The woman beside me at the nail salon heard me answer the manicurist’s question about our house and began asking me about our situation and also sharing other people’s stories. I didn’t realize at the time that there were a few other women in the room who were also listening to our conversation. Until today, I have not thought about the storm and the quick succession of actions that immediately followed it. There has not been time.
Today is a good day. I am beyond relieved that SG is finally in school this week (and liking it) and we are in a new but regular routine. I feel upbeat and rested for the first time in a month and I even put on a skirt and some makeup today. I’m getting my nails done because it’s been weeks and because it makes me feel put-together. I used to go to this nail place every 10 days or so, but my usual schedule is no more.
It’s a small thing, but there’s something about looking at my fingers and toes and seeing chips in the polish and areas that need touching up that bothers me on a deep level and indicates that life is not normal, that I am neglecting self-care in favor of addressing task after necessary task as they arise. Taking care of this one small detail lifts my spirits and helps bring back a sense that things are moving forward in a planned fashion. Clean, shaped, and polished nails are a promise to myself that I can and I will get myself put back together. Or maybe that I already am whole now that I can finally pause and breathe.
These hands have been busy this past month. It’s been 30+ days of action and my hands are callused and sore. A little lotion and massage is a welcome thing.
They sprang to action by bringing the large hurricane supply bins in from the garage, sorting through them to see what needed to be tossed from previous years (expired food) and what we still needed to buy (new batteries). Then there was the stocking up and lifting of heavy things into shopping carts, into the car, and into the house… a 190-pound generator and a portable window air conditioner in case the power stayed out for an extended period of time after the storm, a dehumidifier, gallons upon gallons of water, and three full 5-gallon gasoline containers. Grouping 2 or 3 100’ outdoor extension cords in one bag is pretty heavy as well. Add contractor size trash bags, 25-lb bags of cat litter, flash light D batteries (which I drove to 7 stores to find), and (thankfully for this last part Mr. B was in town) 42 bags of soil to use as sandbags with plastic sheeting around the house and you start to appreciate the arm and hand strength needed for all this hauling.
Then there was the preparation of the household: lifting furniture, rolling up rugs and stowing them on top of the dining room table, piling as much as we could onto the couches and the beds. We did not know how far to take these preparatory steps because we’ve done it before, only to have to put it all back the next day. Well, this time we did not get do that… almost all our furniture went ruined to the curb two days later. Even the rugs, which did not have contact with any flood water, soaked up the moisture regardless.
During the storm itself, the three of us were in the office we just recently finished adding above the garage. We woke up to the water coming into the house and quickly made last-minute boxes of items to take upstairs. I had a brief job to do in heading out into the knee-deep floodwaters to get a few items from the house and to flip the main switch on the breaker to the house, but then my hands sat idle. They did not even have a phone to touch or hold. I focused their warmth on holding SG’s hand, making them as reassuring as they could be. Touch is magic sometimes, especially when you don’t really know what to say.
We spent a day and a night and part of another day (I can’t actually remember how long we were there!) up there during and immediately following the storm. At one point, we had to take shelter in the bathtub because there was a tornado about a mile away. Our new kitten was into everything and so I created a barrier with a couple of cut cardboard boxes and taped that to the walls on each side of the stairwell so she wouldn’t be able to go down the steps and into the water that was already coming up to the first step. That night’s dinner was a picnic on the floor consisting of dry cereal, peanut butter crackers, dried apples, and granola bars. It was almost impossible to sleep with no air conditioning, the windows open for air but also letting in the sound of helicopters and rescue boats. I now look back and wonder at myself… with SG wanting to sleep in between us, I was first insisting that she stay on her own air mattress. I gave in. What an experience for a child. She fell asleep holding my hand.
Once the waters receded enough that we could go downstairs, assess the damage in the house, and trudge down our street, we took only what we could carry in our hands and were picked up by friends and taken to their house nearby. They have their own little garage apartment area that they insisted we use as long as necessary. Of course, they also had an attached house with electricity and food. Showering never felt so good. We ultimately brought over a bag each of clothing, our computers, and our two cats and all their necessities. We spent a number of days (again… I’ve forgotten) staying there on air mattresses and using their house as our home base as we remediated the house, made the multitude of phone calls, etc. SG was largely occupied with their kids and a friend who lives down the street, which was a welcome blessing.
In the remediation phase a couple days afterward, I intended to be there solely to watch the process and to take photos for insurance purposes, but it quickly became obvious that you can’t rip out cabinets and closets without packing up what is inside them. It was a mad dash and I have never packed so fast. These hands were holding many items at once, but always tape and a big marker for the boxes and a pen and small notebook. First I donned cheap plastic disposable gloves and threw out the waterlogged items. We were fortunate to have friends alongside us, helping us toss and take pictures of everything. Things like books and stacks of magazines are already heavy, but waterlogged, they are like boulders! I know that we started with at least 2 boxes of the large, black contractor trash bags and that we ultimately ran out of them. That is 200 huge plastic bags full of items that we accumulated slowly over a period of years. Everything in the bottom drawers or cabinets had to go. Toiletries, clothes, paperwork, art supplies and artwork, Tupperware, DVDs, games, books. The list seems endless.
You have heard the expression “out of touch,” I’m sure. When things get beyond us, or we are not able to give our attention to everything as it happens, we are said to be out of touch or things have gotten “out of hand.” Now I realize that as we sorted everything else into “apartment” and “storage” boxes, there are many times where I should have made a different call. There are items I wish I had now, but also much that ended up in our apartment that we have no use or space for right now.
In those few seemingly endless days, my hands were so busy packing and carrying boxes full of our life that I don’t quite remember if they held any one thing for more than a second. Having other people help us pack was a necessary blessing, but it didn’t allow me a chance to handle each item and make the decision for myself. So many decisions were literally out of my hands. Time completely seemed to stall then, like the present moment extended to include contact with our belongings on a moving sidewalk view of our life. The morning became the afternoon and one day became three days. Everything was photographed and then tossed out or boxed up and hidden from view and touch, some things indefinitely. To have to make those decisions quickly and on the fly felt surreal.
All this was being done with constant interruptions. Besides questions from packers inside the house, my (new) phone was constantly ringing and pinging. Do you need boxes or tape or food or more people? Do you have a place to stay? Contractors returning calls to schedule appointments. The moving company confirming dates. The apartment complex requesting other documents. Our family in Galveston, who had SG with them, or SG herself, calling to touch base. It was a busy time and literally, my hands were full.
I don’t usually pause to be grateful for my youth and physical ability. This woman next to me in the nail salon is telling me mostly stories of older people who have lost some form of physical capability. Her own husband has Alzheimer’s and gets confused a lot. Her house was completely fine and did not take on water this time, but if it had, she was ready to find someone who could put everything back exactly as it was for her husband’s comfort, down the same floor tile pattern and texture of carpeting. Her daughter took in some neighbors who have serious medical issues and need specific medicines at certain times of the day, along with special equipment. They were having trouble adapting to taking care of themselves out of their usual surroundings.
I, on the other hand, have a husband alongside me, our daughter taken care of, and so much adrenaline coursing through me that I could probably have helped pack up every house on the block. I am appreciative of the work my body performed, without pain or question and not stopping me. One day, this vessel will tire and I will rely on help from others. But for now, my hands are strong and capable.
The large task of emptying the house done, it was time to shift our focus from where we’d been to where we were going. I think it was the very same day of the storm that we rented an apartment sight-unseen over the phone (but this is not an article about my eyes). We were largely guessing what furniture would fit based on a drawing in a brochure. We didn’t even know how long we would be “homeless.” The apartment complex had one unit available and so we took it, assuming rental places would be hard to find in the coming days since half the city was probably displaced. (Turns out that we probably could have been more selective, but I felt happy to have that decision taken care of.)
We lived in limbo for a couple weeks before moving into our apartment. We brought a few things to a close friend’s parents’ apartment. They had purchased it in a new, luxury hi-rise because they are in Houston about 6 months each year. It is perhaps the nicest place I have ever lived in. Both Mr. B and I wished we could just stay there forever. I think he may have asked the front desk the price and availability of the units! Having even a temporary home where we were safe, all arrangements were taken care of, and the place was clean and fully functioning was like a gift from heaven, especially in contrast to the uncertainty of what our future apartment would be like. Being there, I had a similar feeling of being with my own parents and being taken care of.
The cats had to be left behind with our friends. For SG, this was rough. She wanted to be with her new kitten and this was yet another disruption she was being asked to deal with. We visited them as much as we could. When I think of things from her perspective, I can’t even imagine… the actual experience of the storm itself, going from garage apartment to friends’ garage apartment to grandparents’ house to borrowed nice apartment to grandparents again to this new apartment; new bedroom furniture; stressed out and preoccupied parents; a new school and new grade and new teachers; new after-school classes and projects; big changes in routine; having to see your empty home a few times and your toys ruined on the lawn and you can’t have them… that is a lot to handle in a very short time.
We eagerly anticipated the day we could move in to the new apartment as a start toward feeling settled again. I had reserved two storage units over the phone during the storm, with one hand covering my other ear because a neighbor was being airlifted from her roof by the Coast Guard at the same time. I expected an exact science, that they would arrive and get delivered and picked up as planned. (That did not happen.) We had done laundry, tossed our trash and food, packed our belongings, and left the borrowed place behind that morning. We arrived at the apartment and there was our storage unit, there were our movers, there were the keys… only the new apartment was a disaster. Such a mess! There had been a big mistake… someone had dropped the ball. The old carpet needed to be ripped out, the walls were in the middle of being painted. It would be a few more days.
What an emotional rollercoaster. Pack. Unpack. Pack. Unpack. Pack again. Determine if and when the movers could come back. Now here we were paying a house mortgage and rent on an apartment that we couldn’t even move into yet… the movers were finally were able to squeeze us in very late a few nights later.
Once we were moved in, I couldn’t seem to put things in place fast enough. I’d pick up a picture to hang and then be distracted by a box that was halfway unpacked. I’d work on that but end up in the kitchen, where the counters were piled with groceries that needed to be put away. I felt like I could not move fast enough or get unpacked soon enough to ease my feeling of anxiety and unsettledness. It bothered me that everything was not in its proper place yet. Fortunately, since we didn’t have much, it didn’t take too long.
What was difficult was the multiple trips up the stairs to our third-floor apartment. We quickly learned to unload the car at the bottom of the steps before going to park because the distance from our parking spots to the apartment seems twice as far when you’re laden with heavy packages. I have had such frustration when I’m trying to lug a heavy shelf unit up the steps by myself, or even just a few bags of groceries. I can’t deny that I have stopped partway before and just cried in frustration at the situation.
These hands have assembled so much furniture that I bought an electric screwdriver to make the process faster and ease the soreness in my right hand. There was the cute little couch I found on Overstock. A shelf unit that has got to be heavier than our bed (and that’s saying something). The set of drawers for our aquarium (and yes, moving the aquarium itself was loads of fun). Other shelves and cubby and drawer systems. A coffee and a TV table. 2 dressers.
Do you know that feeling you have when you are carrying heavy items and someone comes alongside you and takes half? Is it relief? Intense gratitude? That has got to be one of the most welcome feelings ever. I can say that I’ve been fortunate to have help much of the time lately. Mr. B to help take things up and down the stairs (because you know all those cardboard boxes that the furniture comes in must be taken back down the stairs and to the dumpster around the corner), a stranger at a store helping to load my car with me, and even movers (who we paid to help us) elicit that feeling of gratitude. Maybe it’s the offer itself that warms the heart.
We are mostly settled now. SG has finally started the school year in a new building and a month later than expected. I am writing thank you notes, sorting paperwork, and helping at SG’s school. Every day, one of us goes over to the house to collect the mail or to check to see if the pile on the front lawn has lessened or disappeared. Today, as I left the salon and drove away, I ended up at the house again, this time not purposely. I have made that 5-minute drive from the nail salon to our house perhaps 100 times, so I subconsciously did it again. When I realized it, I simply parked my car in the driveway and started at the place, trying to make sense of it all.
It’s crazy but what I am excited about today is that much of our front-yard debris is gone (if you could call the photo below “gone”)!!! Over a month past the storm, I had honestly given up hope of it getting picked up at all by the City. The entire neighborhood has big piles in front of homes, not that I’ve been in one of those. Picture sheetrock and walls and doors and cabinets all sitting outside in the heat and rain, decomposing to pulp and smelling not that great. It’s like the houses threw up. I could never quite identify what it was I was feeling when I’d notice one of SG’s little chairs or one of her jars of colored sand that was abandoned on the lawn. Some days I thought they were fine enough to pick up and take with me, but I know better. When you physically are not supposed to touch your own belongings… I don’t know what to call that.
As I was paying and leaving the nail salon, another woman was also walking out. I hadn’t even noticed her. She looked at me compassionately, put her hand on my shoulder, and said good luck and that she’s so sorry for what we are going through. That’s when I realized that the other guests had been listening. What an experience of community this city has had! There have been heartwarming stories of strangers helping strangers all over the place. Then, the woman who had been sitting next to me came forward and gave me a hug.
The experience today of planned self-care, of being in a place I have been many times before, and of compassion from strangers reminded me again to focus on the positive and to keep doing that every day. There has been so much to think about and some large decisions to make and sometimes I just wish it’d all go away. But I’d take this past month of challenges and the requisite for physical and emotional strength over anyone else’s experiences any day. That I have a life and family and home that is worth any challenge is but one reason to let the short-term tests pass me by largely unscathed. These hands can “handle” this and so much more.
And eventually, just as they emptied our house of belongings, these hands will help us move back to a lovely new home where the three of us will continue being present for each other, helping with the celebrating and the comforting that is part of life. I aim to always acknowledge that we humans are vulnerable and not in control, to accept challenges gracefully, and to continue paying attention to the many helping hands around me and the comforting embraces of my community.