Today we went to visit our home — to take pictures of the things we lost, and to say goodbye.
Our building sits on a cobblestone street that opens into an embrace of a park — gently sloping into the East River. Cool breezes blow off the water in the summer; the city of Manhattan glints, statuesque, on the other side. It is where the children play; where the street fairs gather; where weddings of all sizes take pictures by the golden light which always shifts and changes by the rocks, by the water.
It is why we live where we live. And why we chose to stay when the news said that Hurricane Sandy was coming.
Hurricane Irene had come last year, and we had cheated Fate — seeing the river’s waters rise only as far as the street corner before seeping back to its bed. Irene had been hyped, and concerns of sandbags and go-bags circulated in the building for days beforehand, so that when the actual storm came — and then passed like an angry rain — we breathed a sigh of relief and moved on.
We expected the same this time around, although some of us expected much worse, and so therefore, at some point, my husband and I turned to each other and asked, “How much shall we do?” We brought upstairs as much as we could carry — electronics; files; favorite toys; photos. My girls brought up their books, but I looked at years of old friends accumulated on the shelves — Homer; Faulkner; Allende; Will (Shakespeare) and I had incomplete conversations with myself: “Which do I choose? I can always download. But not these books. Electronic is easier. But what about THESE books?” And round and round.
“There comes a point of diminishing returns,” I said to my husband at some point in the night.
We had brought upstairs many things, and left behind, with eyes open, many others.
While we somberly ate dinner by the drone of the nightly news, the wind rose with a voice of banshees outside, and we heard the thump and bustle outside of people in the hallway.
I opened our door. “They are bringing things to a higher floor,” I said aloud. After watching nervously, we finally ran outside, and we saw the water rising — creeping stone by stone up the block with dark certainty. More of us spilled outside; we realized we needed to stop it, and we started to throw sandbags in front of it; plastic construction barriers; garbage bags — anything to keep it from coming in.
It rose to our waists. It spilled over the barriers. It rushed into our lobby, past rolled up rugs, plywood barriers, while we yelled to close the elevator doors, stop it from spreading, leaking into everything.
“It’s broken through the windows!” someone shouted. My daughters and I ran — downstairs to seal our doors and put towels in the cracks. Surely we could stop it, I thought, and they came with me to help. We were grabbing linens, stuffing trash bags with filler, and were just about to form a wall when the lights went out and the world was pitch black.
That’s when we heard the roar of water — water rushing into the outside hallway and through the cracks in the door, in the pitch black, toward us.
We ran upstairs, and the girls started to cry. People were screaming while I searched for the flashlights, listening for the water as it came up the stairs.
Rushing the girls to safety.
Finding my husband.
Finding our escape bags.
Finding the cat.
What do we do.
It was all over in an hour, and by 9 PM, we were huddled, all clumps of people — in hallways and apartments, doors gaping open, hoping for high tide to pass and for the water to go far, far away.
Today we came back to the apartment we call home. Upstairs was a mausoleum full of too many things; no hum of electricity to shatter the silence or shed light.
And downstairs? Past strange fibrous debris and standing water, upturned boxes and broken shelves — our downstairs door sagged open, bent back from its steel hinges onto a blasted wall from some unbelievable, aqueous force. Something like Spanish moss — but dirtier — hung from the ceilings and walls. Under foot lay things hard to see and harder to love: a sodden mattress; broken bowls; a huge wardrobe felled. A sofa wrinkled beyond repair. Book spines melted to sludge. I saw forlorn stuffed animals buried under furniture, and a happy photo from 1998 too grey for me to want to touch. It was all so broken and unrecognizable, we took pictures of it all and said aloud, “It’s time to go.”
It was easy to shrug, in that musty, ugly room, because it bore no resemblance to the warm laughter and bright colors we remembered. But coming back, and hours later, we fell silent, thinking about it. And when I finally was forced to say aloud, “Today we went back to our place to say goodbye…” I found myself — for the first time in all these days — fill up with tears, and I realized that it was time to let myself go.