First, to be clear: Many victims of Hurricane Sandy have experienced much worse. There’s death, there’s homelessness, the end of businesses, massive injuries. I am blessed, and I know I’m blessed.
That said, here’s my brief story …
I live in Westchester County, N.Y. On Monday night, as Hurricane Sandy began to blow and blow and blow, the wife, kids and I sat in our living room, lights off, watching a movie. Initially, it was going to be ET. Then, the remake of Fame. Finally, we settled upon Akeelah and the Bee.
Outside, trees were starting to sway. Inside, popcorn was popped, hot chocolate was served, movie was playing …
Lights flickered, then died. I actually saw something explode on a nearby telephone pole from my window. A flash of light—then, darkness. The remainder of the night was spent in blackness. We put the kids to bed, hung out and observed the trees swaying and swaying and swaying—faster, faster, faster. Ultimately, when things died down a tad, the wife and I also went to sleep. Surely, this was going to be pretty bad. But not all-time awful. Just bad.
Woke up the next morning, looking out the window—gasped. There had been a pine tree on the edge of our front yard, roughly five feet off the road. It was probably a century old, and, oh, 80-to-100-feet high. The tree had leaned toward the road, so a couple of years ago we asked an expert to come and inspect. He assured us we had nothing to worry about. Nonetheless, we occasionally asked a professional for an updated take. Was always the same—”Tree is strong, has been here forever, should be fine.”
Well, no. The tree thudded across the road, blocking both sides. It also took out the electrical lines, resulting in a loss of power for, I believe, six homes. I was shocked—A. That the tree fell; B. That it caused such extreme damage.
When neighbors began to check out the scene, well, it wasn’t so great. I could tell some people were pissed at us, even though we’d had the tree checked; even though we’d asked about it more than once; even though it was one of thousands of trees to fall during an all-time awful storm. I understood, to be honest: No power sucks. No power+blocked street really sucks.
The following day, our neighbor posted this on his Facebook page:
It was, for the wife and I, a kick in the gut. This was our next-door neighbor. Not someone we’re especially close with, but someone we’d lived alongside for the past decade. Hell, weren’t we the family (my wife gets the credit) who thought up, organized and planned the block party? Weren’t we the family that organized Halloween gatherings for the neighborhood? Yes, it sucked that the tree fell; and—obviously—could we go back in time, we would have removed it ASAP. Obviously. But to blast us on Facebook … well, in the heat of the moment, it felt crushing.
That night, after the wife showed me the posting, we were driving home from my sister-in-law’s house. “I’m going over there,” I told the wife. “This is bullshit. I live 100 yards from you, and you can’t say it to my face.” My hands were trembling … I was sooo furious. She, wisely, talked me down. “These are our neighbors,” she said. “Don’t go over there. You don’t want friction with the people who live next to you.”
Instead, the wife wrote a note. A kind note. We’re sorry it happened. We try to be good members of the community. Please come over for Halloween tomorrow—we’re having pizza. Etc. It was the right tact; why the wife is better at this stuff than I’ve ever been.
On Halloween, the Facebook poster’s spouse saw my wife and, in front of other neighbors, said, “There’s the wicked witch of the west who caused us to lose power.” She said it smiling, but the smile was a mask. Again, painful, unnecessary, classless (I detest passive aggressiveness nonsense more than anything I can think of. This was Passive Aggressive Nonsense: 101).
And yet …
I get it.
As we speak, I’m writing this from a friend’s kitchen table. My house is cold and dark and messy. We had to toss everything out of the refrigerator. We feel wayward; lost; just sorta meandering. I actually paid for a haircut today—something I never do—just to feel … human. It’s a weird phenomenon, not having your home. I’ve never given much thought to power; to light switches; to any of that stuff. Now, I long for it all.
I’m no longer mad at the neighbors, because their frustration probably mirrors mine. It’s uncomfortable, to say the least, to not have your regular routine. Even though you’re aware millions of others have it worse; even though you remind yourself of that over and over … it still doesn’t fully make up for not being in control of your home and comforts. Not cool—just true.
And here’s the best part: Save for the Facebook guy and his wife, people have been wonderful. We’re staying in the basement of our friends’ house. Tonight we ate with my sister-in-law. Neighbors and friends and family members and casual acquaintances have offered us everything—food, phone, electricity, beds. “Let me know if you need anything …” “Call if there’s anything I can do …” “If you just want a hot shower …”
You name it.
I’ve been reminded that, come day’s end, stuff is just … stuff. And a tree is just a tree. It stood, it fell, it pissed people off, But, ultimately, this will pass. And the love will remain.
Earlier today I received a beautiful letter from a neighbor. I read it aloud to the wife, and actually started to tear up …
Jeff, please share this with Catherine because I can’t dig up her old email address. The downed tree situation sucks – but in no way, shape or form should you feel that it is in any way your fault. I think once power is back on, people will see the light. All of us are sleep deprived and cold now, so we don’t all see clearly. You nor us could have foreseen such circumstances. I think about how me and the girls walked under that tree many times hours before it came down and all I can say is – nobody was hurt and that’s all that is important. And I told this to you, Jeff – the other night. The rest – just awful inconvenience – the tree’s fault, not yours. And the inconvenience pales in comparison to the stuff that really matters. I hope you know that we absolutely know and fully understand that this was a freak storm that, all things considered, ended well for all of us (in comparison to what could have happened). Nobody loves and care about everyone on this block more than you both. And we know and understand that.
Hurricane Sandy has sucked. For us, for millions of others who’ve faced far worse. But I have come to believe—cliche be damned—that from darkness comes light.
I have seen the light.