Six weeks ago, we awoke at midnight to the smell of smoke outside our home in Napa. Social media was filled with on-the-ground accounts of fires beginning their destructive advance through our beautiful valleys. While areas about a mile from our house were being evacuated (we live three minutes from the most devastated area in Napa), we were not. Yet.
As our 11-year old son, Kane, slept, my husband and I agreed on a plan. We’d pack the cars and be ready, but wait for the official evacuation. I asked him to bring me the big purple suitcase. Standing there with the large hard case opened up on the bed, I recalled the last time I had packed for all of us in this suitcase—Spring Break last year to London. What a great trip, what fun memories we brought back with us in this very suitcase. Then I snapped back to reality and thought, “What the hell are you doing? Stop reminiscing and pack this thing. It’s an emergency!”
For a moment I was paralyzed. I stared at the cavernous purple box and thought, “What do I pack?” I began gathering essentials for all of us—clothes, toiletries, the basics. When that was finished, I stared at the half full case and thought “What now?” Waves of emotion knocked me back. “What in this house means the most to me, besides the obvious humans, cat, and dog?” It’s a tough question to answer, and one that you don’t really think about until you are staring at that suitcase. At least I didn’t.
I moved frantically from room to room gathering up a mish-mash of items. In Kane’s room, I found the necklace my mother gave him, the cross my father gave me for first communion that I in turn gave him, the replica Giants’ World Series ring his loves so much; little things, here and there. Then on to my room where I gathered all of my jewelry and 10 orange boxes – half of my Hermes scarf collection. In the living room, I stopped and looked at pictures of my grandparents circa 1910 in San Francisco. “Do I have this in digital? I don’t know, I can’t remember, what the hell do I have in the cloud?” I grabbed a few photos, but felt like once I went down that rabbit hole, one whole car would be filled with framed photos. So I stopped. My husband went in and closed the suitcase and carried it to the car, while muttering “Really, Hermes scarves?” All I could say was “Fuck off, don’t judge me!” Each of those scarves represents major moments in my life.
Kane added some of his own items, like stuffed animals and lacrosse equipment and then both cars were packed and backed out of the garage. We had no power. I stayed on the couch, glued to my phone as the horror unfolded. I had just dozed off for a second when the loudest pounding on the door I had ever heard woke me. It was the police. We opened the door and the officer said simply, “It’s time.” We woke Kane, gathered the animals, and piled into the cars. Police were everywhere. It was 5am, so smoky you could barely breathe and really, really scary. The only lights were the lights from police cars illuminating the street like a circus gone wild. Spinning, flashing lights everywhere as we drove past, waving a thankful hand and wondering if the image in the rearview mirror would be the last time we saw our neighborhood.
We didn’t know if we had a house until day five, when I was able to connect to our Ring doorbell and see our front porch. After six nights away, we were finally let back in. As we sat in our house feeling like the luckiest people on earth, I cried for the first time. I mean really cried. All of the doubt, fear, sadness, anger, boiled up together and blew.
As any parent knows, when your kid is terrified and asks if it’s going to be ok, you explain that you will make the right choices to keep him safe and that you will protect him—all the while knowing that it might not be true. We are the fortunate ones. We have our house. We have our family and our pets. So many have nothing, and I can only imagine their despair.
There are stories of first responders and business owners who helped others while their own homes were reduced to ashes. I look at people who have lost everything, yet are out there heading up rebuilding efforts. The communities of both valleys have come together like nothing I have ever seen.
After a robbery at the CVS in the midst of everything, I posted that there must be more evil in the world than good. But upon reflection, I don’t believe that anymore. I believe it to be the opposite.
At breakfast the morning before we were let back in, an elderly man said to me “You know, if people would just maintain this level of compassion, love for others, willingness to help someone in need, the world would be a different place.” He’s right of course, but can we do that? Can we fill our metaphorical suitcases with all of these things and share them with our fellow travelers? I don’t know. But the Williams are going to try.
It is still a long road ahead for our hometown and those around us. I hope that we can continue to band together and stand strong. Kane said to me one morning “You know Mom, some day a kid is going to be reading about this in history books. I wonder what they’ll learn from it.” I know what I want my son to remember most about this tragedy: how he saw the best in humanity and how, in turn, that brought out the best in him.
A final request: Drink Napa/Sonoma wines for the holidays please!
To donate to the recovery efforts, Karyn recommends
Napa Valley Community Foundation – https://www.napavalleycf.
Jameson Animal Rescue Ranch – http://www.