An Open Book: Sixteen Years Later

Los Alamos

The old adage that time heals all wounds is a cruel falsehood. For the most painful wounds, those of the heart and of the mind, they often remain beneath the surface, to be covered, if we are fortunate, by warmer experiences that add distance and perspective. And it is also part of life that sometimes it is even more painful experiences that later clarify for us that those wounds that seemed so piercing at the time, were not the ones that hurt the most.

I didn’t feel like writing about the Cerro Grande Fire at any of its anniversaries until this evening. Reliving each day, as if rewinding my life exactly 5, 10, 15 years seemed pointless. Maybe I was seeking the distance that would let me think as much about what has happened in the years that followed as what occurred on each of those formative days. Tonight, as the 16th anniversary approaches, it feels OK to share.

Unlike many friends, our loss in the fire was trivial; a ruined floor from a melting icebox, some smoke damage from a window cracked open. The pain came by proximity, standing by friends as they surveyed the loss of possessions too valuable to measure. I can only imagine that even after these years, the place these items held in their lives reinsert themselves not only on anniversaries and birthdays, but at random and unexpected times.

Even without the loss of possessions, strange memories seem to elbow in for me; when I hear the dull drone of propellers above town, those slurry-carrying planes are back again, and I stiffen.

I have to admit, however, the losses and the stresses of the Cerro Grande Fire are not what come to mind mostly when I seek for memories of those days. I remember more clearly an elevated time when neighbors helped neighbors, the sense of relief that no firefighters or other emergency workers were injured in the chaos. I remember stories of love found in FEMAville, the amazed and grateful look in my children’s eyes when they were offered unlimited tokens at a Santa Fe bowling alley, those empathetic glances and handshakes and offers of assistance from around the world.

Of course, 16 years is a very long time. Nine-eleven, war, loss of family members and of friends, even another fire and evacuation are now milestones in our lives that add distance to this, my first communal emergency. Good things too have happened; that boy excited by unlimited pinball machine play is now about to be married.

After the fire, the schoolchildren of Los Alamos made seedballs, and I was one of the chaperones as we spread them and planted trees all along the Quemazon Trail. I thought at the time that I would take my boys back some day to this trail, to see the young trees that they planted mature enough to bear fruit. We would talk then about time, and memory, of loss and of gain. Now I realize that the longer I wait, the grander the trees will become, and the more majestic the view.

Now I realize that the longer I wait, the grander the trees will become, and the more majestic the view. Time does not heal wounds, but maybe the gift that time gives us is the wisdom to bear those wounds with a bit of perspective, acceptance, and grace.