From my living room, I turn on my laptop to send off a brief message to my two grandchildren. I am doing this while watching helplessly as the fires consume a coastal community in Sonoma County, Calif. I am making calls and texting with total conviction that I will hold them safe.
The note is signed “A Grandma in Grace County.”
Overnight, my kids came to live with me in the same house they grew up in and my husband and I have been doing everything to get by, working three jobs as a preschool teacher and a mental health counselor in a men’s shelter, while hoping to return to the life we knew before three years ago.
I am a caregiver to my dementia-induced husband, the one I consider my eldest child. And my children are my caregivers to us.
As I turn away from the fires and my phone lights up with texts, emails and calls from loved ones in the disaster area, I have been thinking about what is driving me during this difficult time — my feet.
“Why are you doing it?” I keep wondering. “I didn’t get chosen for the grant program, I’m not really an expert in disaster-relief needs. But, since I care for my husband, I want to help my family. And don’t you have a day job that you can do right now?”
I am acutely aware that there is no magic formula for success in crisis and that the mechanisms are contingent. My husband is in need, my family is in need, and it is time for me to do something — anything — for those families. So I text back to my grandson’s mother. The conversation goes from back-and-forth to, well, we can’t stand each other’s company.
“I’m trying to pick up the pieces and not damage things,” I explain. “People you care about are in harm’s way. I think that the federal government needs to put a special emergency fund for displaced families. That’s what happened after Hurricane Katrina and after Hurricanes Sandy and Harvey. Just like that money came through, please help my family pick up the pieces.”
She angrily answers back: “I love you too, Bea. You shouldn’t be doing this.”
“You’re my first grandchild. I’m a grandmother. It’s my duty to help you,” I continue.
She replies, “What the hell do you think it’s going to take for me to care for my kid and your son?”
“It isn’t hard to care,” I say. “They need me.”
“Do you understand how angry I am?” she adds. “You don’t understand how people in New Orleans and San Antonio and Lake Charles are picking up the pieces, it’s heartbreaking. You think you know better than these people.”
At this point, I receive a call from a man from another family, who happened to be driving near my home in California.
“We’re in the same boat. We lost everything,” he says, his voice cracking.
I look at the sun lighting up my laptop window, light from an adjacent firelight shining on me.
“Of course we’re in the same boat,” I say. “We lost our house, too. Can you tell me why you don’t care about us?”
“I’m afraid that we’re gonna be such an inconvenience for you. You know how it is in a disaster, you’re all out of food and water and shelter. It’s pretty much next to impossible.”
Then he says something that is less than reassuring, but one that cuts through all the rhetoric and truly bothers me: “I’m a single man. This doesn’t work for me. I’m doing something for my family.”
He is on to something. As a mother of three daughters, with a bedridden mother-in-law and two grandchildren, I am not one to pass up an opportunity to give myself and the people I love a little more work to do. I will continue to press for those government grants. I will continue to walk, read and process events, with fresh news that brings some consolation to those I have lost. And I will continue to read about others.
I know what Will Rogers said. “I was born poor