Seventeen days ago, I was your typical working mom, juggling my job, my freelance work, kids' activities and countless household responsibilities. I hated doing laundry, giving my kids a bath was a chore I dreaded (and tried to pass off to my husband as often as possible) and the morning rush to get the boys off to school was the most stressful part of my day.
In the post-Sandy world on Staten Island, I'm thankful for my working washing machine, and I welcome the extra loads from family who lost their basement appliances or still have no power from the storm. I'm grateful for the warm water that splashes onto the bathroom floor when my boys decide to get into a bath time splash fight. I don't even mind getting up extra early to get the kids to school on time (well, at least my third grader whose school has power) because of all of the drivers waiting in gas lines tying up traffic.
I no longer mind these things because for a very brief period of time, these luxuries were taken away from me. And believe me -- I consider myself beyond fortunate, and have a tremendous amount of "survivor guilt." Because within walking distance from my home, so many friends, relatives, coworkers and classmates of my children are still waking up to a cold, dark reality, realizing that Superstorm Sandy wasn't just a nightmare or bad movie on the Sci-Fi channel.
Sandy devastated all Staten Islanders in varying degrees, whether we lost our electricity, our basements, our cars or our entire homes. But as a mom, my heart hurts everyday for those who lost everything that truly matters. When I hug my boys at night, I wonder if my arms would have been strong enough to hold onto them if a raging tidal wave tried to tear us apart and take them away from me. One Staten Island mother found out the dreadful answer to that question, and my heart aches for her.
It took me five days to cry after Sandy; I guess I was sort of shell-shocked. And when I tell you what set me off, you'll probably think it's odd. I finally ventured out to the local supermarket, dodging downed trees and power lines for some essentials (everything in our refrigerator was spoiled by then), and I saw the massive line of people waiting just to get into the laundromat. It was their faces that got me -- the faces on those weary women, sad, exhausted and almost lifeless as they stood out in the freezing cold with garbage bags full of soiled clothing. Seeing them humanized this tragedy for me in a way that Facebook photos could not, and I realized it had only just begun.
I cried again when I received a message from my son's school on day six that power was restored; the principal said she'd work with families who lost uniforms, school supplies and backpacks. Until that moment, I hadn't really thought about the kids in my son's class who might live in Zone A (the evacuation area that was hardest hit), and imagined the turmoil those poor families must be going through. Soon after, I learned that 19 families in my parish alone lost their homes -- their entire homes, gone in a flash.
The devastation you see on TV is shockingly close to my mostly unscathed home. But if you're not from here (or Breezy Point, or the Rockaways, or Coney Island, or the Jersey Shore) you probably don't fully understand. I cried for the lives lost and changed forever by Katrina, but I never really understood until now. You can't fathom what destruction is until you see familiar faces amid debris, faces you know from the supermarket, karate class, church or the playground. You won't get it unless you hear the frequent sound of military choppers in the air and have to explain to your frightened kids why your neighborhood looks like a war zone. You haven't smelled devastation until you've breathed in the combination of sewage and bleach when you bring hot coffee to loved ones sticking it out in the still-powerless Zone A.
My boys have learned a lot, too, beyond just what it feels like to go a few days without an Internet connection or Super Mario Wii. My 8-year-old asked me if it was selfish of him to be upset that he missed Halloween. I told him that he had every right to feel cheated because Sandy was not fair to us, but to be sadder for the people who no longer had a place to live. I couldn't bear to tell him to be sad for the children who lost their moms, dads or grandparents. Or for the two little boys, not so different from him and his brother, who were swept away. After he returned to school and heard unfiltered stories about others whose lives were lost or changed forever, he realized how lucky we were, and he prays every night.
My 3-year-old, who's not a big fan of the dark or disrupted routines to begin with, had a rough week, too, and still hasn't been able to return to his school. In fact, his teacher -- a mom of three herself -- is among those who are now displaced. Thank God for Sesame Street for giving me an age-appropriate explanation I can share with him.
It's nearly two weeks later (although it feels like an eternity) and here's what makes me cry now: The devastation that began with surging flood waters has turned into a calm and steady stream of good will, donations and neighbors helping neighbors. Volunteer clean up crews are out in full force, ready for their next assignment with shovels in hand. Party centers, catering halls and bowling alleys have been transformed into donation centers. My nieces and nephews organized a "bucket brigade," collecting and packaging cleanup supplies to bring to the neighborhoods in need of them. Out-of-state friends are sending care packages and taking up collections. I've turned my blog and Facebook page into a tool to match volunteers with those in need and publicize relief and recovery efforts. Everyone I know is doing his or her part, and it's truly overwhelming, in a wonderful way!
I've realized that my boys have been given a great gift just a couple of weeks before Thanksgiving -- the opportunity to witness the triumph of the human spirit and the power of compassion. Still, I catch myself selfishly mourning the loss of places that were dear to me (just like my son did when I told him trick-or-treating would have to wait until next year). We won't be enjoying our family walks on the South Beach boardwalk anytime soon, or playing in the sea turtle sprinklers at Midland Beach next summer. My girlfriends and I have to find a new restaurant for our girls' nights since our favorite one is now in pieces amid the Great Kills Marina. And never again will my family hear about an impending storm without feeling anxiety or fear.
As I watch my community begin its healing process, though, I have tremendous faith and a whole lot of pride for the resilience of my family and my fellow Staten Islanders. I may have grown up across the Verrazano in Brooklyn, but this is my home now, and I'm so glad that my boys will spend their childhood years in this very special place. Staten Island is where my heart now resides.