Five months and a few days ago, Hurricane Sandy hit New York.
My fiancée is from the South Shore of Long Island, out in Suffolk County, and her sister’s house is still unlivable. Mom’s staying at Grandma’s, her sister husband nieces in Mom’s, and Dad is staying in the top floor of the flooded house to work on it while they wait for the contractor to come lift the house and the FEMA money to pay for it.
Yeah, that’s right, lift the house.
Erin’s dad is also staying at the house “just so there’s someone there.” This phrase is repeated and accepted with a nonchalance that is both common and unsettling. Because what it really means is that even though the updates about looters have long since disappeared from the nightly news, there are still plenty of people who are looking for abandoned houses to rob and even inhabit, and Erin’s dad wants to make sure that doesn’t happen to them.
This strikes me as incredibly “real,” or at least much, how should I say, grittier than I’m used to. I imagine it’s because I was in the protective bubble of Ventura County for the last three years, and in the oddly surreal bubble of South Orange County for a couple before that, that I’ve forgotten how close so many people – and so many people so close to me – live to the edge of things, and how good we are at accommodating those near-edges. You stay in peaceful suburbia too long and you begin to think of “real life” as something that happens to other people – or even worse, only to people in movies or books – and you begin to think that real-life things must be overtly dramatic, as if you’re waiting for the score to kick in any second.
I know because I grew up in that, untouched by disaster, unscathed by any real danger. I have fond memories of the Northridge earthquake in 1994.
I mean that seriously – my memories of that deadly and dramatic disaster are fond.
I thought it was fun to sway around the house at midnight and during the multiple severe aftershocks, to be without power, to miss a couple days of school.
Then I lived in New York, and lifeguarded at Jones Beach with firemen who responded to 9/11, with teachers cooks cops who volunteered so many consistent hours down there that they lost 60% of their lung capacity, with women my age who lost their parents in the attack. They got misty-eyed when they talked too long about it or when I asked the kind of insensitive questions I’m wont to ask, but for the most part they were just going on about their lives, unaccompanied by any sweeping, epic score.
Then I lived in Medellín, Colombia, and made friends with people whose entire childhoods were overshadowed by a criminal presence and an outright war in their city’s streets. I saw the remains of bombed sculptures they’ve left in place as reminders and homage to the violence of not-so-long-ago, and heard the stories of curfews and disappearances and fear. But they, too, were just going about their lives again.
Two things these two groups of people taught me:
people are incredibly resilient, and tragedy breeds humility.
When people have sustained a major loss – of their house, of their loved ones, of their way of life – they interact with the world a little differently. It puts their little grievances in perspective and opens them up to the good things in their lives the rest of us so often and so easily overlook.
This was on display in full force last weekend, at a wedding out in Montauk. Some of those lifeguards were there, as were a bunch of Navy guys, a number of whom are SEALS, all of whom have seen action and a few of whom came back wounded and incomplete.
Several of those lifeguards live – or rather, used to live – down the shore in Long Island, and lost their houses in Sandy. One in particular, a guy who’s been a Seabee for twenty years, is living for the time being with his mom in the house he grew up in, with his wife and their kids, in Queens, and taking his kids an hour each way to school every day. Many aren’t getting any FEMA money because for one reason or another they don’t qualify, so they’re out a house and own little more than a patch of sand with some sticks, and are getting second or third jobs to start clawing their ways out.
Not that I heard any of this from them. What I heard from them was, “Life is great, the kids are great – how are you?! Been too long, we miss you.”
“Isn’t this awesome? What a nice weekend, what a great party.”
“Look at that ocean – beautiful, idnit? Hard to believe it can do so much damage on a day like this.”
These are the people that teach me how to live.
I feel honored and grateful to have them in my life, to have them as examples and advisors and friends.
But, just like they weren’t overly worried the sacrifices they’ve made and been forced to make in their lives, last weekend I wasn’t overly focused on gratitude and appreciation.
It was a party. And sometimes you just gotta put all that heavy stuff to the side, let it go for a few minutes, and just, well, party.
Who are your heroes?
How do you get through your disasters?