The last couple of weeks have been intense, emotionally draining, exhausting, scary but thankfully full of community. I don’t think any of us who have experienced these events will ever forget them.
We live in the Westlake Village area of Thousand Oaks.
Until late in the evening of Wednesday the 7th of November, 2108, not many people outside Southern California, had ever heard of our town. Thursday we woke up to the appalling news that no-one ever should have to hear. Our town, which was listed as the fourth safest city in the USA, and was often referred to as ‘living in its own bubble’ had joined the growing list of places whose names will be associated with the insidious condition infecting our times: the site of a mass shooting, at Borderline Bar. A name forever associated with a unthinkable tragedy.
Garnet woke me up with the news, early Thursday morning. My first reaction was of disbelief – ‘this doesn’t happen where we live, not here’ and ‘no, there must be a mistake’. Unfortunately, despite all desperate hope that the news was wrong, the beeps on my phone and the reports in every app told the true and tragic story of the mass shooting at the Borderline Bar in Thousand Oaks. Twelve people died, one of whom was the Sheriff Deputy, Sgt, Ron Helus, trying to stop the gunman. A terrible, wasteful, unnecessary loss of life.
Going about a normal day felt odd – it was hard to focus on anything and find space between pushing the sick feeling down and trying to find answers where there are none at all. It was difficult to leave the boy at school that morning, and driving out of town to work just felt wrong.
On the way home from Santa Barbara a telephone call came through saying there had been lockdown at school and assured us that everyone was safe and it was just a precaution. The call came just as I was passing the exit to Borderline. It was hard to breathe or think, so I just drove to the school, 40 minutes early, and sat outside waiting for the boy to come out. Although somewhat calmed by the sight of normality at the school and chatting to other mums, there were some other news alerts coming through about an outbreak of a wildfire close to the part of the 101 I had driven through, plus another in Simi Valley. Still at the school there was no sign of anything but winds and maybe the suggestion of smoke in the air.
As the homework time dragged on, reports of fires spreading around us started causing my phone to beep manically, telling of areas that were being evacuated. It was somewhat nervously that I headed up the road with the boy to share pizza with several friends, whose husbands were also out of town, Garnet having left for Chicago earlier that day.
A feeling of tenseness hung over the pizza and wine, all feelings of the Borderline tragedy being suppressed by the looming worry of the fires. More reports of fires were coming through, stories of evacuations on facebook in the Dos Vientos area and constant refreshing of group texts, social media feeds and local news sites. Another mum dropped in and when she said there was no cause to worry, we all relaxed a bit, after all she is Southern Californian born and bred. Still after walking through the smoky air I pulled together a few photo albums, stuffed the latest washing pile into a bag and got our documents together.
An exhausting day! A few hours into a surprisingly deep sleep, I was woken by a panicked phone call from Garnet telling me we were under mandatory evacuation order. A hurried text to the mum’s group bought no reassurance, and the ash was falling around us, so the boy and I hurriedly threw what we could grab into the car, lifted a reluctant Monty into the back and followed two of our neighbors out of town. The moment we left the house was the first time I have seen the boy that scared, and trying to reassure him we were all going to be OK when I had no idea of what to do, where to go, what was going to happen was difficult, to say the least.
We headed for one of their friends, high up in one of the canyons, along winding, narrow roads with only our headlights to guide us. Thankfully the dark meant that the drops off the side were not visible, so that was one less thing to worry about. Looking back over our valley, after cresting the hill, the mountains that are a feature of our everyday life were an angry, glowing band of red. It was a heartbreaking, frightening sight.
I just followed our friends, again squashing the fear and overwhelming need to scream.