I’m pregnant. And all it took to conceive was a massive fire in Fort McMurray, Alta., that completely destroyed our home and everything that we had worked so hard to put in it.
But let me back up a bit.
In November 2014, I had a destination wedding in Jamaica. I’d been on birth control for fifteen years, but the day before the wedding, I took my last pill. We hoped we might conceive our first child while we were away.
We didn’t. And eight months later, we still hadn’t conceived.
Thus began our infertility journey—one that would involve bloodwork, ultrasounds, diagnoses, procedures, medications, hope and heartbreak. And yet, despite the two miscarriages that would follow—one on New Year’s Eve, of all days—I wouldn’t find out until the spring of 2016 just how much hope and heartbreak can intertwine.
We were preparing for another trip to Jamaica, this time to attend a wedding, and my husband and I had agreed that we’d take this cycle off so I wouldn’t be pregnant on the trip. No ovulation testing, no timing intercourse, and none of the old wives’ tales for conceiving that I had been trying incessantly in the past. But I broke my promise and did an ovulation test in the middle of my cycle. It was positive. My husband was at the bachelor party, so I waited up half the night for him to return, in the hopes of getting one try in before truly giving up in preparation for our trip. I went to sleep that morning with a secret smile on my face.
Just days later, back at home, our lives changed forever, in a way I could never have predicted.
After three days of smoke-filled skies, we woke on Tuesday, May 3, 2016, to blue skies and not the slightest smell of smoke, and we both left for work at 6 a.m. without a second glance back at our house. I was having a snack with my afternoon class of pre-kindergarten students when someone suddenly opened my classroom door and said, “Mrs. Brown, if you live in Abasand, you have to go! Now!” Leaving my students with my assistant, I went to the school office, where I learned that my area of town was under mandatory evacuation, as the fire had jumped the river and the houses were in danger.
It was the scariest drive home from school ever. As I crossed the bridge, I could see in the distance a plume of black smoke over my subdivision. Police cars were barracading the bottom of the hill. An officer asked what I needed to go home for. “I only want to get my dog,” I promised. “Then I’ll leave.”
I was one of the last people allowed up the hill to Abasand, as the fire had begun taking some of the houses that lined the tree line. I parked the truck sideways in my driveway. The trees behind the houses at the end of the cul-de-sac were engulfed in flames, towering over the houses. I frantically opened the door and screamed for my dog. I saw him pop his head up from his napping position on the couch. Surprisingly, our house was not smoky, and Skipper was thoroughly confused about the panic in my voice. I put a leash on him and threw him into the back seat of the truck. I ran back into the house, put my hands on my face and looked around. I knew this might be my last time seeing my home. What do you take when you have only a few minutes to pack and get out?
I found a suitcase in the upstairs closet and packed two changes of clothes for my husband and me; deodorant and toothbrushes; a ring my grandfather made me; a bear from my first Christmas; and three files from my filing cabinet.
I didn’t get my jewelry box, my designer purses or clothes, or any of my husband’s thousands of collectibles from the basement. On my way out, I grabbed my husband’s laundry hamper, took one last look inside and closed and locked the door.
It was around two in the afternoon, but the sky was black and red, and I could see flames in the forest surrounding Abasand. I sat in a lineup of frantic drivers trying to get off the hill. There was only one way out. A friend of mine happened to be directing traffic and told me to turn around—someone had broken down a barricade to an emergency exit behind us with his truck, and people were driving their vehicles down to safety. I got to the bottom of Abasand, towards downtown, pretty quickly. At this point, the people who had come the roadway were being advised by police to abandon their vehicles and run to safety, carrying whatever precious possessions they could. It was an unreal scene that I will never forget. Vehicles parked on the street, as if someone had stopped time, and people fleeing down the sidewalk on foot. Abasand was on fire, and at that point I knew that we would never go home again.
My husband and some coworkers who also lived in Abasand had left the oil sands site together and headed south, towards Edmonton. The fire had breached the highway and I was forced north of Fort McMurray with some of our friends. I slept in my truck under an overpass, in the sand on the edge of a river. We had a small convoy of vehicles there that night. Before daylight that morning we left to drive farther north to a camp that had been set up for evacuees. Some families with small children decided to stay, but I left with four friends and three dogs in a friend’s truck to drive south. The portion of the fire that had breeched the highway was finally under control and citizens were able to drive through Fort McMurray safely. I had to abandon my truck at the work camp, not knowing if I’d ever see it again; it was almost out of gas, and there was none to be found anywhere along the journey.
As I drove to Edmonton, my mind was all over the place, anxious to reunite with my husband, worried about the future. Would we return to Fort McMurray? If so, would I get a new teaching contract, with many families moving away? If there was a fertilized egg inside me, would all the stress mean it wouldn’t implant?
Cars were abandoned on the side of the road, people sitting on their bonnets. No gas, no food, no water in the scorching heat. Wonderful Albertans from all over were offering gas, water, diapers and food to anyone who needed them at different points along the way. Just outside of Edmonton I was finally reunited with my husband. It was an emotional reunion. We didn’t have official confirmation that our house was destroyed but we knew that we were very lucky to have made it out alive, and with our dog. Sadly many animals were lost in the fire, as many residents were not able to return home. We spent two nights in a hotel just outside of Edmonton. Then, my husband and I decided to break from the group and go to Slave Lake, where my husband had some family who were waiting there for us with open arms. We stayed with his aunt and uncle while we waited for a camping trailer to be set up on a campground for us, our little home away from home.
The night before I had been given emergency prescriptions of my fertility medications at the local Walmart. I bought all of my supplements again, and purchased a two-pack of pregnancy tests. The next morning I took a test while filling the bathtub. It was positive! And a very strong positive for four days before my missed period. Finally! It felt like all it took was our house burning to the ground for us to have what we longed for for so long. I spent an hour in the bathtub staring at those lines in disbelief. I made a picture for my husband and sent it to him in a text message as I walked down over the stairs.
He was in the kitchen sitting at the table. “What’s this? Is this yours? You’re pregnant?!” He jumped up from the chair as I pulled the positive test from my shirt. We grabbed each other and held on for a long time. I will never forget that moment. I went to the hospital in Slave Lake, where they took extra good care of me. I had blood work drawn every 48 hours three times and my pregnancy hormone was doubling beautifully. We finally had a sticky baby.
While on this new high, we received some devastating news from Fort McMurray. The city had published aerial photos of every property in town: one from 2015 and one post-fire. The photos showed our once-beautiful two-story house had been reduced to a pile of ash.
How could this be happening? Everything that we had worked so hard for, gone. The house that we were going to raise our family in, gone. The house where I cried so many nights over the babies we had lost and the baby we so badly wanted, gone.
We decided to fly back to Newfoundland, where my husband and I are both from, for a new beginning. We’re going to stay. Nothing makes me happier knowing that our child will grow up with their grandparents and their aunt and uncle. I plan to go back to teaching, and my husband will be returning to school soon, so that we can provide the best life possible for our child.
From the ashes of our home came this beautiful miracle. Our baby’s middle name will be Phoenix, as a tribute to his or her beginnings.
Clark Phoenix arrived January 15, 2017, at 10:46 a.m. Because of all our struggles, I was expecting something to be wrong—I had joked that he would be born with two heads or a horn. So when I saw him for the first time, I broke down crying. He was screaming, and he was perfect.
My husband is currently looking for work. We would love to stay in Newfoundland so Clark can grow up around his family, but we are not opposed to going back to Fort McMurray. It still feels like home, even after the tragedy. Our friends are there. Teaching jobs are there. Not a day goes by that I don’t miss Alberta, or think about the heartache that was infertility. Clark Phoenix is truly our miracle fire baby.