Reflections on the Five Year Anniversary of Hurricane Sandy

It’s the five year anniversary of Hurricane Sandy, a storm which wrecked my home, town and view of life. But it also, in a strange way, saved me. You would think that I could write about it without crying by now, but no. That’s why I never got far in the memoir I was writing. And anyway, I didn’t think anyone would care about it after a while. Look at these days, when so many people have been devastated by storms, and life for everyone else just goes on.

Oh, my kitchen…

At the time, Rockville Centre was an example of this. Separated by one town (Oceanside, which was about half-affected), Rockville Centre was untouched by the storm. And the people went on with their lives like nothing, even though we were suffering so close to them. I don’t blame them–you really don’t know how bad a situation is unless you’re living it. It’s human nature to avoid suffering and pain. But I will tell you that out of all the horror of Sandy, the worst was the feeling of being alone. So when people reached out to me on Facebook, or sent cards…or, once in a while, came to sit with me as I shifted through the rubble…that was my emotional lifeline. I urge you to reach out to people in currently devastated areas, even if you can’t afford to help them. Just knowing someone cares makes a difference.

The government proved callus and unyielding to my pleas. I’ve stopped trying to get help. It was just killing my soul.

There were people who came from far to volunteer–mostly church groups. They were lovely, and did what they could in the time they were here. Mostly, they help spray for mold. We were all terrified of mold.

As I mentioned above, I started to write a memoir. And then, I was planning on incorporating other peoples’ stories. But I just couldn’t do it. Too upsetting. And I thought, what’s the point of getting so upset if no one is even going to care?

For the anniversary, I thought I’d share what I wrote. Take it for what you will.

I pray that the good in humanity prevails.

—Selene

Going potty was no easy feat post-Sandy.

More of my first floor post-Sandy. We sure used a lot of Damp-Rid!

Tough Love From God: Surviving Superstorm Sandy

Superstorm Sandy decimated the first floor of my house, my town, my view of life, and my relationship. The house and town rested too close to the water. My outlook on life leaned too close toward innocence. Michael and I teetered too close to the edge of an emotional abyss.

In one high tide, everything was washed away.

This is the story of weeping over things lost. The story of the residents in my tiny town of Island Park, Long Island, who wandered the streets like The Walking Dead, only to find ourselves on line at the food pantry for granola bars, pet food and toilet paper. This is the story of the help that arrived: The Red Cross that drove around with unpalatable food we Pavlovianly salivated for at the sound of the truck’s bell. The Tide truck that rolled into town and did free washes—for one week, and then wheeled toward the next PR opportunity. The 7-11 Slushee truck, giving away icy drinks to people who had no heat in their homes. So many trucks came and went, while we stayed, taking mold remediation classes and stock of our blighted lives.

This is the story of children without a school, of my thirteen year old son and his friends veering their bikes through the wreckage as days turned to weeks without lessons, except for this exceptionally brutal one.
This is the story of our decisions to stay in our town by the beautiful water that turned against us, the struggle to rebuild our homes torn down to their studs. This is the story of the memories and photographs lost, of some kid’s bar mitzvah pictures that washed up on my deck. I saved my own wet family photos by laying them all out on the thin cotton blankets the Red Cross gave us—blankets too flimsy to effectively wrap and warm a person. This is the story of sheetrock and kitchen rip-outs, of oil spills, of contents of homes becoming garbage—piled so high in the streets that dump trucks worked weeks to cart it away.  It’s the story of the docks that sunk, and the boats that littered the main road in town—piling up at the car wash like they were waiting for their turn. This is the story of the nails, screws and glass in our tires—still, as I write this seven months later.

This is the story of the FEMA tent set up in the Long Island Railroad parking lot, and the circus that went on inside. This is the story of me sobbing, deemed noncompliant and ineligible for the funds that, according to FEMA literature, our government was even offering to undocumented people. I was glad they were getting help, but why couldn’t I?

This is the story of darkness, of driving through such a black town that  I could see nothing past the edge of my high beams. It looked like the end of the world. It was the end of mine.

This is the story of the death of suburban existence. The conclusion of pretense. The letting go of things that could not be saved. But it’s also the story of redemption via tough love from God.

This is the story of how a natural disaster saved my life, and possibly all of ours.

MY STORY

It started with a phone call on Friday, October 26, from some woman at the nursing home where my dad lived in Long Beach. I stood on the doorstep of my friend Pascale’s house, about to go in when my cell rang. Now I hovered at the threshold, because Pascale’s basement apartment had no reception. “We’re evacuating our residents on Sunday, and we need to know if you’re going to bring your father home, or if you’d prefer us to take him.”

What a question. My father had a feeding tube and numerous health issues, including the fact that he hadn’t walked since a stroke thirty years earlier. I certainly couldn’t take care of him—even if I wanted to. But my dad and I were more strangers than relatives. This call came to me because my mom had died suddenly last January. I was all Dad had left. The one he’d abandoned now made decisions for him. Such responsibility made me squirm.

I didn’t address her question. Instead, I asked my own: “Why are you evacuating?”

“Because of the storm that’s coming.” Her voice had a tinge of irritation.

I traced my foot along the door saddle and stared at sunny weather. The sweet  aroma of a butterfly bush wafted from a few feet away. “What storm?”

“Don’t you watch the news?” She was conveying full-scale annoyance now. Clearly I was an idiot.

“No, I don’t,” I confessed. I make it my business to avoid the news, so I don’t get sucked into the vortex of doom and tragedy that dominates our society. I always say, “If something I need to know happens, someone will tell me.”

This call was a case in point. “There’s a hurricane hitting next week.” You dumbass. She didn’t say the last part, but her tone sure did.

I can’t remember my thought process at that moment, but it was somewhere between disbelief and flat-out denial. So much had happened to me recently—something else bad simply couldn’t be coming, right?

And anyway, I’d freaked over Hurricane Irene. While we’d had damage—our dock snapped in two, and our crawl space flooded, destroying our oil tank—the storm, in my opinion, had been over-hyped and and I’d stressed myself into heart palpitations over nothing.

Life had worn me down to nonchalance. Having grown up with an undiagnosed but likely bi-polar mother and a largely absent heroin addict father, I was in charge of holding up the world during my youth. When I married, it was to a man who never thought past his own amusement, and I continued my duties. Now, at 46, I had finally put the world down. A myriad of shrinks through the years assured me that it would continue to revolve on its axis all on its own. Life would go on if I got a life of my own and stopped worrying.

So I shrugged it off. “Oh, come on. How bad could it be?” I asked the woman. I guess she was a social worker. They seem to do everything in those places.

She answered, “I wouldn’t know. But I do need to know if you want to pick up your father before Sunday.”

A purply butterfly fluttered over and landed on the bush. A sign of good luck, I thought. Purple is my favorite color. “No, thanks,” I told the woman. Then a beat later I thought to inquire, “Where are you taking him?”

“We’re not sure yet. We’ll be in touch.” Click.

And that was that. I didn’t give the storm a moment of consideration for the rest of the day. I went downstairs, greeted Pascale and her daughter Amanda, and we left to take Amanda for her road test. She’d requested the use of my purple PT Cruiser because Pascale’s ancient Saturn ran sporadically and was missing its nose.

During the ride to and from we talked about various things, but the impending storm was not one of them.  It was an amusing journey, because we all share a biting, ironic wit. Pascale had a fever but a burning brow didn’t inhibit her sarcasm. The three of us were a rolling stand-up comedy team, addressing everything from the pointlessness of politics (the presidential election was upon us, Obama vs. Romney) to the Kardashian’s general pointlessness.

But the real irony was in what I was ignoring. For the first time in my life I wasn’t worrying. And it was the first time in my life that worrying – and preparing – might have made some difference.

Or, perhaps, not preparing was the thing that ultimately saved me. Just not in the conventional way.

That night I cooked dinner for Michael—my make-shift partner—and myself. The term “make-shift” is in deference to my continued struggle to make him shift into the role of mate. We had nothing on paper, yet he swore he wanted to spend the rest of his days with me. Years ago I’d sworn off marriage, after mine had gone sour and I’d learned how much harder it was to get divorced than hitched. But now that I was older, I wanted some kind of security; a contract. Michael refused to commit. After six years he still called me his girlfriend, and when I complained he’d say, “Girlfriend, partner, wife…what’s the difference?” He accused me of being anal.

When Michael had stomach cancer two years ago, his mother, he and I went to see a specialist in Manhattan. The doctor nodded toward me and asked, “This is Mrs. Forte?”

Michael and his mother both said, “Oh, no, no.

Michael pointed at his mother and said, “This is Mrs. Forte.”

I left the room crying. Later, when I asked him why he couldn’t just let the doctor think I was his wife, he said, “Whatever.” And that was the end of the conversation.

Michael fell off our dock fixing it after Hurricane Irene (he was handy when and on what projects he wanted to be) and we went to the emergency room. He gave my name as his person to contact. The woman at the desk asked what our relationship was. He said, “She’s my companion.” I shot him a look that was both murderous and mortified, because that word conjured some sort of benign aide/nursemaid along on a journey. It was also the name of the cat food I bought at Stop and Shop. I was not hired help, or a pet. He said, “Okay, okay. She’s my wife. Whatever.”

We did have a companionship type of bond, which was not a bad thing. We loved each other in a way, but we didn’t agree on the way. However, we felt comfortable together, sheltered from the world.

These days we were in an unspoken detente. I would quit asking for more, and he would take care of me evermore, on his terms—which were undefined. I was dissatisfied, but not enough to cut our tenuous cord. I choked my unhappiness down like a piece of dry, over-cooked steak because Michael did more for me than my ex-husband or any other man I’d ever known (including my father), and because he was supportive of my writing career. He travelled with me to different parts of the country for appearances, helping as needed. In Albuquerque he was almost trampled by a pack of young adult librarians who all wanted the promotional gifts he was handing out—teeny rubber chickens in baggies with my business cards.  Somewhere in Virginia, a Barnes & Noble didn’t have a poster advertising my signing the next day. Michael went to a craft store, bought supplies and painstakingly made one that looked professional.

And anyway, I loved him. It was so romantic, being in a tortured relationship— downright Shakespearian or Brontesque. I adored his sturdy chest, covered in wooly grey hair. I loved leaning against his frame at night, cuddled in the crook of his arm. I loved the scratchy scruff on his face, also grey to match what was left of his hair. It was a relief to rub against those rough bristles, like they scratched at itch on my soul.The real reason I stayed was the solace I found through Michaels’s arms, chest and stubble. Breathing in the scent of him was everything to me.

That night, we were alone in the house. My eighteen year old son  was in his dorm room in Manhattan. My thirteen year old son was in his dad’s first floor apartment across town.

I cooked salmon on the George Foreman grill, and sautéed spinach with garlic on the stovetop. My kitchen had recently been re-done, also make-shift. Years ago, Michael had carved out the cracked marble floor, only to leave a black tarp over the cement instead of laying new tile as promised. He was so good at demo, but then he lost interest in projects.

The tarp was ugly to begin with, but over time it became frayed and ripped in spots – unbearable to me. While Michael was in the hospital for the cancer surgery I went to Home Depot and bought a roll of laminate flooring. I was going to try and lay it myself, but when Michael came back and faced the inevitable, he did it for me. I’d also painted my kitchen walls and cabinets purple. It wasn’t the most professional job, but I was pleased and soothed to sit in there, after years of unease. I’d bought furniture and accessories at Home Goods, and was making my house my home. It felt good.

Michael embodied chaos and I wanted peace. That was the heart of the problem. He left things undone, maybe because I was left hanging on his promise to complete them. I hated limbo. It was like I was bouncing on a tightrope, always afraid to look down. And scared of plummeting. Not to death, but to the despair that aloneness brought. So I allowed his disorder, and I tried to tidy his mounting hoarding. But my house and yard were filling up, and every time I cleared a space he claimed it for some other object. He collected discarded things, seeing possibility in garbage. And he could actual fix and make use of junk. He was brilliant. But he never did mend anything. He just added more and more to the mix.

The back room, which was supposed to be my office, had become a jumbled storeroom for his work supplies. Cameras, DVR’s, transformers…all sorts of electronics were mish-moshed in there. He was a jack of all trades, but his mainstay was security – for his clients, not for me.

He also compiled scrap metal in an area of my yard, behind the fence. It was pretty gross, and discomforting. When Pascale came over she’d hum the theme from Sanford and Son. Here I was with beautiful waterfront property, and he was dumping crap everywhere. I felt disrespected, but there was no talking about it.

So the fact that I’d reclaimed my kitchen – and living room, which I’d had carpeted and purchased leather furniture for – was huge. Until recently he’d had piles of things in both rooms. Now I was beginning to have clarity.

And I had my new deck outside the living room. Another victory. I’d hired someone to rebuild it last summer, top and bottom, because Michael kept promising but never did it. He’d ripped down the rotting upper deck, but instead of replacing it, he’d attached a tarp he’d found in someone’s trash can (Michael loved tarps and used them often.) This one was blue and it had the “American Idol” logo all over it. I hated that show, and I hated the tarp even more. Beneath it, I felt like trash.

So, finally, I took charge and the deck was built. Now I had my spot by the water to watch the rippling tide and the swans swim by – and write. It was just as my Aunt Olga wanted for me. She’d passed away a year and a half earlier, leaving me the house she’d built and cherished. Now her ashes sat on my kitchen table, in a decorative memory box. She’d wanted to be buried in the yard, but I couldn’t bear to part with her yet. She was the person who’d kept me sane and made me feel loved when I was a kid. And she’d taught me to believe in my dreams.

I liked being near my aunt while I cooked. I felt better being in the room with her.

The smell of fish and garlic filled my kitchen. I brought the food up to my bedroom (Michael never did call it ‘our’ bedroom, though lately he called the house ‘ours,’ and even, on occasion, referred to it as ‘home’) and we sat on the floor with giant throw pillows tucked behind us. We watched a DVR’d episode of some USA Network show (that’s pretty much all we ever watched) and we ate.

I wrote the next day. I was working on an erotic novel. The success of Fifty Shades of Grey disgusted me, not because it was filled with sex, but because the book wasn’t well written. My friend Nancy gave me her copy, and I leafed through it. On pretty much every page I looked at, the protagonist says either “holy crap” or “crap.” I wondered if I was the only one who noticed this, so I Googled it. Turns out someone counted: she uses these words 86 times.

Not exactly Nobokov.

The world was ripe for a contemporary, literary erotic novel – and I decided to write it. I was going through 50 Shades to see the plot layout, because those kind of books follow a pattern. I didn’t want to be formulaic, but a certain dramatic arc was featured in every romantic book—not to mention that I needed to know how soon I should introduce the sex, and how often they would have it.

That Saturday I sweated over sex scenes on my new deck, drinking coffee and trying to figure out new, creative ways to describe an orgasm. The first one is easy, but how many times can you use flight as a metaphor? Of course, I could always fall back on. “Holy crap!”  The weather was perfect for me. I’m not summer, beachy person. Too hot, and too exposing. October 27 was sunny and cool – a sweatshirt day, which I loved. I’m most comfortable snuggled in cottony sleeves – a protective coating against outside elements.

This season was the first time in years I could relax on my deck, without crap (not holy, just plain old crap) piled behind me. The old deck had become one of Michael’s storage areas. He’d stacked storage bins, wooden shelving he’d taken from someone’s trash, and even an old Ms. Pacman machine that at first worked, which the kids liked even if I was appalled by the sight of such an atrocity. But it stopped turning on after enduring a few thunder storms – apparently the American Idol tarp was not adequate shelter – and also when our cat Sassy found her way inside Ms. Pacman’s base and bunked out on a bed of  wires and mechanisms. Ms. Pacman was silent evermore. However, she remained on my deck despite my frequent confrontations with Michael about his rusty mistress. He promised to get rid of her, “When I get to it.” Ms. Pacman was moved to my rear lawn by the workmen who came to work on the deck. Michael covered her with a tarp and promised to get around to moving her soon.

My new deck was gloriously empty except for my teak writing table and chair (both recent purchases at Home Goods.) I sat in that chair and watched the current roll by as my thoughts churned inside. The swan couple who had been living nearby for many years rode by with this year’s offspring, who had turned white and spending their final days with mom and dad before setting off into the world. My dock, chopped in two by Hurricane Irene, had been fixed by Michael, who’d found the time to do that because he’d wanted to rent it out. Everything was in order on that day – for the first time that I could recall.

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