Today is the last day of the year on the Jewish calendar, the dregs of the month of Elul, our new year’s eve. This is a day that always leaves me reflective, and all the more so if I am visiting my parents out in the country.
My elderly parents have an elderly cat, an 18 year old Siamese named Taffy. The furry beast is full of fleas, but my mom wonders whether she should let her pet in the house notwithstanding, since Taffy has been coughing so much. You see, California is on fire. Here, on the cattle-grazing ranch land at the dead center of our huge state, the fires are far to the north and south. The smoke, however, travels for hundreds of miles and scents the air even here. The news broadcasts warn children, the elderly and those with respiratory conditions to remain indoors. Mom reminds me not to open any windows.
My wife is not with me for this trip as she has work obligations on Monday. This weekend, however, she paid a birthday visit to a friend who lives high in the Sierra Nevada Mountains to our east. She texts me that the smoke-laden air is totally unbreatheable. Even down here on the valley floor, local high school and college football games are cancelled due to the smoke. Everyone hides indoors and runs the air conditioning full blast against the 100 degree heat and uncharacteristic humidity.
Back home in Sacramento, we have to be careful how we enter and leave our home. Open the door, step outside and quickly pull the door shut behind you. Leave the door open for 30 seconds or so to deposit groceries on the counter or haul out a sack of trash and the smoke alarm goes off.
My mother settles for locking her cat in the laundry room with food and water. Taffy will have none of it and meows up a furious storm until Mom lets her outside again. Mom says she doesn’t want to get bitten by fleas. The feline spends the night in the garage.
Driving down Highway 99 through California’s normally fertile Central Valley, I notice a billboard erected at the side of the road. “Pray for rain,” the sign exhorts us.
The epic drought in the West, now in its fifth consecutive year, has rendered much of the state a tinderbox. The grass in the highway median, the citrus groves, the waving rangeland where the cattle are fattened on their way to becoming Big Macs and porterhouse steaks, the stately old growth forests, all are just sitting ducks, dessicating in the sun, awaiting consumption by hungry flames barreling over the ridge. Everything in the path of the blaze is destroyed, leaving nothing but charred remains. Water and red-hued flame retardant is dropped from the sky by helicopter and airplane. CalFire erects firebreaks but can barely get one fire under control before another breaks out somewhere else in the state. Thousands of acres are consumed. Four firefighters are in the hospital after sustaining serious burns yesterday.
And yet the flames remain unsatisfied. What’s next?
The leafy trees in your backyard. Your house.
Dozens of little towns are evacuated. Residents stuff families and pets into their cars, grab what belongings they can, and flee. Horses are rescued by distant farms with spare paddocks, stables and horse trailers for transport.
Heading down Interstate 5 to work on Thursday morning, I saw plumes of smoke off in the distance. The billows were heading in our direction. I turn on the radio and learn that yet another fire, this time in a local park, had been reported at six o’clock that morning. A haze blankets downtown Sacramento and I dash from the car to the door of the office building where I work, attempting not to inhale the smoky air.
Governor Brown declares. a state of emergency.
My parents are fighting off a plague of ants. Desperate for water, colonies of ants enter through every crack or crevice. We spray and spray, killing ants by the dozen as they congregate in the kitchen sink, in the bathroom, even on the toilet seat.
My mother steps outside in the heat for a few minutes to water the few trees on her property that haven’t already died. She lets Taffy in for a brief respite in the air conditioning. Mom says her cat appears to have gone blind in one eye and isn’t seeing too well with the other. When she calls for Taffy, the old cat gropes around trying to find her.
“I’m afraid she’s not long for this world,” Mom tells me.
“We’re not long for this world,” my father quips in retort.
Dad turns 82 in November. My wife and I have made plans to drive down for his birthday.
I wonder how many more times I will visit this big house out in the country to celebrate Rosh Hashannah, the Jewish new year.
Tonight I will don a white shirt and tie, and we will drive into Fresno to attend the synagogue service marking the start of the High Holy Days. Tomorrow morning, we will go again to hear the blast of the Shofar, the trumpet that is supposed to wake us from our slumber, our stupor, the well-worn grooves of our lives that leave us blind to the neediness and suffering of others. We will greet each other with “L’shana tovah,” may you be blessed with a good new year.
And I know I will be praying for the safety of the firefighters, for the evacuees and their homes, for an end to the drought and the conflagrations that are burning up my home state of California.
I will be praying for rain.