The phone in our quiet house comes back to life as friends and relatives call from all over the planet to make sure we’re safe. I picture them going through their drawers to find my number, a few still unsure of how to spell the name. However, the reports of the recent fire, especially the maps shown on TV, put us right at the center of this inferno. Callers are mostly worried, but a few sound so overwhelmed that I feel as if I have let them down by not having burned already.
Assured that our neighborhood is in no imminent danger, it’s my duty to extend a helping hand. I grab anything that meets the list mentioned on TV and head down to the shelter at Qualcomm Stadium. Even through the mask I’m wearing, the air is heavy with smoke. I imagine people rushing over to my car, grateful for what I’ve brought along and the image fills me with new energy. Conscious that I could have done more, I regret not having borrowed my son’s big car.
Highway 805 isn’t too busy. People must be staying home, watching the news, and worrying. My cell phone rings and it’s my daughter. She wants to know if I’d like to contribute something to her task. Apparently, the kids are out on a mission of their own, doing their bit to help the devastated community. “I called the shelter and took a list of what they need and am now on my way to the store,” my younger daughter announces in her enthusiastic voice. “After taking some food and supplies to the animal shelter, I’m going to head down to Qualcomm to volunteer.”
I haven’t seen the girls in a week, but know that this one has a deadline on an art project, which means that she has neither the time nor the money to subsidize such a project. A warm feeling engulfs me as I think that maybe my job as a parent is done, that I have raised them right, and that my children have grown up to be good people.
I exit the freeway and join the long lines of cars on Friars Road. After nearly an hour, I am finally on the side street that leads to Qualcomm. A single guard in yellow apron directs all these cars and every single driver stops to ask a question. It is getting too hot and a few drivers lose patience and start to honk. When finally it’s my turn, I state that I have brought supplies and also hope to be of some medical assistance. “Straight down,” he yells. All the other cars are also going that way and I realize there is no other choice but “straight down”!
I ask the driver to my left if he knows where we are going. The man just shrugs and rolls up his window. The car to my right is packed with giggling teenagers, listening to their loud music. The driver, too young to have a license, tells me they don’t have a clue, either. I sit back and try to look calm. I turn on the car radio, but that doesn’t help at all. By now, there have been so many horrifying scenes on TV that as they report more fires, I can see the flames and feel the unbearable heat.
Nearly two hours pass before I finally park the car and am told to carry everything to area A3. The boxes are heavy and I need to make several trips to the car. At area A3, I am surrounded by mounds of blankets, beddings and pillows and my box of bottled water is lost among the filed of canned beverages and cases of water. Standing next to a well-equipped food tent, I watch people roam around holding their cold drink, free lunch, or complimentary ice cream. I soon learn that these are not the evacuees, that they are just people, school kids hanging out, or volunteers just like me.
At gate A, I can register as a medical volunteer to be of some use in their makeshift hospital. “We have more than enough people for today and tomorrow,” a young boy tells me. “But if you leave your name and number, in a couple of days we may need people to deliver medicine.” Seeing the bewildered look on my face, he explained, “You know? Someone has a headache, you take them an Aspirin?” No one asks about my Red Cross training. It doesn’t seem to be a requirement. I leave them my name and number, anyway.
When my daughter calls me at home, she sounds so upset that I have a hard time understanding her. “So I go to ten different stores and buy all their junk: Soap, toothpaste, deodorants. I finally make it there and guess what? The woman tells me they don’t need it any more! They don’t even want volunteers.”
Unable to calm her down, I now face three sets of frustrations: Hers, mine, and the disappointment of victims of fire, who might have appreciated the extra help.
When three days go by and no calls come in for me to carry Aspirin, I know it’s time to give up. But when my daughter announces that she will never volunteer again, I realize that there may be no end to good parenting. Now I have a whole new lesson to teach my children. They need to learn that in order to do good, one must get past personal feelings, that just because of one frustrated individual, who may be too tired to think before speaking, one should not turn her back on humanity.
Many days have passed since the start of the recent California fires, but people continue to call us. If no good came out of this fire, at least my belief in human compassion has been revived. People are the reason we get past tragedies; however, sometimes what they say makes me wonder if no one believes in destiny any more.
A friend phones from Chicago and suggests that maybe we should move back there. “Just wait a few months,” I tell her and laugh. “We’ll talk about this after you’ve had your fair share of winter storms!”
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