Nobody honked. Nobody road raged. And most importantly, nobody panicked.
We were all headed for the community of Anzac, a reputed safe refuge for any and all fleeing the inferno that was ravenously consuming Fort McMurray. The line up of cars, trucks, buses, and RV’s snaked towards the hamlet carefully, almost gingerly, respecting each other and our common desire to find somewhere, anywhere, safe.
Just before Anzac is a little white church on top a small hill, gracefully cradled by trees. It looked like the type of refuge I needed.
I turned into the lot, not wanting to carry on in the long line up of cars and trucks. As we pulled up the long gravel driveway, I noticed that the church door was open. I hoped that was a good sign. As I pulled around to the side of the building, a figure appeared in the doorway, paused for a moment, then started walking purposefully toward us.
He was a young looking pastor, light-haired with a friendly smile and a calm voice. Before I even asked the question, he reassured me that we were welcome, for as long as we needed to stay, and would provide whatever they had if it would help.
“I’d appreciate if we could park the trailer and stay the night. And if you have some water for the kids that would be awesome.” I couldn’t bring myself to explain that I was missing four of my group of seven at the moment. During the long, slow drive I had been texting the babysitter and new found hero to find out the status of my kids, whether she had picked them up, where they were headed, and if they were all safe. Communication networks were overloaded, if not burned up, so it was a slow, anxious process. No answer yet.
“There’s water in the church, as much as you need. And you can park the trailer around back if you like.” the Pastor was explaining.
I nodded numbly, put Vincent into gear and pulled the trailer to the indicated area. The procedure of setting up and levelling the trailer was a welcome distraction for a few moments. I needed that. I took my kids with me into the church for bathroom breaks and water. There was a small play room for the kids as we entered, and they immediately made for it. A welcome distraction for three bewildered babies. As I watched them play, the Pastor re-appeared.
“Can I pray with you?” He asked gently.
“Yeah, I’d appreciate that.” I responded quietly, and then added, “I’m missing four of my kids. They’re somewhere with a stranger, leaving Fort McMurray.” I was beginning to resolve that no tears would flow from my eyes for the unknown, but they threatened to cloud my vision anyway. My heart ached. I took a deep breath as the Pastor absorbed what I had just said, his expression showing understanding and grace.
I don’t remember what he prayed, but I do remember feeling stronger. I would get through this, I would have ALL of my kids back, and somehow, someday, somewhere, this would all just be an unpleasant memory.
I settled the kids into their beds some time later that night, using jackets as pillows, with a few blankets I’d managed to grab covering their tired little bodies, tucking in arms and legs as best I could. Darkness was settling in, and I walked outside to look to the north. Red and orange clouds of smoke and fire was all I could see. It was all anyone could see, as the church’s lot had turned into a refuge for dozens of people. We all stared in silent shock as it sunk in that at this very moment our homes could be consumed by this beast of a fire. It was too much...
I couldn’t keep watching, or thinking about what we were escaping, so I went back inside. My 5 year old Zach met me at the door, the other two having fallen asleep some time earlier.
“What’s up, buster?” I asked as gently as I could.
“Are Allie, and Toria, and Nick, and Ben okay?” he asked in his usual quiet, careful voice.
It took me a moment to take a deep, calming breathe before I could talk. “I’m really not sure, my boy, but I think so.” I hoped so, I prayed so, I wanted desperately so. But at the moment there was absolutely nothing I could do. I’d made my way to the couch, maneuvering quietly and carefully so I didn’t wake anyone. Zach joined me there, quickly made his way onto my lap, rested his head on my chest and sighed. “I really hope so, Daddy.” I couldn’t speak, or maybe wouldn’t for fear of losing it completely.
I don’t know how long we sat there, a Dad comforting his son missing four siblings, and a son giving his Dad something to focus on, keeping the three kids he did have safe.
The sound of a text coming through on my phone broke the silence...
“We drove through the fire and are on our way to Anzac. Where are you?” It was the babysitter! I quickly informed her of where we were, hoping it would go through quickly. It did! Now all we had to do was wait.
My boy Zach was still sitting on my lap. “Is everything okay, Daddy?” he asked sleepily.
“I’m thinking it might be, son.” I replied with refreshed hope. It was something to hang on to.
I don’t know how long me and my boy waited in the dark, silently and anxiously awaiting the appearance of more my children, more of his brothers and sister. It seemed like an eternity. I still didn’t know where my oldest was, either, but I would have three more.
It was late, somewhere near to or past midnight I think, when I heard a truck pulling up close to the church. With all the other traffic driving by I’m not sure how, but I knew my kids were in that truck.
As I’ve now taken to calling her, Naomi the hero was out of the truck first. I was very tempted to hug her, but didn’t know if I’d be able to keep it together, or whether I’d let her go again, or how I would ever thank her enough for rescuing three of my children.
Instead, in the faint light coming from the windows of the church, all I could muster for the moment was a “Thank you so much.” I wanted to say so much more, but couldn’t. Those damn tears were threatening me again, and I still had one child I had to find. Not yet, I told myself. There might be time later.
Cheerfully she responded with, “No problem, I’m glad I could help!” No problem waiting for almost 3 hours at a school surrounded by fire, trying to find kids you’ve never met before, calming and caring for them as you painstakingly drove through a city on fire with thousands of other people, to get to their almost insane father almost 10 hours later. She needs a cape, I thought.
Three of my kids appeared from the truck, and we hugged, tightly, for a long time. I thanked Naomi again, found that she’d be staying in Anzac for the night with friends, then she got back into her truck and drove off.
Stories about lava, and fire, and smoke, and being scared, and Naomi was so nice poured excitedly out of the mouths of these three of my group of seven. We walked towards the trailer, all of us holding hands with each other. Tightly.
An hour or so later I finally had the new batch of kids tucked in wherever and with whatever I could find to keep them warm, or at least somewhat comfortable.
As I was about to settle into my bed for the night, shutting off remaining lights on the way and making sure the trailer door was locked, my boy Zach suddenly appeared beside me again.
“It’s really, really, super late, my boy. It’s time for bed. Are you okay?” I asked.
I could see he really wanted to say something. Sometimes, with this one, that took patience to coax whatever thoughts he was having out. I knelt down to his level and waited. This was going to be deep for my boy. He frowned slightly as he began to speak.
“Okay... and Daddy?” Zach said as he moved in to squeeze my neck with his little boy arms, gentle tears forming in his dark brown eyes, “thanks for keeping us safe, Daddy.” It was all he could muster. And I’m not sure I would’ve been able to handle much more.
Simple, powerful, heart shaking words. I couldn’t breathe as I pulled my son in close for a warm, soul connecting hug before sending him back to bad.
“I love you, boy. And that’s all I can do.” As hard as I tried, I couldn’t keep a few tears from falling as I let him go back to bed.
I only had one more of my group of seven to find, and I was hoping it would be soon. And Daddy? Thanks for keeping us safe....