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Mom Talk: Losing A Home To Wildfires & A Grandfather To Cancer, While Welcoming New Life

Written by

Bela Fishbeyn

Photography by Photos by April Tarjick

A little over one year ago we featured writer and editor Bela Fishbeyn, her beautiful family of 3, and her inspiring 300-square-foot home nestled in California’s Santa Cruz mountains. While 2020 has thrown all people for a loop, for Bela, the highs and lows are particularly dramatic. All in a short span of days, Bela lost her beloved home to the wildfires that devastated Northern California, at the same time, she lost her beloved grandfather and welcomed her second daughter, Rumi. Below, she tells us her story and how she’s found gratitude in the midst of it all.

On our second daughter’s due date, I said a final goodbye to my grandfather. He had been diagnosed with terminal liver cancer a year earlier and I had been his caregiver throughout. I took him to his appointments, translated the conversations between him and his doctors and nurses (he only spoke Russian), bought his groceries, special ordered him salmon eggs, and talked with him every day. 

Before I was his caregiver, he had been mine. When I was born (on his birthday), he named me after his mother. While my parents worked, he and my grandmother helped take care of me. When my family immigrated from Russia to America, he followed shortly thereafter, always supporting me in the background. When I clashed with my mother, he shared the burden and gave me someone to relate to. My grandfather had constantly clashed with her as well.

The plan had been for us to all move in together, into a new home in North Carolina that we would buy together. He wanted to die somewhere beautiful, surrounded by people he loved and who loved him back, not in a hospital or facility. We were trying to find a home in the NC mountains that could accommodate all of us, then coronavirus hit and that changed everything.

I couldn’t visit my grandfather anymore—it felt too risky, with me pregnant, him in a facility, and us not knowing the trajectory of the virus. But we kept searching for a home and had even found the perfect place, hoping he’d move in just one week after the baby was born.

When I talked with him the day before our baby’s due date, I knew he wouldn’t make it. He held on as long as he could but we’d run out of time. After getting the okay from my midwives, my husband and I drove down to see him one last time. Although his body still lived, his mind was already gone. I held his hand as long as I could, until contractions took over and it was time for us to go.

Our baby daughter, Rumi, was born three days later. While I labored, we found out that our tiny home in California, our very first family home and passion project for years, the place where our daughter took her first steps and where we kept a small box of treasured memories from our lives together, had likely burned down in the Santa Cruz wildfires. Three days later, we received a phone call letting us know the house had indeed been reduced to ashes. 

Over the course of one week, it felt as though so much of my life had been overturned. Already in voluntary quarantine and living through the uncertainty of the virus, sharing a home with my mother-in-law while we had searched for a new home, we found ourselves with almost nothing left of our old lives and only a dim view of what would come.

I collapsed on the stairs and sobbed after that phone call about our tiny house, not knowing how I would ever feel calm again. When would I stop seeing visions of my dying grandfather, and now my house in flames?

But my strength is not my own. No sooner had we received the news than a torrent of support came from all over the world. Our friends and family, our acquaintances and partners, the people that we’ve shared our home with over the past years, the people who stayed in our home, and so many folks we hadn’t even met reached out to offer their compassion and share in our losses. Where we had felt alone, we were suddenly surrounded by an entire community of caretakers. 

And then there was my family. My own family, the one that I chose and created with my husband. My loving and tender daughters, who had nothing but enthusiasm and optimism for me and for our future together. They needed me there with them and they were all too ready to shape our next chapter. Escher, my oldest and still only four years old, would look me in the eyes and tell me that she was so sorry our house burned down, that my grandfather had died, then she would smile and lead me into our daily adventure. Rumi, our newborn, showed me the instant love that I had missed when Escher was a baby. Never in my life have I known a soul as sweet as Rumi, and never will she understand how thankful I am for her presence.

We now live in the house that my grandfather helped us buy. His ashes live on our mantel, along with the ashes of my grandmother. We haven’t been able to visit the ashes of our home in California, but I wish I could gather some to hold on to. 

Every time I eat salmon eggs, I can feel my grandfather’s presence within me. I was born on his birthday and he always said we had similar souls. He had an optimistic approach to his diagnosis and an adventurous, entrepreneurial approach to life, telling me, “Every time I go walk outside, I see the trees, feel the sunshine, and I feel happy.”

For him, like him, I am grateful and happy. That our home can burn down, that my grandfather can die, all within one week and yet my family remains, stronger and more in love than ever. That the world is full of caring and loving people who eagerly show kindness and compassion in the face of struggle. That the beauty of the world persists, even through turbulence, and that I’m blessed to live in a time so full of life, goodness, and possibility. I’m overjoyed that my daughters will experience the many wonders of this world and thankful for each moment I get to share it with them.

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