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  • Tom Rastrelli

Letter #5 — Pandemic-rescue road trip through the burning West

This is the fifth entry in a series of letters between me and my father, also named Tom Rastrelli, who has stage IV cancer of an unknown origin.

Saturday, Sept. 21, 2020

Dear Dad,

Thank you for sharing all of those memories about Uncle Bob. It was fun to hear them again. I’d forgotten about your first cigarette. I didn’t try mine until my last month of seminary when I was 28. So you have me beat.

Between classes, I’d escape the stuffy classrooms and take ten minutes of refuge in the seminary’s rear courtyards. I’d remove my shoes and socks and walk on the grass as I chatted with the smokers: Abdel, Felix (I’ll stick with the pseudonyms from “Confessions of a Gay Priest”) and Felix’s “dry spouse." They all must have thought I was an earthly freak. (And I am.)

The night of my class’ going away party, Abdel, Felix, the others and I sang, played guitars and drank on the patio outside of the Donnelly Lounge (the seminary’s walkout-basement pub). I asked Abdel and Felix for a drag. They were shocked. I inhaled and coughed like mad. They laughed. I didn’t even get a buzz.

I won’t smoke again. Not after the past two weeks. I will never take my lungs, the air or the sky for granted again. The wildfires had us smoked into our homes for 10 straight days. It was oppressive. I can’t imagine how horrible it was for those who are homeless and for the animals and plants. Bruce, our friends and I were all having psychological difficulties with the entrapment. It was suffocating. The smoke penetrated everything. Even inside, my lungs and throat began to hurt, and don’t have asthma or lung issues like so many others. I became so accustomed to looking out the windows and seeing red, orange, yellow and gray light, smoke thicker than fog, and then, for the last four or five days, mixed with fog. It felt like it would never end. This was the new normal.

Then it rained all night Thursday into Friday. Actually, it stormed like mad, like an Iowa thunderstorm, which is extremely rare in Oregon. We had thunder and lightning throughout the night and into the day and afternoon. I haven’t seen a thunderstorm last that long since Hurricane Floyd ripped through Baltimore. Anyhow, by last night, the rain had cleared the smoke. The pungent aroma of purple autumn crocuses danced on crisp breeze. From my rocking chair in the middle of the front yard, I gazed at slow-moving, scattered clouds as the setting sun splashed them in pastel pinks and pale lavenders before a blue cyclorama. There was even a rainbow!

That beauty saved me. The cataclysmic destruction of the wildfires, the incarcerating smoke, the baked leaves on the trees, bushes and plants, the death, the destruction, the loss, the grief, and the stress of not knowing whether the hills we live in would erupt in flame — all of that worry and stress — lifted. Without the sunset’s tranquility and beauty, I think Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s death would have done me in. 2020 has been the darkest and most challenging year of my life: worse than 2001 and 2004, worse than 2016 through 2019 combined.

My patio, the flowers, the hummingbirds, the sky, the woods, the rainbows, the planets and moon traversing the constellations, the front lawn against the soles of my feet, my loved ones, socially-distanced conversations with close friends, my Saturday night Zoom sessions with my pandemic family, and Bruce’s succulent cooking — these have fueled me to persevere through the atrocity that is 2020.

I needed that sunset and rain last night. I need my strength, because Monday I leave on what seems like the most insane and dangerous journey of my life: a cross-country odyssey in a motorhome through wildfires, smoke, states full of people who are homophobic and armed, while a pandemic runs unchecked through the population, to pick up you and Mom and move you back here, and all without breaking our COVID-19 quarantine so you, Mom and Bruce stay healthy.

I know this disease would be the end of you, since your lungs are already trashed from the cancer and cobalt radiation. So, the stakes are high. And now that our house is no longer in immediate danger of fire, now that I can breathe again, I have the energy and hope to complete this Homeric quest.

I can’t wait.

I love you,


P.S. I put a lot out there in my last letter. I hope that you’ll respond more in depth to it in future letters. xoxo.

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