After the fire, they had nothing.
To their surprise, they also had everything.
You may recall the story of Jan LeHecka Pascoe and her husband, John, who spent six terrified hours in a neighbor’s swimming pool, slipping below the surface to avoid the flames and embers, coming up for air, then slipping into the water again as a deadly, wind-whipped firestorm consumed their home, their neighborhood and very nearly cost them their lives.
Something about their story captured imaginations. Perhaps it was simply that it had a happy ending — they survived, together, by their own wits — when so many others perished in October’s wine country fires. At first light, when the fire died down, they got out of the pool. Holding hands, covered in soot and shivering in the 40-degree chill, they walked until they found a sheriff’s deputy, who said the couple walking toward him looked like “zombies coming out of the ash.”
They were deluged with requests for interviews and TV appearances, which they turned down. The Weather Channel still wants them for a survival special. A literary agent approached them about writing a book and is shopping a proposal. Even strangers in San Francisco, where they sought refuge with family, recognized them.
“We went into the Balboa Cafe one afternoon,” said John, 70. “The waitress came up to us and said, ‘Are you the pool people?’ And she started crying. And we got up. I gave her a big hug, and Jan gave her a big hug.”
“Everyone wants to hug us,” said Jan, 65. “And I love it.”
I met the Pascoes again on Sunday afternoon at a cafe in San Francisco’s Laurel Heights neighborhood. Jan, a recently retired art teacher, wore donated leggings, borrowed shoes and an oversized fisherman’s sweater that dwarfed her slender frame. John, an artist, wore jeans and a denim shirt and carried himself with the confidence of the star cornerback he once was at Williams College.
They had just returned from a three-week stay in a Mexican fishing village on the Pacific Coast, where Jan taught art in an after-school enrichment program founded by friends from Sebastopol.
They were tanned and relaxed, no longer in the mild state of shock they were in when I talked to them three days after their narrow escape from the Tubbs fire, which devastated thousands of homes and killed more than 40 people.
They lit up when they spoke about their two daughters, sons-in-law and three grandchildren. “We have a good family,” said Jan. “And there is a lot of beauty in the world.”
They are not entirely settled.
“I can’t get Bob Dylan’s tune out of my head,” said John, who sometimes has a vision of two dead bodies floating in a pool. Lyrics from “Like a Rolling Stone” keep coming to mind: “When you ain’t got nothing, you got nothing to lose….”
In the days following the fire, the Pascoes stayed in San Francisco with their daughter Zoe, her husband and two young children. Their younger daughter, Mia, came from Park City, Utah, with her husband and baby.
After a week or so, friends in Healdsburg offered to let them stay in a 500-square-foot guest cottage, where they will live until the spring.
The Pascoes were overwhelmed with grief and loss — their elderly cat had disappeared, John lost at least 100 of his paintings and two beloved Dale Chihuly bowls he’d inherited from his mother. They were also overwhelmed with the details of rebuilding their lives — dealing with the insurance company, getting driver’s licenses, passports, clothes.
At times, it was hard to think straight.
“I couldn’t text people,” Jan said. “Couldn’t spell anything, everything was just very garble-ish. Stores were really confusing. You don’t really know where to spend your money. I would just walk out. I couldn’t even get it together to buy a pair of fins for Mexico.”
The Pascoes also had to adjust to being on the receiving end of all kinds of charity.
“The outpouring of concern and expressions of love took so many different forms,” said John, who was moved to tears by the gift of a glass bowl from Chihuly and his wife, who had read about their loss. “It’s a lot easier for me to give than to receive.”
Many people offered to send money, which the Pascoes found unsettling. Their daughters suggested that instead of accepting donations, they create a website to sell prints of John’s paintings. (He has also been commissioned by the Kenwood winery to produce a label that will memorialize the fire.)
John’s brother, David Pascoe, who lost his home and art book business in the hard-hit Fountaingrove neighborhood of Santa Rosa, helped John overcome his reluctance to accept help.
“David said to me, ‘You have to enable people to give, and understand that they need to do that to feel good. That creates a cycle of giving and receiving. If you tell them, ‘No, no, no, I’m fine….’”
“The truth of the matter,” Jan interjected, “is we weren’t fine. It just took a while to say, ‘OK, I will take that bag of clothes from you.’ We didn’t have the ability to be fighting with people about ‘We can’t take this, we can’t take this.’ It became easier to just get to a point of being grateful and showing gratitude.”
Hardly anything they owned survived the fire. Jan found her mother’s silver in a melted blob. Zoe found her father’s good-luck charm, a piece of carved Ming Dynasty jade that had turned from green to bone white. John found another heirloom intact but battered — a porcelain Chelsea parrot sculpture from 1740. Its brilliant colors were gone.
“I said, ‘I don’t want this. It almost brings me down because I remember what it was like,’” John said. “Whatever I find is not going to be what I am looking for anyway.”
Before they left for Mexico, the Pascoes received a gift from their neighbors — the life-sized angel statue that had given the Pascoes some comfort during their hellish night. It was untouched by the flames that destroyed almost everything on the mountain.
“Every step of the way,” Jan said, “somebody was dancing on our shoulders.”
Jan went back to Santa Rosa by herself last weekend. She walked around their land for a couple of hours and thought about whether she could live there again.
“I feel like I can live up there,” she said. “I miss it. My property is part of me.”
While she was home, she spotted signs of new life on the blackened mountain. Nasturtiums and paper whites had blossomed while they were gone. Jan picked a bouquet and brought it home to John.