Monday, September 4, 2017

Harvey to Home: Four Hours and Light-Years Away

As often happens lately, I'm not quite sure where to begin. I'm back in Fort Worth. I'm so glad I stayed up until midnight each night I was in Houston writing blog posts about our days because so much of it is already a blur. Surreal and impossible. I was standing in Trader Joe's today and just looking at all the people buying healthy foods for their week ahead and I just wanted to yell "do you know what Houston looks like right now? do you know there are piles of drywall everywhere? and mold is starting to grow and spread? and people don't have flood insurance? or money or power or AC or water and it is all just fucking awful?" But of course they don't. I mean, some may have gone down to Houston like me and seen it, but one of our necessary abilities is being able to move on from other people's tragedies to focus on ourselves. You can't let every disaster devastate you. You help, but you stay in your circle and you live your life. I've done the exact same thing over and over again and you must, but it was just so jarring to have gone from a drywall covered emotionally overwrought hellscape to... Trader Joe's, four hours and several light-years away.

driving out of the neighborhood to go home

Even me- I'm stressed about going back to work- to REALLY WORK- for practically the first time since my grandpa had his heart attack. I'm stressed out how much we needed to get done today to prepare for the week ahead. I'm stressed about how my kids were behaving today (fucking TERRIBLY). I'm stressed at how I've been a decent daughter and granddaughter over the last two weeks, but a fairly lacking wife, mother, and lawyer. I'm stressed that I'd missed my kids so much but spent much of the day yelling at them. And then I have one brief phone call with my mom (and another with my uncle who is back in Minneapolis with my grandparents in the hospital because yes, that's still going on) and my stresses seem ridiculous. I need to be yelled at in a Trader Joe's.

we accidentally stood in "kid' order

So I'm struggling a bit with the transition.

I just feel so sad. So sad and fragile and tired. But life moves forward- I've been ignoring mine for some time and it needs attention. My house didn't flood and James needs me to help him run it. And since I am in a house that was not flooded and living a life that is otherwise unchanged, I'm not quite sure why I can't just slip back into it.

I got home last night around 6. Yesterday was James and my 12th wedding anniversary and my mom really wanted me to be home for it. I also felt like, while there is still much to do, they were in a pretty good place with what I could offer with my personal skill set. My brother is a work-horse and construction and engineering-minded. He was the foreman for the work crews. I can organize and list-make and check off all the things. I organized the inside crews of helpers- the packing and storing of everything that wasn't damaged. And blessedly, thanks to a previously unappreciated amount of upper cabinets and built-in shelves, that was a lot of things. I helped find my parents an apartment and got the utilities started. I made the shared folder for our insurance claims photos.

My last self-appointed task was to pack up all the clothes from drawers and closet bars my parents had run upstairs and thrown on a guest bed as the flood waters were rising. My mom kept saying they were fine, but it was literally a mountain of clothes and I couldn't leave that there. In a crisis, you're just thinking about the moment, and in that moment, a mountain of clothes on a bed was not a priority. They were fine. But I felt like my job was to think forward to a month from now, when my mom is getting ready for work, and needs to get dressed in their one-bedroom apartment far from that upstairs bedroom that has been sealed off with plastic while the reno work is happening on the house below. I had my brother take me to the house early with him at 7 so I could get that done before letting her make me go home while he went on to another friend's parents' house to rip out more dry wall even after 4 days of non-stop work tearing out drywall at our own.

Kingwood High School flooding

(And speaking of my mom going to work, my high school- where all 3 of us graduated and where my mom has worked for 15+ years, was completely flooded. It has been condemned and closed for at least a year. 3,000 students, teachers, and staff, displaced. Classrooms all ready for the new school year destroyed. Records lost. It breaks my heart. They will have to share with another school across town for a full school year. My mom can hardly even think about it... how can she as a Bio II AP teacher preparing her kids for a college exam cram her hour+ labs into 30 minutes in a classroom that isn't her with lab equipment that isn't there? For a teacher like her, the idea that she won't be able to serve them properly is killing her. And the thought of setting up a new classroom right now while her house is destroyed is overwhelming. She's supposed to report to work this week, with classes starting next Monday. It's just too much. I wish so much that her job and her students could be her escape and instead it's an extra and very intense source of stress.)

But back to the house. I got the clothes done. At one point, I asked my mom if she wanted to take any of the items she had hanging up in that guest room closet. She stood there, pulling out dresses, saying over and over "this is silly, I know this is silly, what does it matter what I pick?". But if it's your stuff, of course you're going to think about what you're picking out to wear for the next many months while you live somewhere else. When it's me, a third party, I just pack without thought. It's why it took my volunteer teacher crew one day to pack up the entire inside of the house but it's going to take my dad 5 to do his garage. He's thinking; we weren't. It's why my mom knew to stay out of the packing entirely. It's just one more thing that's hard and reminds them they won't be in their home for a long time.

Around noon we heard a knock on the front door. Not expecting anyone, but used to friends and strangers just showing up to help, my mom opened it to find their saviors, the good samaritans, standing on the stoop. I was so excited to get to meet them that I immediately crushed them in a tear-filled hug when they politely offered their hands to shake. I don't think I ever actually introduced myself or said my name and I just cried when I tried to say thank you. Obviously, I make an incredible first impression.

I don't think I ever got to write this full story, but when my parents were evacuated they were driven by the high-water vehicle to a parking lot a short ways away, just above the waterline, and left. They waited there, in the pouring rain, with their bag, a container of dog food, and three large dogs, for a bus to take them to a shelter somewhere. And waited. And waited.

They started walking without a destination. Eventually, a family walked over in the rain and offered to help them carry their things. And so they walked together- still in the rain, now with help, but still without a destination. After a little while they asked my parents where they were going. "We don't know," they responded, "to find a bus to a shelter?" The family said, "we have an extra room, would you like to stay with us?" My mom said it was one of the more humbling moments of her life to nod her head and say "yes. please. thank you."

And so they went, sopping wet, with three big wet dogs, to their new friends Pam and Andy's house, and met their two sons who made my parents feel as comfortable and at-home as possible while the rain poured and the waters rose a few streets over.

When my mom texted us the full story and the names of their rescuers the next day, my sister immediately texted on our "Rice Kids" thread, "so what are we doing for them?" a millisecond before my brother asked the same thing. They were there when we couldn't be and we'll be forever grateful for it.

So it was great to meet them. And then they insisted on getting to work, shoveling and raking outside while their sons, ages 12 and 13, swept up slimy drywall from the garage that we'd saved for last. No complaints, no breaks until we made them. They'd been working in houses every day since the rain stopped. I think they're like 3 years older than me, but I want to be like them when I grow up.

We were visited by a few other friends looking to help, a man stopped by with hot dogs he'd grilled on his back porch to see if we wanted any, and a friend of mine with high school arrived with our lunch. She still goes to our old church (the one I'd been married in exactly 12 years before) and said they were running a whole project command center to help with the floods, so I was able to give her any the supplies I'd brought from Fort Worth that we hadn't used. I was so glad they were going somewhere useful, to the hands that needed them. It has been so heart-warming to get to see facebook posts from my friends who are still in Kingwood who are doing so much to help and coordinate that help (we're grown-ups now!) alongside the heart-wrenching photos of friends showing pictures of the devastation at their parents and/or their own homes. If there must be bad, it is wonderful to see so much good rise up alongside it.

Around 2 p.m., clothes packed, lists made, and supplies donated, I packed up our suburban to white-knuckle drive back. I gave Eric and dad sweaty hugs and a tearful one to my mom. I'm so glad I was able to be there. It was so hard. It was SO. MUCH. HARDER than I thought it would be. Seeing my parents hurting is something I hadn't experienced before. But it was good to be helpful. Good to be old enough and in a position to genuinely BE helpful.

A huge part of that is because of James. As I wrote, my Harvey Day 4 was also our wedding anniversary. In some ways it felt right- we were married in Kingwood after all, with a reception at the now flood-ravaged Kingwood Country Club. And, though being apart is never our preference, it was also fitting to be relying on his unwavering love and support while I helped the people who who taught me the love and resilience that is the backbone of our marriage. I have three kids and a busy life, but when I found out my parents' home had flooded I dropped everything and left for Houston within hours (a week after doing the same for my grandpa in Minneapolis). And I could do that- and I could be fully present in Kingwood for four days- because I know that when I drop one weight to pick up another, James will take on more to handle the redistribution.

He sent a few pictures of their day yesterday, ending with "We miss you, but we've got it here. Stay as long as you need." Before Harvey, I had thoughts about this anniversary. Twelve has been hard for us in ways that prior years have not. But at the end of the day, when the flood waters rise, he's there, steadfast and quietly competent.

Something I appreciated even more today when I lost my temper with each of my children multiple times and he looked at me across the room in perfect understanding and I was like "THIS is what it's been like?!!" Those four days without complaint or a hint of guilt were the best anniversary present he's ever given me. And I still came home to a new necklace, a card, and a bag of double doozie cookies.

new necklace; super tired person wearing it

So of course I failed to get a picture with him and took one with the dog instead. September 3rd is also Winston's birthday; he's now 4. Cora is jealous.

After I got home, we went out to diner with our borderline enjoyable children. James and I chatted on the couch for a bit after they went to bed, me finally filling him in on all the details of our days and noting that he should really consider reading my blog. Then, in a nod to the romantic occasion, I fell asleep on the couch for maybe the fourth time in my life. He woke me up forty minutes later and moved me to bed where I proceeded to sleep for 10 more hours straight through. I never, EVER sleep that long, and while it felt amazing, I'm still exhausted and it made me very worried about my parents and Eric. If being there for 4 days hit me like a ton of bricks once I got home, what is it doing to them? They have no escape.

And then I started my surreal day. We went to the park. I ran lots of errands. I talked to my mom. With the house about as complete as they can make it, they're now starting to slog through the insurance process. They missed the call from the apartment leasing agent before the office closed yesterday so now they can't get their key to move into the apartment until tomorrow. As with everything, it's up and down and stop and go. More people are getting back to their lives and they just can't. The move into the apartment is going to be hard. Living there out of bins will be hard. Creating an excel spreadsheet of every item they lost will be hard. The thought of school starting has her up at heart pounding at 3 a.m.. And then I'm in Trader Joe's overwhelmed by the blithe normalcy around me.

This post is a mess and more self-pitying than I'd prefer. The words just sort of spill out and it's nearly midnight and too late to fix them. Now that I've left, I'm just realizing that being in Houston was harder than I thought. Seeing my parents a little broken inside was really hard. Seeing the whole neighborhood destroyed, with everyone's water-logged belongings strewn about their yards is hard. Knowing there are people who are so much worse off is hard. There are no quick and easy solutions and this is going to last a long time. I know they will be okay and one day they will have their beautiful home back. They are strong and they will find a new normal. I guess that because I was able to drive out of the drywall-covered streets and jump right back into my normal... I'm surprised to find myself struggling so much with the transition.


  1. Hugs internet friend. My teacher heart hurts for your mom. Does she need supplies? I always have extras floating around. I can send her a box!

    Even after volunteering post Sandy, I can't wrap my head around the devastation that Harvey has wrought. Still thinking/praying for your family. Good luck with your merge back into "normal" life.

  2. Just one day at a time. Your parents, and you, WILL recover. Just concentrate on "now and next," like your wise commenter said a few posts ago.

    More love and prayers coming to you.

  3. Hey, if it makes you feel any better, I also live in Houston, probably fairly near your brother. And life here *is* moving on for the city, too - today most everyone will start to get back to work, and the curfew will be lifted, and things will slowly go back to a new normal. Your parents will be fine. They survived, they have yet another great story of how strong they are, their relationship is, and their children are, and all of that is a gift and a blessing.

  4. Sometimes coming back to "normal" is the hardest part. Give yourself time.

  5. I know this isn't ideal, but could your mom do some virtual learning stuff with another school that is teaching her class and doing the labs? I know that's not the same, but the students could at least watch it then.

    I'm sorry. Life is so tough sometimes. The good is still there.

  6. Try to be as kind to yourself as you are to others. Transitions are hard. Every tender heart that you cherish is still beating. Everything will be okay in the end. If it's not okay, it's not the end.

  7. I'm so sorry about all this - it is really hard to adjust back to somewhat normal after this kind of tragedy.

    My friend is a college Geology professor and just did a huge project adjusting her labs for an online class. I'm checking with her to see if she may have some easy resources you could share with your mom as a way to do labs without having access to the equipment/space. I will get back to you!

    1. Okay - this is the company they worked with. Looks like it's more targeted to colleges but because it's an AP class, still probably would be useful!

  8. In my experience, going back to normal after a family emergency involving my parents was the hardest part.

  9. In case this might help:

  10. As a teacher, I can't even begin to fathom how your mom must be feeling right now. I know she's got a lot on her plate right now, but if she could set up an amazon wish list for classroom essentials, I would love to help her rebuild her classroom supplies!!!

  11. Ditto to what Wendy said. I'm a school administrator in Maryland and I would love to be able to help her with what she needs to be able to function in this temporary building and situation. Let us know if she has a list or puts one up on Amazon.
    Also - while you were not there for the actual event - you, too, have gone through a trauma. It's not surprising that you are having difficulty just slipping back into normal life. Most all of us would in your situation. Don't be afraid to reach out for help for yourself if needed - therapy could be very valuable. Take care of yourself so you can be your best version of yourself for your family.

  12. You and your family have been through so much lately. I know it feels weird to think about getting back to normal when things still aren't.

  13. be gentle to yourself, you've gone through a lot lately and you need to be feeling well in order to support your family. Take it easy!

  14. Also adding, your posts in the last days have made it much more "real" as I listen to the news tonight, and hear about the devastation in our overseas territories (um, not much of a comfort for you, is it?)

  15. You have been through some legit trauma and I hope you have pockets of beauty this week that fill you back up again and refresh you in your (very understandable!) weariness. I think one of the hardest things in trauma is that life-goes-on-for-others weirdness. It feels like such a disconnect and it takes time to reconnect to our selves and our bodies and our lives in all that. I hope as you feel rested, your kids will too and things will be much smoother on the home front. Happy, happy anniversary, too! May there be many more moments to celebrate in the coming year.

  16. Rebecca, there are no words for what you and your family are going through. I'm so sorry.

    My kids and I had a lemonade stand the other day. We raised $500 for Houston (yes, selling lemonade and from the generous matching donations of friends). I have been struggling with the best place to donate it. But, the County we live in, Anne Arundel County, MD is raising money to send to the school districts affected by Harvey. Your post made me certain that is the right place to donate. I can't imagine one school suddenly being filled to double its normal capacity. How does that even work?

    Also, can I just say you are an amazing daughter. I like to think my siblings and I and our spouses would all come together like this in an emergency like this. But you and your family are truly a inspiration. And if ever faced with an emergency like this I will definitely be thinking, "What would LagLiv do???"

    Thank you for sharing your story. I am sending so much light and love to all of you. ❤

  17. Thinking of and praying for your family in this incredibly difficult time. You are a wonderful daughter and grand-daughter and your kids are incredibly lucky to have you as a mom.

  18. I don't 'know' you beyond the many years I've followed along on your wonderful blog...yet, I had tears streaming down my face reading this. You have such a way with words - I could feel (as much as anyone can sitting in front of a screen) the pain and the hopefulness at the end. Give yourself some grace - you have been through a lot watching your parents lives be turned upside down. Clich├ęd as it sounds at the end of the day your parents are alive and healthy - the rest will soon fall into place, again.

  19. I was thinking about you guys this weekend. Hope everybody's still hanging in there.

  20. I was hoping for a post today. I hope everyone is still moving forward towards recovery.