Independence Day has long been a happy holiday for me. Corny as it may sound, I love my country, and gathering in the park with other families to sprawl on blankets and gaze at the sky leaves me feeling hopeful about the whole American experiment. The firework show ends in a flurry of splintering light and the Star Spangled Banner, and I sigh contentedly and blink back tears.
This year, however, is different. This year Colorado is on fire. So many people are now homeless, and it is exhausting to imagine all the work ahead to make our community well. There are huge swaths of this state that will not look the same again in my lifetime. Or my children's.
All that fire has filled the air with a haze that has turned our fathomless blue sky into a flat grey disk, pressing down, so it's hard to feel like you can get a deep breath. The sunlight filters through it, a jaundiced yellow that adds to the ominous feel of these hot, dry days.
Because of the fires and the dryness, nearly all fireworks shows are cancelled. It's hard to know how to celebrate without fireworks.
On top of that, two of my children are gone. Max and Raphael are away at camp - in a whole different state - thankfully out from underneath this smudged sky, but also so so far away. This is Raphi's first year at camp. I believe he is fine, I trust he is having a wonderful time. But I would really love a glimpse of him, a look to reassure me that he's doing well. And my hands miss the feel of their shoulders, my ears ring with the lack of their voices. I want them to have this experience more than I want to always know that they are safe, but just barely.
It is hard, even, to be happy for them, because Tre is home, quietly sad that he didn't get to go to camp this year. He wasn't able to secure a counsellor position. It is heartbreak. For him, feeling exiled from a place he considers his second home. For me, relentlessly battering myself against the fact that I cannot shelter him from hurt.
Sophia is angry that two of her brothers are gone, an injustice she takes out on Tre. He is unfailingly kind and patient with her, a fact that is not lost on her petulant little self, but she is still mad. When we are driving around, she calls me on her pretend phone and engages me in long conversations. From the driver's seat, Tre says, "Hey, Sophia, I have a pretend phone too. Can I call you?"
"No," she responds flatly, "I am not talking to brothers."
I roll a pair of facts around in my head, not wanting to speak them. In about seven more years, Sophia will be the only child at home. And right now I am supposed to be 37 weeks pregnant with her little sister. I cannot shelter Sophia either.
So to observe this odd, off-kilter holiday, those of us left here at home gathered up part of a meal and carried it to the new house, where Mom and Dad are already living in their mostly finished home. We ate hot dogs and brats, watermelon and chips. We finished the meal with homemade vanilla bean ice cream, and then we threw the watermelon rinds to the chickens. This led to what passes for sport around here, the whole-scale hunting of grasshoppers to feed to the chickens. Tre is a master at this, stomping them then scooping them into a plastic container. When he walks up to the chicken coop, the chickens race over, fairly quivering with hope.
Sophia likes to help feed the grasshoppers to the chickens. Tre handed her a mangled bug and she held it out to the chickens, laughing to see them leap up to snatch it out of her fingers. She and Tre encouraged them to jump higher and higher each time, calling it the Chicken Olympics. And then, when the grasshoppers were all gone, they ran off to catch more.
Mom and I dragged chairs out to sit by the chicken coop, to watch them scratch the ground and peck at watermelon rinds. Eventually, everyone gathered out there, even the intrepid bug hunters. We sat and watched. Sophia, not content to sit nearby, made her way into the coop and tried to pet the chickens. We warned her not to chase them, so she squatted and pleaded with the chickens to come to her. Some did, for a moment at least.
The air was still hazy, but for the moment the yellow light looked a bit golden. Clay's hand was wrapped around mine, and Tre sat on my other side, laughing with us at the goofy grace of chickens. Eventually we gathered up and drove back to our for-now home, and the sun sank into a red stain of sunset.
There is no guarantee in life - for our children, for our land, for our country. But life is about more than protection, and love is still greater than loss.