An Anniversary With Fire

–by Heather Murphy

Eleven years ago to the day, I was driven up to the emergency entrance of the birthing center in a nearby Southern Oregon town, excited, afraid, and as ready as I could be for the sixteen hours of hallucinatory labor that would follow before my stubborn son was surgically extracted from me. The home birth had deteriorated. It diverted as far off course as I’d let my imagination run during the early months of the pregnancy when irrational fears can get the best of you at any given moment.

But I had my game face on. This was going to be a magical experience, regardless of how many surgical instruments might be implemented.

As they wheeled me in, ash rained down on me from the Biscuit Fire, unceremoniously decorating my hair with its ruined confetti. The fire wasn’t “close,” but it was close enough, and it was huge, and out of control, burning hundreds of thousands of acres in its mad, hellish rampage through the Siskiyou Mountains. I had been hiding in the house for days, afraid the smoke would hurt the baby, worrying about those first crucial months that we would now have to spend inside, or go somewhere else, if we wanted fresh air. The birth had been predicted for the end of July and large forest fires that start in July don’t go out until October. The sunsets would be frightfully beautiful for months to come.

The smoke wasn’t leaving anytime soon.

Personnel swarmed the mountains while the nurses and my retinue of midwives kept a watchful eye over me. We had the place to ourselves; no other women’s bodies were allowing births to happen in the entire town, clenched as they probably were, in fear.

There is a primal and reflexive fear response to the smoke and close smell of a large fire. It settles in your bones and sends erratic, mini-adrenaline squirts into your bloodstream. This is so you can break into a run and escape the flames when they finally burst through the opaque blanket of smoke. That’s not the groove you want while you are laboring to bring your first child into this world. Those are not the chemicals you want your brain using in those lovely cocktails it makes so you’ll stay nice and calm during the miraculous and impossible passing-through of a very large object through a very small space.

I willed myself calm. I breathed deep of the bad, recirculated air pouring generously from the hospital’s air-conditioning ducts, and after a pink, fuzzy expanse of strange, countless hours, I got my baby. I then produced the colostrum and compulsory bowel movement necessary to make our hasty exit, with record speed.

For the trip home we donned particulate masks; mother, father, and fire-sign baby. The fire raged on, as forest fires will do and the valley looked like Mexico City, or a scene from a bad zombie movie, as the smoke wafted about with impunity. My husband crawled with the customary speed of a brand new father and I crouched protectively over the baby in the backseat. Neither of us could conceive of hurtling ourselves through space at speeds above thirty five miles an hour with cargo so precious.

But we made it home safely.

Today, my son’s birthday is an anniversary with fire. On Friday night, lightning strikes, like labor pains, surprised the sleeping mountains of Southern Oregon, jolting the body of the earth awake. As he blows out his eleven candles, the windows are shut tight while the mountains again labor with fire, the cycle of which brings new life to the forest.  Embroiled in controversy as it might be, the fact remains—without this fearsome show of smoke and flame, the forest won’t flourish in the long run. Though the smoke is hazardous to people, and at times, flames threaten or overcome structures; the forests have been in this cycle of lightning and fire for thousands of years. The time right before a birth can be a dangerous one, a time of pain and chaos, but the nascent life just beneath the surface, struggling to gain footing, is the strongest force there is; it is the force that keeps our planet spinning.

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