TRYING TO LAUGH 
THROUGH THE TEARS

   I woke up a couple of Mondays ago, checked my phone, and there was the text message. My sister and brother-in-law were at Denny's 24 hour Restaurant, and needed a place to stay.
   They had evacuated their house in Sonoma at 2 a.m. when the fire was raging, taking only their dog and their wallets, and drove to San Francisco to the only place that was open. 
   "Why didn't you come straight here?" I asked when I reached her on the phone.
   "We didn't want to bother you in the middle of the night," she replied. "And we weren't exactly ready to go back to bed."
   Made sense. Nothing like a Grand Slam breakfast at Denny's while your house was possibly burning to the ground.
   "We'll be right over," she continued. "And don't worry, depending on which way the wind blows, we'll only be there for either a couple of days or two years."
    Dark humor. Everyone has their own way of dealing with devastation and dire circumstances. In our family, we try to laugh through the tears. It's just the way we're wired, I guess.
   By no means would we ever make light of the suffering and loss of life that has so tragically affected so many people in this disastrous event. Our hearts go out to the families and friends of the 42 people that perished, and to the thousands who lost their homes. This is just a story of how my sister and her husband dealt with the realization that their home could be destroyed any minute. I watched them the entire week the fires raged, and decided it was worth writing about (with their permission).
   The first reaction, naturally, was shock. No one expects these events to happen to them. These are things to watch on the news, or read about in the papers or social media. It always happens to other unfortunate people, not your own family. This couldn't be happening.
   But it was. As the fires raged all day Monday, it looked increasingly likely that their dream home in Sonoma would go up in flames. And there was absolutely nothing they could do about it except wait and watch.
   My sister did her share of crying. I was watching the fire news on television as she came into the kitchen on Tuesday morning, and she politely asked me to turn it off. She couldn't watch it anymore. It was too stressful. But then she did what we do.
   She told me that her son-in-law called. They had used the Sonoma house for a party that Sunday, and had spent two hours cleaning up. "He said it was a colossal waste of time," she said, chuckling. "Had he known it was going to burn to the ground he wouldn't have bothered."
   That lightened the mood. She then noted that she was glad she had let the laundry pile up. And then she discussed all the improvements she would make when she rebuilt.
   Meanwhile, while both my sister and brother-in-law expected the worst, I became the optimist. My new nickname quickly became, "Pollyanna." I was pumping them up every chance I got.
   By Thursday they were sick of my cheerfulness. The fire was creeping ever closer. It was on the hillside only a couple of blocks away, and the winds were forecast to be strong that evening. Their fate depended on which direction the wind would blow.
   My brother-in-law, who handles adversity as well as anyone I know, was ready to crack. "All I want is a yes or no," he said on Thursday night. "The only thing I can't handle is the uncertainty."
   Pollyanna told him once again everything would be fine. The wind was blowing the right direction, away from his house. According to Pollyanna, that is, who knew nothing. He just chuckled and rolled his eyes.
   Friday morning may have been the worst. "Pollyanna isn't feeling well," I announced after listening to the news. "I think your house is toast."
   That made them laugh, which was all I could do. By Friday evening, just when they were certain their house was gone, the winds died down and the heroic firefighters got a handle on the flames that were bearing down on their house.
   Unlike thousands of others, they would be going home. They had laughed, they had cried, and they had got lucky. And I watched and learned, hoping it wouldn't be my turn next.
 

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