Empty Eyes. 11-8-12

Lonely tree and bench

I was alone, living in my car, not eating, not sleeping, not wanting to go on. I was walking around day by day in a fog, isolated, numb, consumed by reality: looking into the eyes of the world, seeing nothing, feeling nothing but grief. Not realizing I was one among thousands, I validated my loss. For during Hurricane Sandy I was cut off, we were all cut off, by massive power outages: from the visuals, from the overwhelming truth, the destruction, the drowning, from the suffering of thousands. So, in those first days before I met the others, the ghosts of the lives of other survivors, I was wandering around searching.

I instinctively knew the survivors as well as I knew my own features. and I needed to touch their flesh. I was searching the faces of men, looking for bleeding, for empty eyes, like mine. I recognized those like me, who lost everything, disbelieving, bewildered people, wandering, with no place left to go: belonging no where, owning nothing. I relived over and over the terrifying moments, as I followed slime and grit, into the devastation of my home, my life. The smell of my home, that rancid, acrid stench of extinction, burned my nasal passages daily, and I wanted to embrace someone who couldn’t get that stench out of his nostrils either. I needed to cradle broken hearts.

Within the context of having lost everything to a natural event that was no fault of my own, of having nothing left, of feeling very sad and panicked, I wandered without purpose, occasionally accomplishing necessary tasks. I entered CVS, looking for antibiotic and bandages for my fingernails, severely infected by contact with the sewage water entombing my treasures. I was neither responding to nor interacting with my environment: I was hardly a part of the world. There was no reason for me to be there.

I navigated my wheelchair up and down aisles overcrowded and blocked by carts of boxes and merchandise being loaded onto shelves stripped by frantic Hurricane Sandy shoppers. I was confused by the disorder, and frustrated, as displays of toilet paper and shampoo came cascading down on me. There was no place for me here, and my equipment. I was in the way, at time of crisis. Store clerks scowled, as I bumped into displays and rolling carts, taking out end caps of water bottles and stacks of baby wipes. Standing, also in the way, at every turn, was a woman with a shock of grey curls, a red wool coat, and gold-trimmed glasses. She moved quietly, without purpose. She never looked at me, but clung to me. I recognized her immediately. She had empty eyes.

Neither one of us spoke to the other: we knew. We went through the store like that, silently meeting: passing. I needed to listen: she had something to say. But we were hurting too much to reach out. I took care of business and exited sliding glass doors that snapped closed behind me. The air outside was crisp and damp. The sidewalk was narrow and hazardous. As I navigated toward my car, there, coming toward me, were empty eyes. It was the woman in the red coat. I looked directly at her and said quietly, “Did you lose your house too?”

Words spilled from her like water from a broken dam. “I live in south Seaford. But, I only sustained minor damage.”

I swallowed deep and choked up a large glob of self pity. “I lost everything: my house, my furniture, belongings, $50,000 in medical equipment.” Every time I said it, it seemed less real. I had expressed my pain.

“I lost my son-in-law,” she said out loud, seemingly matching my pain.

I stopped breathing and tried to process words I did not anticipate. Surely I had heard incorrectly. “What do you mean?” I said with puzzled stupidity.

She seemed anxious to explain. “My son-in-law was crushed by a tree.”

Time stopped. I grabbed the words and rolled them around in my mind. I believed her. “I didn’t know anyone died in the flood.” I responded sincerely.

“Oh yes. Twenty-six people,” she said. “Two children were torn from their mother’s arms by the winds on Staten Island.”

“Oh my goodness! I didn’t know. I am so so sorry.” There were no words . . . She understood. She wasn’t looking for comfort. She was trying to hold on to her son-in-law.

“He was a good man, a good husband and dad: he was a good person.”

Her statement was written in stone: untouchable, unchangeable. I responded with a serene smile of understanding.

I was incredulous. The storm seemed so benign where I was sleeping that night. I felt cheated and stupid, that I didn’t’ know. This monster had destroyed my life and hers, and I had no visuals to process. “I didn’t know,” I said.

“Was the accident in Seaford?” I asked. What did that matter?

“No, they live in Lloyd Harbor. It happened in Lloyd Harbor.” She was in so much pain. She wanted to talk about the man. I wanted to remember him.

“What happened?” I said, almost whispering.

She was not crying. She was remembering what they had told her happened. It was like, if she told the story enough times, she would finally believe it. She needed to remember every detail. She needed to pass them on to someone. I needed to listen.

“They were evacuating. My son-in-law had put their two little girls in the car.” I pictured two little girls safely secured in the dry car by a father taking care of his family: two tiny faces in rain gear, droplets splattered across their foreheads, watching daddy running through the storm with salvaged armloads of clothes and necessities. I was once that tiny child being shuttled safely away from our flooded house by responsible adults. I felt their excitement, their fear and anticipation.

“A tree fell on him!”

“Oh my gosh!” I exclaimed. It was horrifying! It was real. It was what his sweet babies saw! There were no words! There was no comfort! There was only listening. There was a maimed and broken family, compelled to accept reality. My house, my precious lost house and all my belongings, seemed so inconsequential now. People died! A daddy died in front of his two little girls. I was ashamed of grieving for a house!

“He put his daughters in the car. He was helping his wife. The tree fell onto the driveway. It crushed my son-in-law. It killed him! It struck my daughter.”

“Is she all right?” I gasped.

“No.” she said. “One whole side of her body is all black, where the tree hit her. She has broken bones. She is in terrible pain.” I pictured the mayhem: the mortal injuries in the deluge, screaming for help, babies crying, hysteria, flashing lights blasting silence. It was awful! It was too much to bear. A daddy was broken and gone on that monstrous stormy night.

“Is she going to be all right?” I insisted. How could she ever be all right?

“Yes,” was the quiet response.

“Did the little girls see what happened?” I asked, fearing her response.

“They saw everything!” she said solemnly. We were silent together.

I looked into her tortured face, and felt the inconsolable pain of a wife and children. I was overwhelmed: impacted by the loss of one unique person, the agony of a family broken and changed, forever. I was humbled.

I understood that I had lost very little in the scheme of things. My house was not a person. My former life could be reinvented. None of this was what I wanted to accept right now, but it was true. It would be truer tomorrow.

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