Yaaay! We moved into our new place – finally after three months – and that is why I am a day late posting my new blog entry. Here is the story I wrote last week that led up to Monday’s move…
One of my grandsons is sitting three inches from me on the couch reading from his first grade reader. His mother, an excellent mother – not because she is my daughter, but because she really is – is listening and following intently, managing to not lose her focus while patting the head of the two-year old who wants a little attention, too.
It’s an honor to be here, listening to the learning and soaking in the earnestness of these beautiful children doing their homework. An honor, and yet, now that we have finally, finally, after three months found an apartment, I will be so happy to leave and not wake up to my four-month old granddaughter crying desperately in the middle of the night.
So I am posting my blog from my own experience of having been unexpectedly rendered homeless by Hurricane Sandy on October 29, 2012. It’s going to be a little different type of post because being a Marriage & Family Therapist does not render me immune from the cauldron that is a family.
A cauldron under pressure.
The first six weeks went really, really well. It was my son-in-law that phoned the day before the storm was to hit, insisting that we come stay with them for the duration. He knew my husband is handicapped and didn’t want him to be placed in danger should our block become waterlogged. None of us dreamed just how waterlogged it would become.
I had neighbors that did not evacuate. The worst of every single story I heard when I went back was the moment when the force of the water broke down doors – a garage door in one case, a front door in another – and it started coming at them. My neighbors saw their possessions lost in front of their eyes but that paled in comparison to the terror they felt not knowing just how much water there would be and whether they would drown.
It took me two weeks to get back to my home because my car didn’t have enough gas – as gas was being rationed. The gas lines were three to four hours long after it finally got delivered. I discovered that I should have worn my boots when I went back to the house. My feet, my hands, my whole self was freezing cold and when I returned to the warm nest my daughter and son-in-law have created here, I was shaking. They rushed me hot tea and it took hours for me to warm up.
For four more weeks, I slogged – in boots – through the small house, hauling soggy things out to the swale in the front of the house and carefully packing what was salvageable. I got smart after that first day and wore gloves, too, as there was no heat and no hot water. I brought a flashlight; there was no electricity, either. I went to Lowes and discovered a world of masks. Who knew that there would be different kinds depending on the kind of toxic air you would be compelled to breathe?
As I looked at my mildewing possessions, I was amazed at how much I could easily get rid of. Ironically, we had been living for 32 years in Florida and were never personally affected by a hurricane there. Before we left to live in New York (to be closer to our daughter and our grands), I took carloads and carloads of old stuff to the Salvation Army. I brought my old textbooks to the Nova University library in boxes; I filled an oversize garbage can with the shreddings from a file cabinet and tenderly parted with the fourteen boxes (yes, actually fourteen) of children’s clothing I had been saving for my grandkids but gave away because my children thought that their own baby clothes would be out of fashion on their little ones.
And yet, standing on the saturated floors of the house we had been living in, exhausted from the pressure of packing in the midst of destruction, I found myself easily letting go of plastic containers, serving dishes, sheets, couches, warming trays, and books. Maybe I was too shaken by the devastation to care. I lost ten pounds that I really couldn’t afford to lose. Never before in my life had I lost my appetite; I had always loved to eat. Now, food and eating had no meaning. I was just a packing and sorting machine.
No one knew. I still saw clients and because I greeted them with a smile and plenty of warmth, they thought I must be fine. Well, I was fine at that moment; I was happy to see them. They kept me going and they were a wonderful diversion from packing. They also were packing, some of them. We compared notes a little bit, just to stand on common ground before they launched into their family traumas.
I had taken my water-logged shoes and gently laid them on some newspapers to dry out. I ended up throwing them all away; they wouldn’t dry. I put soaked photo albums on the table to dry and had better luck with them. My dissertation looked ridiculous; have you ever seen a flooded-out book? It opens up at the bottom like a fan but the top is still slim. When I wrote it, digital documents weren’t as prolific as they are now. Luckily, and thankfully, I have a copy in my computer.
I felt very badly about my Passover folder. It had been my nerve center for decades, containing recipes, menus and grocery lists that I would use year after year so no one would be disappointed by missing old favorites. Not only was it soaked but it smelled. I could not throw it out. On my last packing day, I brought it in a plastic bag to my daughter’s house and the next day was sunny and beautiful.
I put my mask on and covered my lap with a plastic dry cleaning bag. I wore dish-washing gloves, took my computer and the plastic Passover bag and sat outside on my daughter’s front porch. One by one I picked up the smelly, soaked treasures and typed the information into the computer. I saved every recipe and all the lists! That was my proudest accomplishment of the month-long packing daze.
But as the weeks wore on, something happened to our family.
My children were able to buy a tidy little house in a part of New York that was not badly affected by the flood. They now are blessed with five children. The infant was still sleeping in their bedroom but my presence evicted my then-nearly two-year-old granddaughter from her room. She was put with her elementary age brothers to give me privacy and peace.
And for all this kindness the family showed me by scrunching together so I could have a private room, I paid everyone back by having them all lose a night’s sleep every night. You see, when the boys were sent to bed, the two-year old couldn’t stop chattering and kept them up. When the boys were awakened in the morning for school, they would be cranky and a bit louder than they should have been, waking her up. She would then cry for them as they abandoned her heading out the door. So the children didn’t get any peace and I didn’t either.
My husband, who can’t readily climb up and down a flight of stairs, was given the living room as his room. Our unmarried son was put on the fold-out couch in the basement. It was the best that could be done.
Every time my daughter needed to nurse the baby, she had to scurry from one end of the house to the other to get a little privacy from us. When my son-in-law got work-related calls that required his concentration, he needed to expel my son from the basement. They were as gracious as could be for a long, long while.
My landlord had been telling me, during the weeks that I was packing, that the restoration would only take “two or three days.” Ha. He even gave me the phone number for the restoration company and I spoke to the chief restorer who backed up his position. My daughter, who is wise beyond her years, didn’t believe any of that for a moment, but I, who am busy training couples to give each other the benefit of the doubt, did just that for the landlord. I was wrong to do so.
Finally the day came when I got an email from the landlord announcing a new price for the lease, one that felt totally wrong to me, a price I couldn’t or didn’t want to accept. We had come to New York with our life savings ready to use on purchasing a home and we were only renting until we could find just the right house. In the meantime, the economy plunged, I was not watching the cookie jar, and the money lost its value in some bad investments.
What’s more, it would take not two or three days but six weeks to restore that house and my children were getting edgy. (Twelve weeks later and it is not half done yet.)
So, the hunt for a new place to live began. And there was nothing. It’s crazy but there was nothing for a family of three. Or hardly anything. In our old, devastated neighborhood, there were studios and one-bedrooms but we needed at least two and preferably three since I am accustomed to having a portion of the space for an office. After all, I would see clients on Skype and I certainly needed privacy. I had just written a book (an Amazon best-seller) and that didn’t happen with all kinds of distractions (although I am writing this entry as I am sitting here on my daughter’s couch amidst the cacophony of three children reciting different homework assignments out loud and two babies begging for equal attention).
We thought we had finally located a suitable place three blocks from our daughter and son-in-law but the landlord turned us down when he saw my husband struggling up the front steps. He was afraid of a future slip and fall. Yes, I know that is illegal, but who is in the mood to start a lawsuit over it?
And there were arguments. Don’t think therapists don’t have them. My husband wanted a big place but after the money-loss and the shock to my practice of clients whose homes were destroyed and whose insurance companies were tight-fisted, I wanted to downsize. My children got into the fray; after all, we were in their midst and there was no place to talk privately – for us or for them. Voices even were raised; I hope mine wasn’t one of them but you would have to ask my children about that.
Finally, my husband huffed that he would go to a FEMA hotel. It was only a gesture; he wanted our daughter to beg him to stay, but she didn’t. She was worn out by this point. My son had checked all of the hotels on Google and even looked up customer reviews. One person complained that she had seen a rat in one of them and that was the end of that for me.
My daughter did not accept the bait and my husband got mad at her. He said something I would regret but he was too busy balancing the chip on his shoulder to notice how bad it was. My sweet, good daughter and son-in-law had lovingly opened their house to us! This was not right.
I steamed but waited until our next trip to our old neighborhood to pick up mail to talk to him. The car was our living room; the only place we could talk privately. I got nowhere: I’m a therapist whose husband didn’t listen. He was too hurt. That is what the first chapter of my book is all about—victim thinking! But in the middle of a crisis, the lessons and wisdom of Chapter One were lost on him.
It took another couple of weeks for my husband to resume his pleasant demeanor. I know he still is hurt, but we will not be able to discuss it until we can once again sit at our breakfast table before the pressures of the day mount up and we can talk. My daughter, too, remains hurt; all her kindness seems to have gone unnoticed by her father. All because her father perceived a slight where none was meant. Now you know where my training in family squabbles really began.
Meanwhile, just to ensure that we would not totally run out of money, I decided to look for work. Yes, me, the therapist with the private practice. Like I said, there is a domino effect, here: Just when people needed therapy the most, they could not afford to pay. And I could not afford to see them for nothing.
I decided to apply to my alma mater, Queens College. Oddly enough, the chairman of the department who had been my professor I won’t say how many years ago remembered me. He explained patiently that “no good deed goes unpunished.” You see, QC had served as a shelter for 500 members of the community after the storm and was now in the hole for $750,000 – which Congress had decided not to reimburse. (Congress changed its mind a few weeks later.) “So,” he explained, “they are cutting the budget by 5% and adjunct faculty is the first to go.”
Sandy’s fingers got into everything and damaged every corner of life, it seemed.
So the real question is: Am I going to let Sandy defeat me or am I going to use it as a gift?
Actually, there were three gifts: First to get real about money instead of burying my head in the sand. Second, to recognize that my husband is a work in progress; I’ve been figuring out solutions for many years – he’s the laboratory for my work – but the job’s not done. And third, to once again learn how precious my children are to me, how good and how fine. Oh, yeah, fourth, I did lose some weight, so when I become famous and go in front of TV cameras, I’ll look real slim and svelte.
These realizations did not come easily. They came with sleepless nights and shame. However, when my Denver, Co.friend, Marcia Reece, convinced me I should write this up because it would help other people, I knew she was right. Our worst stories reach out to others to make them feel less alone. That, truly, is why I became a therapist in the first place.