of nature. The situation was out of my control, but thankfully my family was safe.

I had about two days of leisure punctuated by tense moments of news updates, text alerts, and phone calls, before the vacation was officially defunct. As I savored walks around both the city of Bend and the extensive hiking trails beyond the borders of downtown, dined on breakfast bagels, sipped steamy coffee from new age cafes, and sopped up every shared moment with Sarah and Rachael, uncertainty was growing eight hours away in Sonoma County.

Mom’s rides had been canceled for Thursday and Friday so she was stuck at home, but it wasn’t much more than an inconvenience. In accordance with the long-standing arrangement by the ever gracious Niamh, Mom was picked up and brought to the health club on Saturday morning. About an hour after their arrival, at 10:36am, the chime of a new text captured my attention just as Sarah, Rachael and I pulled up to a breakfast cafe.

“Alert: Mandatory evacuation ordered for the city of Healdsburg and the town of Windsor due to the Kincade fire.”

Mom needed to evacuate and I wasn’t there.

Immediately I fell apart, succumbing to the sharpness of reality. While trying to curb uncontrollable sobbing I made back-to-back phone calls to Niamh, my brother, Dad, sister, and my best friend’s parents whom happened to live a few blocks from Mom. I couldn’t think clearly, but desperately needed someone to evacuate Mom and her dog.

My sister lives in Southern California so she was unable to help. Dad had left the day before to ride out the fire in a location four hours away, but had forgotten to tell me during the stupor and chaos of everything. My brother isn’t the type to take initiative or have a plan in an emergency. In the minutes between frantic calls to those I was supposed to lean on the most in times of need, I unraveled further. Mild shock numbed my judgment. All I could focus on was how vulnerable my Mom was. And the guilt, the pit of my stomach clenched with the force of it.

It wasn’t that I thought Mom’s life was in immediate danger, it was more so intense concern regarding how she would handle being evacuated, who would evacuate her, and how long she would be displaced. I pictured her crying with wide, blank eyes. Her pupils almost vanish during intensified moments of dementia, giving her an obvious look of someone who is “not all there”. It is exceptionally challenging to take care of her during such elevated instances. She cannot follow direction or make many logical decisions. She often will wander around a room for ages, stopping every few moments to stand and stare as if she had just arrived on this planet for the first time, unsure of what direction to move in first.

Niamh called me back with news of decisive action.

“We swung by your mom’s house to grab her dog and a change of clothes. I didn’t grab anything else because I don’t know how much time we have. We’re on the way to my house.”

A wave of temporary relief flooded me.

Soon after the call I packed my things and started the drive back home, leaving Sarah with her family in Oregon.

I drove straight to Niamh’s house, arriving before midnight. I walked in the door to find a quietly anxious but brave faced Niamh, her husband, a pair of their friends who also had to evacuate, and my mother who was happily drinking a glass of wine.

Mom was thrilled to see me, and it was equally a huge comfort seeing her in the flesh, safe and sound.

All of us women stayed up until about 2am to swap stories, theories, concerns, and frequently refresh news sources on our phones to mine for new information.

With only a couple hours of sleep under way the household was awakened by a symphony of beeps! and dings! Niamh’s city was systematically being evacuated, district by district. Her neighborhood was on standby at first, but we knew that in moments we’d need to get on the road. We grabbed our bags of essentials, packed and ready by the foot of our beds and by the front door. With no time to really process what was happening we all hugged, parted with our respective partners, and headed south.

I called my best friend, Cathy, who temporarily lives in the South Bay, to let her know that my plan was to find a hotel near her. That way I could at least be near someone I loved, again, and have a smidge of normalcy during the uncertainty and chaos. Her and her husband insisted that I stay at their apartment instead of pay for a hotel. We gratefully obliged, arriving to their sleepy welcome a blink after sunrise.

Cathy’s parents joined us a few hours later after having secured a hotel room down the street. In total there were eight adults (Cathy’s mother-in-law happened to be in town), Cathy’s one-month-old baby, and three dogs (my mom’s, and Cathy’s family dogs).

We were safe.

I spent the following days fluctuating in and out of exhaustion, worry, gratitude, and survival mode.

During the day while most everyone was tending to their own responsibilities of work, law school, and babysitting, I occupied my time by taking my mom out for excursions around town. One midday we went mini-golfing, relishing only having to share the entire grounds with one other family. She loved playing, repeating many times over how “This is really good for my brain.” Without the pressure of anyone waiting on us to finish each hole we could spend a luxurious amount of time conquering the obstacles. Mom of course needed a generous number of attempts to coax her golf ball to where it needed to land, but I didn’t mind. Watching her made me appreciate the few moments of feeling present, temporarily setting aside thoughts about whether or not her and my dad’s houses would burn.

Another day we went shopping and then ended up at a movie theater. We spent a few hours browsing store after store in a huge mall for underwear. None of them carried a single pair. Mom had only two outfits, one of which she had already worn for couple days. We left the capitalist metropolis with a few bags of clearance t-shirts and funky pants from Old Navy. Underwear would have to wait one more day.

Before heading back to the apartment I took her to see “Hustlers”, the movie that starred Jennifer Lopez as a ring leader of unethically wealthy strippers. The only genre of cinema that Mom likes these days is comedy. This was the closest I could get at the time.

After strolling out of the dark of the theater into the lobby she asked with a quizzical look, “Why’d you take me to see that?”

With sarcasm I laughed, “What? You didn’t like it?”

By the end of the week, on Halloween morning, we received notice that the mandatory evacuation order for our hometown was lifted. The pair of us made our way back that afternoon, driving through apocalypticly empty neighborhoods and avenues blanketed in smoke the tint of wet rust.

From start to finish it was an experience that I will remember for the rest of my days. Mom clung to the emotions of it for a few months afterward, but eventually forgot the ordeal all together. Again, a small, rare gift of her disease. Sometimes when I struggle to find the silver lining in our situation I think of those days we spent together as evacuees, when survival overshadowed the focus of our day-to-day strife.

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