Distracted. And so I must write.
It’s the one-year anniversary week since the series of tragedies that devastated and tested our community in so many ways last November. Friends admitting that they burst into tears at unexpected times after seeing commercials of the fires or reminders — reminders are everywhere as we prepare for a week of remembrance — not that they ever really left.
With the fires, once again, ravishing our state, causing panic and unease, and the memories popping up on my “Facebook memories,” I’m transported. I find myself in my head a lot these days, thinking about 2018, thinking about the election, about Borderline, the fires …
At this time last year, we were about 36 hours out from the polls closing — at which point a community — a family of people — would be anxiously gathered together in a local restaurant, eating pizza, drinking beer, and awaiting the results of a nearly year-long campaign that took every ounce of me and soaked it up dry. I’d say I’m still half-wrung out. We couldn’t know what the rest of the week would hold, we were bracing for impact of a different kind — one that, regardless of the outcome that night, would soon be bottled up and placed away on a shelf.
About a week and a half prior, my husband had been put on administrative leave while his work investigated what we believed/knew (and fortunately were right) would turn out to be unfounded, false allegations against him regarding social media comments, made by a woman (and a friend of hers) that we were in the process of obtaining a permanent restraining order against. At the time, we didn’t know what would happen. We were still reeling, waiting, wondering, stressing — planning backup budgets. This time last year, we didn’t know a lot. We didn’t know if our campaigning would contribute to success at the polls. What we did know was that my husband may not have a job to return to. What we did know is that we had to sacrifice a lot to find out. That’s where we were at, a year ago.
We were tired, nervous, stressed, exhausted — physically and emotionally. It had been a little more than 10 months since I was alerted about then-school board trustee Mike Dunn contacting my employer and threatening retaliation against their business if they didn’t silence me from speaking at school board meetings. This happened four weeks into my maternity leave with AB2, in late January of 2018. I grieve the loss of time with AB2 her first year, because I didn’t have it. I was aggressively tossed into a whirlpool that would only spin more viciously as the months went on, taking and taking and taking.
From media interviews scheduled in between pumping, to the censure meeting of Mike Dunn, to the discovery of the public hate pages launched to destroy my reputation with lies, to online harassment of a different kind — learning of planned attacks on my page, a constant barrage of fake aliases popping up to make anonymous threats — to the all-hands-on-deck approach to campaigning and supporting three candidates for school board … I often forgot to breathe. An endless loop of thoughts every day, all day — How do we ensure better people represent us? How many more meet and greets should we have? How many more doors can we knock on. How many more posts can I make. How many more postcards will be enough? Who’s left to email? Have we reached enough people? It’s endless — campaigning. It’s all you think about every day, because no one wants to wake up the day after the election with a loss and some inner reflection that if they had just put in 10% more …
And so we lived, eat, breathed the school board election. I was well versed in all things school board in recent history, having attended nearly every meeting for the past two years, and speaking school board was becoming more of a first language than English. And while we put our hearts into the campaign, all along the way, was the dark underbelly of dirty politics and harassment and intimidation you read about in books or on a national level. But these things — they were our reality. Our price to pay for calling attention to a deeply embedded extremist evangelical agenda that had rooted itself in our school board, and its grips on our curriculum — our children’s futures — would not be pried off easily.
With our court date set for Nov. 9, and the election wrapping up, it felt like we were close toward getting some sanity back, no matter how things shook out. This time, last year, I was repeating to myself … I just have to make it through this week. I just have to make it through this week.
Election night was an elation like no other. To hear the results come in, to know that our collective campaigning awakened a community — it’s an indescribable feeling, a rush of adrenaline, joy, relief … really, not much can take away that short-lived burst of joy late in the night of Nov. 6 before we crashed into our beds, phones dead from refreshing the polling numbers and congratulatory calls and texts. It was OK to sleep though ... we'd be celebrating for days, weeks ...
Nov. 7 was a blur. It was the day I was preparing for court later that week. Organizing the screenshots of threats, establishing timelines. No one tells you how absolutely draining and soul-sucking court hearings are, of any kind. We sought protection. The payment, I learned, would be fighting off a year-long character assassination campaign waged against me in retaliation. I spent a lot of last year asking: but, how do I defend myself against lies? What I learned is, you can’t. I had just finished typing up notes for my lawyer’s review, and was seconds away from closing my laptop in the 11 o’clock p.m. hour, when my friend messaged: “Why are there so many sirens?”
And we know the rest. We know now the horrors that were unfolding at Borderline. Our Borderline. The Borderline we threw a surprise party at for a friend in high school. The Borderline I attended college nights at as a student attending CLU. The Borderline, that just a month prior, was the venue for Charity Karaoke — where my nonprofit joined other local nonprofits in a night of FUNraising and karaoke. I can still see the interior of Borderline vividly, but I try not to let my mind linger too much there, or imagine the scene that fell upon Borderline that night.
By late Thursday morning and into the afternoon on Nov. 8, it had been confirmed we had lost Sgt. Helus, along with 11 other innocent lives. I sat at work blankly. Selfishly grateful that none of the victims had been my personal friends, yet devastated for all my friends and family that did know these people — that were walking into a new reality, a new life that day, without their friend or son or daughter or brother or sister or boyfriend or dad.
At work, I remember a few of us running out to the freeway overpass to pay respect as Sgt. Helus’ body was transported to Ventura — we were among hundreds that lined the onramp/bridge. It was sobering. It was windy, but at the time, all I could think about was Sgt. Helus’ family as I tried to discreetly wipe away tears.
And hours later we were running out of our office for a different reason — FIRE. Outside my office window, I could see the mountain across the freeway on fire. I walked outside and looked toward my parents’ house — it backs up against the mountains that head down into Camarillo. It was on fire. Honestly, it felt like everything was on fire. Driving the two miles from my work toward my parents’ house — it felt like some weird Armageddon. People were on their roofs. Helicopters were overhead. Flames giving the appearance of surrounding us. The skies were dark. My mom, who was recovering from knee surgery at the time, was heavily drugged and in no shape to evacuate. She didn’t even know there were helicopters dropping water on the mountain. I called Brian and told him he had to get the girls immediately.
The evacuation site at my parents cut-de-sac was frantic. My mom, barely able to walk, was trying to tell me where to find medications. We had to get the tortoise. The dogs. My sister’s snake. What about the computer? My dad’s sleep apnea machine. Ash was raining on us, the fire creeping down the mountain, and helicopters circling ahead.
I guess I wasn’t going to be able to make it to the Civic Arts Plaza for the memorial to our Borderline 12, I thought. We went to Country Harvest and waited.
The days that followed blur together. If we weren’t watching the news and tracking fires, we were learning more and more details about the shooting, about each of the precious lives taken far before their time. Friends were evacuated and gone for days. The smoke from the sky created a haze that matched my emotions. Everything was hazy and yet there was work to do. Families needed help. Fundraisers and vigils were planned in mass. I was flooded with a constant stream of requests to share information about where resources could be found, what donations could be accepted, where donations could be dropped off, where fundraisers were being had, who needed help, where the next fire was … it’s all I could do to not shelter down and close myself up. So I just focused on sharing, sharing as much information as possible, grasping for some way to be useful in what felt like a hopeless, useless time.
And with all things … time. As time has gone by, the community has started to pick up in different ways, but we haven’t moved on. Many of us have never really talked about our time or our experience during last November. Overtly aware of the grief families who had lost loved ones were suffering, or families who had lost their houses, talking about my experience didn’t feel appropriate then. It doesn’t feel comfortable now. But we must talk about our experiences — all of them — if we’re all going to come together and continue to heal as a community and have strength for those next to us who might need someone to lean on. I’m here to tell you it’s not a competition. So many in our community are still struggling, still processing. This can manifest itself in different ways, different behaviors. Always, but especially this week, care for one another. Check in on one another. Extend grace and compassion first. We all need it.
This year, as we approach and embrace the anniversary, the stresses of last year are less present, and all that remains, is the clarity of tragedy and senseless loss. This year, there's less distraction, and the week's heaviness feels real. I will be processing that tragedy differently, in a more present way, and that's its own punch to the gut, and different emotions result, along with the awareness that our community will forever be locked in this annual grief.
If you need a place to share your story — to start your own healing process — look into the Thousand Oaks Remembers project. Attend a listening group, listen or share, or both. Know that you are not alone.
To the first responders and your families: thank you. We can't say it enough. We cannot thank you enough.
To the survivors: we see you, we hear you. You are not lost in this.
And to Tel, Dan, Sgt. Helus, Justin, Alaina, Cody, Jake, Noel, Kristina, Sean, Mark and Blake — we honor your lives and your memories. To your families, we are here for you, not just now, but for all the days ahead. For those in our community still embroiled with the aftermath of fire destruction, we haven’t forgotten you either.