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  • Becky Westbrook

The unburnt side of the fence

It's a strange feeling to be in a community that has been ravaged by a bushfire. Homes lost. Lives lost. Everything we are familiar with, gone. And yet my home still stands. Everyday I drive past kilometre after kilometre of blackened landscape. The landmarks and trees I'm used to, gone. Then I pull into my driveway and it's green. My house is there waiting for me. I speak from the green paddock, from the unburnt patch.


The day after the fire ripped from south to north across our island I was gutted. It was a combination of disbelief, shock, and the trauma of the late evacuation with the children. David was fighting the fire. I tentatively drove through the disaster zone to see him and our house. I drove past my beautiful friends shooting their beloved sheep who were hobbling around the place in their black, charred wool. I drove past all the houses I had known for my whole life crumpled in a heap, smoke still rising. Burning trees covered the road. It was a war zone. I couldn't eat for days. I lost 4 kilos in a week. I forced food down just to give myself energy. We were living at my Dad's house because it still wasn't safe to go home.


I went to the supermarket at some point while still evacuated and I saw one, two, three, four of my friends who had just lost their homes. Tears pricked my eyes immediately. My first thought was to run to them and hug them. But then I would cry, and they might cry. And what would I say? What can you say to someone who has just lost everything? I was so afraid of bursting into tears for them and it not being what they wanted or expected of me that I thought maybe it would be safer to avoid them. But I didn't. Because it was never about me and my reaction. I said hi and asked how they were and if there was anything I could do and I kept it together.


As these situations continued and still continue, I mostly hold it together. Sometimes I cry. Sometimes I make a joke so I won't cry. Sometimes I'll be fine and then burst into tears once they are gone. I didn't understand it. I'm not sure I still do. I look around at all these strong, incredible women and men who have lost everything and I ask myself, 'Why are you crying? How ridiculous! You have nothing to cry about.'

I think there is perhaps a shame in that. Why should 'we' who can go home to our own beds be crying when it is 'they' who have no beds anymore. Perhaps it is only me who feels this way but I have a sneaking suspicion that it's not.


I went to a presentation in the weeks after the fires where the lady presenting started talking about the people who had lost everything and she started crying and she couldn't speak.

She apologised through her tears. "I'm so sorry, I don't know why I am crying, I didn't lose anything.'

I saw it then. What I saw in her that day was a huge explosion of empathy. Our tears are little drops of empathy. I think if we are empathetically inclined we try to put ourselves in the shoes of our friends on the burnt side to try and imagine how it would feel. And it feels too horrific to even imagine and it overwhelms us. For some this may come out in avoidance, tears, silence or many other ways. But I believe it all comes from love and empathy. It may not be 'right' and it may in fact hurt the exact person you are trying to protect but I do believe it comes from love.


The truth is we don't know how it feels. We can only imagine. And the imagining may or may not be worse than the reality but we can't tell and we never will. So our hearts cry for yours. And they cry and they cry because we don't know when yours will be okay. Ours won't be okay until yours are.


And so, even though we are on opposite sides of the fence. My feet are on grass and yours are in ash. We are holding you. And you are holding us. We are standing on opposite sides of the fence and we are holding each other so tight.


The ash blows over to our side of the fence. And one day the green grass will push up through the ash on your side and our paddocks will look the same. And we will still be holding each other.


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