The Heartache We Take As Normal

There is a baby in my home. Evidence of his existence is littered around us, blocking the sparse surroundings with furniture, general things that aim to keep him sated, none of which he is aware are his at all. Blankets and small bottles are in every room. Lone socks no bigger than a tree frog are hidden in corners and the dark places underneath furniture because the canine children here think of them as delicious.

There are other things here too; things that only take up space in our minds. These are things that excuse away the clutter and keep our hearts full—his laughter and small noises he makes to soothe himself as he drifts off to sleep; the smell of his skin after a bath; the grip of his small fingers that cling to collars and skin and hair while he sleeps. It’s a weird sort of perfection. The unavoidable mess. The struggle to keep him happy, quiet, soothe away the upset he feels when any of those infant hassles cause him distress. All that noise, all those things mark his presence and remind us how drastically our world has shifted.

A year ago, he was not here. A year ago, there was more room. A year ago, there was no danger, no uncertainty.

Then, the flood came.

August 13, 2016. Seven-thirty in the morning. The rain poured, had done so the entire night. Outside my front window, across our property, my mother-in-law’s yard had taken on water, a lot of it, but as was the norm, by nightfall the water had receded. We went to sleep completely certain this flood, like the others before it, would be more of a hassle than a threat.

Then that call came. Someone checking that we were safe. Someone wondering if we needed any help. “No,” I heard my husband say, his voice moving around the room as he left the warmth of our bed. “We’re fine. It never floods here.”

I’d almost drifted off again, ignoring the call, letting the lull of the rain outside pull me deeper under my blanket. Then, the call ended and curses flew. My sweet husband was panicked. “Baby, get up. We’re flooded.”

He likes jokes. We are never serious. Even in the worst situations our humor comforts, eases. There was no reason for real upset or worry just then because he couldn’t be serious. But there was something different in his tone. Something that I rarely heard from him: fear.

The whirlwind came next: spotting the four feet of water already accumulated in our downstairs den; waking our teenage daughters, wrangling our dogs, throwing clothes and documents into plastic bags and bins, stacking laptops and jewelry in the tops of our closets—it all needed to be done.  We paused just for a second. We are spiritual people. We seek wisdom and guidance and in that moment, in our greatest fear, we stopped to pray. It helped. It calmed us, but did not solve the immediate problems.

I don’t remember how long it took us to decide what was necessary and what would end up being something lost in the flood. There have been so many of these items I’ve lost count. Maybe it was a half hour. Maybe it was a lifetime. I only know that we left with our daughters, our two dogs and the most important things we owned fit inside a plastic bend, in two large plastic bags and two backpacks.

Then we stepped out into the water. Chest deep, single file. We walked to a higher ground—our neighbor’s front porch.

The next two hours were eerily silent. Even our anti-social dogs seemed to sense it wasn’t the time for noise. We all sat on that porch watching the river float around us, watching pointless things like planters and flower bed borders float away from the places we’d carefully placed them. Around the edge of a large cedar fence across from us, two deer peered out, watching, likely wondering where they’d end up. In that moment, we were all left to the whims of nature. We were all creatures with nowhere to go.

My family and I weren’t alone.

I’ve read estimates. Something upwards of 7.1 trillion gallons of water fell on our town. Gas stations were flooded to the rooftops. Co-workers were flooded to the rafters. Business went under and stayed that way for months afterward. House were left vacant, untouched and remain that way today. The currents were too strong for us to walk through, which we attempted. Our cars were the first victims of the flood and we had no other way to leave.

All around us families were similarly escaping. Groups of sodden, soaked people and their children and pets huddled like we were, waiting for the next moment to present a solution. And then the next. In those situations, you survive by reaction. You take what you are given and bend to your new reality. It’s the only way to endure.

Everyone existed off the kindness of others—family, friends, complete strangers, all lending hands. All as desperate as you are to go home or to find a home to go to. For us, it was friends and families who intervened. We are blessed. Sometimes I believe we are more blessed than we deserve. We have family who opened their doors, who did not complain when space got tight and personalities irritated and niggled.

After the waters receded, we lived off the by or leave of the government, waiting for inexperienced adjusters to dictate what among our mess of belongings warranted a dollar figure. We waited for housing for more than a month, biting our nails that the hustle we worked to prepare our property would meet with FEMA’s sharp appraisal.

We prayed and prayed and tried to stay positive, but when you have been stripped of everything you own, faith seems like a luxury. There were moments, fleeting at least, where I questioned the wisdom of this hurdle; where I wondered what sin I’d committed to deserve this devastation. Ultimately, I understood that this was not something done to us. It was something we simply had to overcome, right alongside thousands of others. God would see us to the other side. He always has before.

A year later, we are still in limbo. We live in under 980 square feet, but we live here freely. There is no mortgage, no rent. There is the minor irritation of monthly inspections and the constant question of what we plan next. But those are small hassles I’m happy to get through. Again, we are blessed.

The money FEMA gave us went to replace a few things, not many, and to tearing down the home we’d lived in for seventeen years. The lot is empty. Only three hundred square feet of concrete slab, where our den was, is left as evidence that we once lived there. But we are here. We survived. We endured and we did that together.

Some weren’t as lucky.

My sister, who has chronic back issues, flooded as well. She was forced to sleep for nearly a week on a cot next to hundreds of other in a shelter because no one could get passed the blockades and fetch her. As a renter, she was entitled to very little from FEMA.

Our neighbor, whose husband died just six months before took on nearly as much water as we did. Our children were forced into a split schedule because their schools were decimated by flood water. In fact, before we made our way to family, we spent that first night in the school gym, sloshing through three feet of water in the pitch darkness to use the restroom. The bleachers were somewhat dry and we dozed on and off with only snack packs and small blankets to keep us warm.

FEMA trailers are in nearly every yard in our town.

Some businesses will never re-open.

Criminal contractors have stiffed families out of their renovation funds, several of whom are now in jail while the clients they robbed are left with no money to renovate.

And every time it rains, we watch the ditches, worried that the water will only grow higher and higher and we’ll once again be forced to evacuate.

There is no real recovery from a natural disaster; there are only instincts sharpened and worry deepened.

We struggle, it seems, because it’s what we know. There is always a complaint to be made because this circumstance of ours is not ideal. The world, too, seems primed for destruction, for more devastation. Yesterday in Virginia, white supremacists started a riot. They terrorized Charlottesville and killed a woman there to protest their hate mongering.

I sat in my FEMA trailer watching the horror unfold. We have undergone the worst devastation of our lives and the world continues to crumble into chaos around us.

Who do we turn to when things like this happen?

Who can offer us hope?

It’s not the government, certainly. While they argue and debate on further funding for the thousands of families impacted by this flood, those FEMA trailers have appeared more and more. While our leaders do their level best to eradicate decades-long policies that protect our elderly, our children and our planet, privileged men argue that they have been oppressed because theirs is no longer the loudest voice being heard.

It seems there is no optimism. There is so much violence, so much chaos that threatens to suffocate any hope that may still linger in our minds. But I pray you will not let yourself wallow in that hopelessness. I pray you understand you are not alone in this constant fight.

There are still precious things to love: friends and family who are willing to help, to shelter you when the storm rages too roughly; people who believe that their voices are worthy of hearing; those who know that sometimes being heard means shouting louder than your enemy.

There is still hope, though often it is hidden behind the smudge of doubt. Sometimes we have to look harder to find it, but it is still there.

My family and I take comfort in the promise of tomorrow. This is not a hurdle, it’s a minor fork in the road. We’ve learned that things are simply that—things that can be replaced. We’ve learned that worry doesn’t get you very far. We’ve learned that sometimes the best thing you can do is be still and listen.

That’s what I do when the noise of the world seems insurmountable—I listen to the laughter coming from my daughter’s room. (Something is always funny to a teenager.) I listen to the slow, sweet strum of my husband playing his guitar. I listen to the precious murmurs of that baby as he falls asleep in my arms.

One year later and we are still struggling with the heartache surrounding us, but the weight of this burden is lessening. It isn’t as sharp.

Now our normal comes in the stillness of moments we keep close to us.

One step. One instant. One breath at a time.

For now, that is enough.

 

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