I know I’m a self-proclaimed non-crier, if there’s such a word. I have a whole blog on why I do not cry. But lately, I think I’ve done everything in my power to prove to the world that I am all but that. I’ve gone from being sniffly in front of uncomfortable parents, to pouring tears in front of a quiet staff, to an all out can’t-catch-my-breath sob on the phone with a panicked colleague. All the while, I repeat a mantra in the back of my head, “Pull yourself together, Chic! You are sooo inappropriate!”
I am quite possibly evolving into a weepy elderly, like a brutish man who turns into a sappy mess of a grandfather and cries over little children kissing him in exchange for candy. But I’m only 38. If I’m so discomposed in my middle-age years, I’m going to be a basket case by the time the grandkids come along. I really do have to pull myself together!
In my defense, it’s been a rough couple of weeks and the pain I’ve seen all around me has proven too hard even for an icy person to handle. So I have responded in the most unfamiliar way. Cry.
“Here, dear,” said a woman in her 80’s, handing me two carefully folded blankets. “I was able to save these from the flood. I want to donate them.”
I looked at the woman and her distraught eyes. She had come earlier to our church, now a Hurricane Sandy Relief Center. She related her story of total loss. The furniture, the belongings, the house. Sandy came and just like that, everything was gone. I remember asking her if there was anything I could give her. Anything. What was it that she needed?
“I don’t know,” she said, still shaken, looking around her. Water bottles, can goods, toiletries. Her husband was surveying the building, holding on to a cereal box. “I don’t know. Everything is gone.”
Multiple families with small children had come before, but this was the first time I was confronted with elderly victims. I remember thinking, how could they rebuild? How do they start over in their final years? Where were their children? Did they have any?
And here she was, a couple of hours later, handing me blankets.
“I washed them in the laundry mat for you. See? They’re clean. They’re still good. Someone might need them.” I don’t think she saw that I was emotionally crumbling in front of her. “You are doing a good thing here, such a good thing…”
Everyone around me felt the same way, I’m sure, looking at tossed cars, gaping holes in homes, shifted foundations, heaps of broken wood, glass and debris. You cannot help but catch your breath in the middle of this devastation, your heart pressed tightly and pounding against your chest, your stomach hollow and empty. But all the while, the whole tragedy is surreal. A part of you removes itself from what you are physically witnessing. “This really isn’t happening. This cannot be real.”
Although I was physically tired from volunteering and my spirit was weary from all the devastation around us, I managed to take deep breaths and remain dry-eyed. Even when I stood across the NYPD, as they searched for the two boys who perished in the flood just blocks away from the church, I stayed composed.
But naturally, when those same two boys were viewed in a funeral service at a church right next to my job, a whole borough away from where they lost their lives, the irony of it all, and the closeness of their presence---I broke down and cried.
Sandy came for one day and just like that, so much loss, so much devastation, so much pain.
I think I had been in a state of emotional vulnerability for a while now because of Sandy, that by the time one of our teachers, who was my assistant for a couple of years, called me in tears about an MRI result of her mom, a doting mother who was her closest and dearest friend, I was anything and everything but strong.
And because that teacher is younger than my youngest sibling and I had developed a genuine love for her, and she had already lost her father suddenly just a few years back, that brain MRI that revealed a metastasized cancer was too much for me to handle.
I cried, then sobbed, then wailed. I was driving through the BQE and asked God, why? Why is there so much loss? Why is there so much devastation? Why is there so much pain? Was He watching all of this and would He please, please, do something?
I remember pulling over and calling my husband. I could barely speak between sobs and because for the last decade of our marriage my tear ducts had normally been empty, he did not know how to respond to my breakdown. “Come home,” he said in total panic. “Babe, come home.”
A couple of days later, when my emotions had settled, my husband and I reflected on the tragedies that we’ve experienced, even within the walls of our own personal lives. It’s not that things were becoming more tragic. It’s that we’ve been around for almost 4 decades now and we are witnessing what life naturally brings: joys and sadness, celebrations and despairs, gains and losses…
Some of the losses are unbearable but inevitably, they are a part of life.
Staten Island has a long way to go before it is totally rebuilt, but people have been gutting their basements, doing demolitions, putting up sheet rocks, plastering and painting. Almost every home now has electricity, running water, and heat. Facebook no longer mentions Sandy. The topic of the hurricane has been replaced by mundane quotes, the death of Hostess Twinkie, and Black Friday. In other words, things seem to be shifting back to normal.
“I don’t mean to be cruel,” I said on a text to my assistant when she wrote that she could not fight for her mother, that she was wrong, she wasn’t as strong as she thought. And really, she is one of the strongest people I know. I can’t…I don’t have the capacity… “You have to find the strength. You have to stay lucid,” I said.
Then, I repeated the words said to me when my daughter laid in what was meant to be her death bed and all I wanted to do was give up: “You have no choice.”
And it really boils down to that. A tragedy comes, a hurricane takes over. We weep, we wail, we mourn. Then we brush ourselves up and we gather our resolve and we rebuild. We have no choice. We find strength in our sorrow, we push through our pain, and we fight forward.
And hopefully, hopefully, by the grace of God, we’ll win.