It was a Friday night, and the pizza was about ready to come out of the oven. The Twins game was on TV. I was sitting in my chair, computer on, trolling Facebook and working through a book review when my daughter looked up at the glass picture window behind me, and said, “Whoa.”
We all crowded around the window and were frozen in amazement. After a day of hot, sticky sunshine, a torrential rain was now falling so hard that we could barely see the house across the street. Suddenly lightning was flashing convulsively, followed by deep, rumbling thunder. But what was truly alarming was the wind. The thick stillness of the afternoon had given way to a wind unleashed. It was gusting so hard that the branches of the trees lining the boulevard were whipping around, vertical to the ground. These huge and stately trees, decades old, now looked as solid as matchsticks; the majestic tree that had stood guard over our house, shading it in the summer and holding an entire wildlife community in its branches, was flailing around wildly, its crown bobbing and creaking in what we came to learn were hurricane force winds. I’ve seen storms and I’ve seen wind; I’ve been through a couple of near misses with tornadoes in my lifetime, but I had never seen anything like this.
There was a loud pop and the lights in the houses across the street suddenly went out. Although my thoughts were mainly still directed at the trees out front, I gave a silent prayer that the electricity on our side of the street would somehow miraculously stay on. But prayers are not always answered as intended, and as I stood on our porch watching the raging of the storm, the lights in our house flickered once, then twice… my heart caught in my throat as they seemed to ride out the buffeting. But then, even as the storm seemed to be abating a bit, I heard – and felt – a massive, concussive thud, and everything went dark.
It turned out that we had lost two large trees in our backyard, one of which had taken out our electricity and cable (and therefore internet) yet luckily missing our house by mere inches; two other smaller trees had also been snapped in the onslaught. The rest of the neighborhood was also without power; all told, over 700,000 households in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area were without power. Over 40,000 trees had fallen, many blocking roads and tearing up sidewalks, and many street lights were dark, snarling traffic and causing massive confusion.
It took four days for our electricity to be restored; longer than everyone else on our block, because not only did the electrical grid go down but our personal lines had been snapped as well; electricity could not be restored until the branches and debris on those lines had been cleared. Our internet wasn’t back up until six days after the storm. During this time, the days continued to be hot and sultry, with sudden thundershowers adding to the humidity and misery.
Had it not been for our neighbor, Tom, I don’t know how we could have made it through those four days with no electrical power coming to the house. Not only did he spend a stifling afternoon cutting up our biggest downed tree with his chainsaw so our electrical wire could be freed (all I could do was sit there and offer conversation and encouragement – you do NOT want me handling anything as dangerous as a chainsaw!), but he also ran a heavy duty extension cord across the intervening property between his house and ours, and allowed us to leech off his electricity (which had been restored the day after the storm) to run our refrigerator and a fan in the living room (which made sleeping at night bearable – barely), and a lamp in the evenings so we could see without having to worry about cats and dogs and candles.
Words cannot convey how indispensable the help of others is during troubling times. It’s not just the aid itself that sustains us, but it’s also the knowledge that what happens to you matters to others, that someone beyond your own inner circle cares about your well being.
Over the years, we as neighbors may have gotten into the habit of going for weeks and months without doing more than waving hello in passing, but within hours of realizing that we needed help, Tom was there, without being asked. Because the odds seemed so stacked against us, because we were just one more statistic in a whole city that was clamoring for assistance, because our situation was more complicated than a simple A-B-C game plan could resolve, it was easy to feel overwhelmed, especially with the inability to escape the brutal elements of high temperatures, high dew points and still air. Tom didn’t just give us aid – he gave us hope. He gave us just enough breathing space to take the deep breath we needed to organize our own resources and move forward. And he did it without expecting anything in return. “Neighbors help neighbors” he kept repeating, when I worried that I couldn’t even offer him a cold glass of water, when I was concerned about the wear and tear on his equipment and his body, when I lamented my inability to be of much help, when I thanked him yet again for his assistance.
“Neighbors help neighbors.”
I know that Tom got a lot of satisfaction at being able to help us; he’s the type of person who wants to be able to be counted on in a pinch, who isn’t adverse to being a go-to guy, who takes pride in getting to know all the folks who put down roots in our little neck of the world and then keep on top of who belongs and who doesn’t. But it’s more than just that.
It truly is neighbors helping neighbors. It goes beyond the words. It gives all of us a sense of security, of sustainability. We can overcome obstacles together that would otherwise take each of us down singularly, whether it be drug dealers encroaching on the neighborhood or pet-sitting when someone is called out of town, or something as simple as shoveling more than your own front walk when it seems like it’s going to snow every friggin’ day. But it’s more than that, even. It’s the counseling of where to find a good mechanic or the sharing of summer vegetables from the garden, and always watching what’s going on to make sure the neighborhood is safe – every day, not just on National Night Out. It’s kids playing together and adults sitting around solving the problems of the world on lazy summer days, or delighting in shepherding the little ones up and down the street on Halloween. It’s encouraging the neighbors to vote but not telling them how to vote. It’s picking up the trash on the curb when out walking the dog. It’s sharing the ebb and flow of life with others that just happened to move into your corner of the world.
Neighbors helping neighbors.
It’s more than words can say. It’s more than a phrase – it’s a blessing. It’s there, in good times and bad, and it doesn’t wait for a phone call. And it’s greatly, massively, humbly appreciated, not only after the storm, but every single day.