It’s strange what the heart can hold. Or, I’m just happy my brother is here.

by Janelle Hanchett

Lord, I feel like we haven’t talked in a year. I feel like I’ve lived about two lifetimes the past two days.

On Thursday, I got two messages from my mother in rapid succession, which I missed while exercising. Since it was the day before the anniversary of my grandmother’s murder, I was on edge and tense and reflective, the way we are when these days come back around.

The texts just said “Please, call me.”

I called, and my mother said, “Have you heard about the fire? Ross (my brother) called from his truck. He evacuated the hospital and was trapped on a road, surrounded by flames.”

And then the line cut out and my mother got no more information.

In a word, I fucking flipped. I was thrown directly back into the moment I learned my grandmother was murdered: full body shaking, racing brain, barely able to speak. Shock, I guess. Luckily I had friends there, since I was just leaving her house.

My brother’s wife and children made it out, but I had a vision of my brother suffocating, jumping out of his truck, burning up. That was at 11am. From then until 5pm, we had no idea if he made it out or not, and all I could do was watch Twitter updates of the Camp Fire in Paradise, now the most destructive fire in California’s history, and pray to God my brother wasn’t in that. You tell yourself he’s super smart and level-headed. You tell yourself he won’t take risks.

It dawns on you that raging fire kills the logical alongside the illogical. You go back to Twitter.

And yet, he was in that. Right in the center of it. I could see where he was on the map, and I could see where the flames were via Twitter updates.

It was 110 degrees inside the cab of my his truck. He watched the bumper melt off the car in front of him. People were driving on hubcaps because their tires had melted, running out of cars that had caught fire. There were cars and propane tanks exploding, people carrying kids and pets needing rides, running to buildings for shelter only to have it catch fire, too. It was black as night in the middle of the day. Apocalyptic. Devastating.

Turns out my brother made it to a Kmart parking lot and sheltered there, and obviously, made it, or this post would look very different. The hospital where he’s a doctor found him through emergency services.

They lost everything, as did most people in that mountain town. They’re here now, and I can’t tell you what it felt like to hug my sister-in-law and niece and nephews. And to hold my brother’s face in my hands.

They showed up yesterday, on the anniversary of my grandmother’s murder. It was strange to gather again on the same day, two years later, in despair, again, and yet, not quite, because we all made it through this one.

I’ll share what I wrote on Facebook, and a few photos, but the truth is I don’t have insight right now and I’m so, so fucking sorry for people who have lost everything, for the terror, for the devastating we dodged but others will receive. I can’t even think about my brother and sister-in-law soon walking over the ashes of their home with their three children for the past seven years.

So much love to all of you. Please keep the people of Paradise in your thoughts, and the Californians affected by the Southern California fires. If you’d like to help people in the NorCal fires, here’s some info. I may set up a fundraising account for victims, but I need to organize it and figure out who will get the money, etc.

Local friends please look up on Facebook places where you can drop off supplies to be taken to Chico.

This is what I wrote yesterday when my brother and his family was on his way to us.

Two years ago today, my grandmother, Joan, lost her life at the hands of my cousin. It’s strange what the heart can hold, what it learns to exist alongside. We’ve moved through worlds since then: terror, rage, bone-deep sorrow. I still move through them.

Yesterday, when we didn’t know if my brother made it out of the fire, I kept thinking there is just no way we could lose him the day before this. That’s not a thing.

But then again we never thought we could live through what happened two years ago, but it’s strange what the heart can hold, how you learn to live with a side of you always grieving, a little afraid, a little confused. It washes life in more vivid light. I’ll give you that. Nothing is clear. Nothing is as it seems. Nothing is secure, but truly fuck the whole concept of “every day is a gift.” I mean, it’s true, but fuck it on principle.

Today we are gathering as a family just like we did two years ago. To be alive and be friends. To hold what the heart holds.

my brother took this picture from his truck

As my sister-in-law said, “Isn’t it strange how you can lose everything but feel only joy because your people are here?”

  • Anna

    My heart goes out to you and your family. I’m from another state that catches fire and burns like hell regularly. Though not nearly in the scale of California. This last summer we had a blaze rip through the heart of our valley taking homes, lives, and business. We spent a month in silent hill style smoke clouds. I helped friends empty belongings off of there houses in a panic while black clouds and ash fell, listening to sheriff’s on loud speakers count down the minutes we had to leave.

    Your post reminded me of the strength we show we mother nature is at her worst. I saw my little town pull together overnight as neighbors sheltered neighbors,, lines of horse trailers showed up to rescue livestock, and impromtu food kitchens, set up in living rooms, popped up all. I’m so glad your family made it out, thank you for pointing out the resilience we can find in tragedy.

    Love from Colorado. <3

  • Dani

    I am so, so glad he’s OK.

  • Laurie G.

    I am so glad about your brother and his family! And so horrified by the destruction and death, coming so quickly after the tragedy of Thousand Oaks. And all our useless sack of shit POTUS can tweet is blame for “poor forest management.” He can take away many things but not our love for one another.

  • Melissa

    Your sister-in-law was one of my best friends in college. I was at their wedding! Even though I haven’t seen them in years, I sobbed like a baby when I saw them reunitedon Thursday night. I am so thankful your beautiful family has been spared. My heart goes out to all of you. Sending love from Virginia. (And, by the way, awkward transition, but I looooooovvvvve your book. Thank you for writing it.)

  • Peggy

    Best wishes

  • Katie

    He evacuated the hospital? I had to go back and read that twice. And then got out himself. Wow….wow. I’m thankful you are all together. Sending internet love.

  • Tracy

    Oh Janelle. Im in WA and thought of your family when I heard about the fire there! Thank you for taking a moment and sharing with us. Life is fragile and we’re not in charge of much, just loving each other.

  • Cheney

    I worried about you and your family, knowing you live in Northern California. I’m so sorry to hear that your brother lost his house, but so happy for your family that they all got out okay. 🙂

  • Janet

    From a fan in Santa Rosa, I am so relieved that your family made it out. These fires are terrifying.

  • Wendy

    Hey, sending all our love from down under – It looked terrifying so glad to hear he got out ok – the rest is material possessions. I am embarrassed for you that your president is such a douche! You should move to Australia except so is our Prime Minister – New Zealand’s Prime Minister ROCKS!

  • Judithellen Kennedy

    This was not a drill. This was the real thing. The Borderline was a place where my daughter and her friends go to celebrate stuff….and have fun. She wasn’t there on Wednesday…but she could have been. She could have been shot by a kid who was known to have mental health issues going back to high school, yet was able to buy a gun and adapt it for mass killing. She could have been there… but she wasn’t. I could be planning a funeral for her, my youngest …a child really, whose life is just beginning. I could be doing that….but I’m not. No. What I am doing is trying to channel my anger-energy at the fucking NRA and our ridiculous gun lobby…instead into supporting and helping the very grieving families who are now fighting to save their lives and homes as we battle the wildfires around us. At this writing we are safe. My home is safe, my family safe…. but if we have learned anything, it is that nothing….absolutely nothing can be taken for granted in this life. I want to breathe easier ..but I’m not.

    • Sierra

      Judith, I too, am from Thousand Oaks. I grew up there. I went to school with someone who died that night and church with the cousins of another victim. A kid, now grown up, that I babysat and big sistered was supposed to be there with friends that night. Before the vigil could be held, most of the town evacuated from the fires. My heart just keeps breaking. But I am SO glad your daughter didn’t go that night. I’m glad that she’s ok and I’m hopeful that any friends of hers either weren’t there or made it out safely.

  • Inga

    So glad to hear that your brother and family got out ok- I can’t believe you had to wait for five hours to know – that is just pure hell. Your sister-in-laws comment really hit home “isn’t it strange how you can lose everything but feel only joy because your people are here?”. As a wildfire scientist and science communicator I can only hope that I am doing my small part to help people understand as much as possible about wildfire so that this shit can stop happening. This type of thing inspires me to keep working…keep working.

  • Kerry

    One of your biggest fans; tightly grasp the book (ha, no pun intended, but yes, on occasion, it IS THE Book to me!!), as I struggle through such similar life lessons. Enough said. BUT you nailed it ~ me ~ with this. As I sit, miserable from cabin fever with a 5 year old, in the same apt for the last few days due to our air quality here in the SF Area. Regularly watching the news, also with family all over the state…but your post was the reality check I needed. Your SIL’s comment so very relevant. I also have an annual ‘grandmother in mourning’ day, so can’t fathom both hitting at the same time. Won’t even TOUCH the rest (the DBOTUS…ha). You keep on writing it for the rest of us who can’t quite get it on paper. All the love that can be sent via email-

  • Sierra

    I’m glad that you and your family are ok. In the long run, it’s only stuff and stuff can be replaced. But people can’t.
    I moved away over a decade ago, but I grew up in Thousand Oaks, CA. My heart has just been continuously aching from the shooting at a bar I used to go to and lived 5 miles from to the fires that evacuated most of the town before a vigil could be held. It’s all just heart breaking. There’s no other word for it.