This past week, in the wooded hills above St. Helena, California, the place where my wife and I were married burned. An unchecked wildfire, one of dozens in California that have consumed nearly four million acres this dry and windy season, torched the trees we stood beneath fifteen years ago this month, and levelled the old, wooden, high-ceilinged house we shared with so many friends and family over the years.
Our loss is small. It’s the loss of a locus of cherished memories. Thousands of people have lost their primary homes, their possessions, their livelihoods, and some have lost their lives. But this fire, in ravaging one of the loveliest winemaking regions on the planet and devastating its economy for years to come, brought home a truth about our complacent lives that could be the cautionary theme of this whole horrible year: you never know the last time, never recognize it as you’re living through it.
We were there just last year, stayed in that house with dear friends, stood under those trees and pantomimed our exchange of vows, walked those hills in the chill morning fog, the live oaks around us black and twisted as though foreshadowing what was to come. We treated it as commonplace, just another in a long series of routine gifts of beauty and calm that we would come back and reclaim over and over. We didn’t know it was the last time.
And now it’s gone. The place will survive in some form or another, the trees will grow back eventually, the house will be rebuilt, probably grander and better, but the site of those memories will never be the same. It’s gone. (That’s the short, brutal, binary word that local victims of the fire are using to describe the loss of a home, a car, a pet, a former life: gone.) It was our last time in that place, and we didn’t know it.
We went to Europe last year, too. Strolled the streets of Paris and lolled by a lake in Italy. Things we’d been privileged to do many times before, and surely would do many times again. We didn’t know it was the last time for who knows how long.
Nor did we know that that night last February when we sat down to dinner in another family’s home would be the last time we would do such a wonderful, ordinary thing for – how long? Or sit in a crowded restaurant, or climb on a plane, or sing in church, or hold a grandchild, or go to the theater, or embrace the dying, or shake a hand, or kiss a friend. Or, or, or.
Each one, a last time for – how long? And some of them, for some of us, the very last time. That’s the great, malicious theft of this cruel year.
The lesson, of course, the only meaningful answer to these losses, is to practice attentiveness, to embrace these moments of earthly grace as they present themselves, knowing that, despite all appearances, each could be a last time. It’s the simplest lesson of our animal mortality, yet the hardest to learn. The only story we know to tell ourselves is of living every day as all the days before.
But if the pandemic and the hurricanes and the fires and our degraded national ethics have taught us anything, it’s that our pleasant fable of continuity and repetition is mostly a lie, and in a moment life can take a turn that changes everything. We never know the last time, but we can live it as though we do.