Shortly after 1:00 this morning, a soft voice in my ear woke me. It wasn’t a familiar I love you voice, or my conscience telling me I forgot something. It was the night aide at the Retirement Home where my mother lives. I squinted at her, trying to gain recognition. “Are you serious?”
Had she really sneaked into my room to check on me? Or ask for my credentials? Or why…
“Yes, I’m serious,” she whispered. “There is a fire…”
I was thinking “fire drill,” marveling that they could have scheduled a fire drill in the retirement home and incredulous that the drill could be scheduled for the one night—first night—I was in Reno, sleeping on the pull out love seat in my mom’s studio apartment.
The aide is obviously accustomed to having to repeat herself. “It’s a fire, across the freeway—“
“In the buildings across the freeway. And we might have to evacuate everyone. I don’t want to wake your mom and scare you, but I wanted to let you know.”
“Oh my gosh, okay….okay….thank you…,” I stammered.
“See,” she pointed to the patio door.
The sky blazed orange. Flames roared, shooting into the blackness. On the highway, squad car lights flashed on the highway stopping traffic from both directions. On the other side of the highway, the fire crackled and roared like thunder and raging water. My eyes and thoughts were glued to the blaze. I peered into the darkness, into the bright billowing smoke, searching for glimpse of the fire fighters, of ambulances, of evidence of life.
The aide was watching from the neighboring balcony. I asked her what was burning.
“Is anyone living there?”
“Not yet,” she told me. “They just started leasing them.
We have had our home catch fire before—twice. I know what it’s like to dress in the middle of the night and rush out of the house, heart pounding, as the windows crack and pop behind me. I know what it’s like to take inventory in the charred remains afterwards. Thankfully I don't know what it is like to lose loved ones to fire. I was grateful to know that kind of horror was not happening across the freeway.
Security personnel from the retirement home and the adjoining hospital circled the parking lot, watching for burning ember. A super truck pulled into the lot. I assumed it was another employee until a woman in a tank-top and a guy in jeans and a t-shirt climbed down from the truck and stood swilling beer and watching the show. Security guards shooed them away.
Maureen, the director of the facility, and another aide came out of the lobby. “We are ready to evacuate,” Maureen explained in hush tones. “We’ll take everyone out through the double doors on the hospital side. The shuttle buses and ambulances are waiting there.”
The blaze devoured one apartment building and lept to another at the same time it spread north across a field lining the highway.
“The medication cart is by the door; the patient files are there, too…” Maureen was directing this to me, but she wasn’t actually talking to me. She was reciting her emergency check list of all she had to do if the fire wasn’t controllable, if the wind blew up, if instead of racing north through the scrub lining the highway, the fire spread south, if the glowing embers landed wrong…
Standing there, watching the blaze, I wondered what I would do, could do, if the fire did spread. In that moment the enormous weight of the load Maureen, the aides, security people, and the hospital personnel next door carried beared down on me. I had never before contemplated just how much responsibility they and others who work in hospitals and care facilities assume when they take on the job. I had a car, I was strong and healthy; I could get my mother out of the building and drive clear of harm. But what about all the others inside?
Fortunately, we didn’t have to experience an evacuation. As I watched, water arched up and onto the diminishing flames and the billowing smoke gradually turned from black to gray to white. The firefighters won this battle.
Around three, I crawled back into my cozy sleeper love seat. The fire wasn't completely out yet; across the highway, firefighters still battled. But I wasn't worried any more; the Angels of Monaco Ridge were standing guard. I joined my mother and the other sleeping residents.