Friday, March 02, 2012

Calamity can test a family's resolve

From today's Briefing:

We are surviving the Great Flood of 2012.
“Great” is relative. It really only affects my little family, but to the three of us, it is a very big deal.
One morning last week, at exactly 6:45 a.m., Katie hollered, “There’s water all over the bathroom!”
I needed no coffee to get moving.
I pulled towels from cabinets to begin soaking up water in the bathroom, the hallway and Katie’s adjoining bedroom. I called (and woke up) our plumber and followed his instructions on turning off the water that was steadily flowing from the toilet. I shepherded Cooper and Katie through the motions of getting ready for school, helping them avoid puddles and telling them that everything would be OK.
When I turned my attention to preparing breakfast and lunches to go, I almost started to cry. Because water had been flooding part of the house for who-knows-how-many hours, because I am the only adult in the house, and because I had no idea what it would take to repair the damage.
I am not afraid to cry in front of my children, but in this case, it seemed selfish. So I took some deep breaths and carried on.
After the children were at school and I was back home to survey the damage and to begin greeting the bevy of workers who would parade in and out of my home (and are still doing so), I gave in to the building tears. Then I returned to survival mode.
In the midst of muddling through, I’ve been reminded of some life lessons.
There’s never an ideal time for an emergency. If I had known that water was going to spread across a quarter of the house, I would have pulled linens off the hall closet floor and moved Katie’s bookshelf from the path of destruction. I would have insisted that Cooper and Katie clean their playroom better.
That’s not how accidents work, of course. There’s no step-by-step script for life. There are many opportunities for improv.
We have too much stuff. I’ve washed and dried all the linens and towels, but they don’t yet have a cabinet or closet to return to. When they’re stacked on chairs in the family room, it’s painfully obvious how much stuff we have and how little we really need.
Two giant bags have already been donated to a nonprofit resale shop. More are on the way.
Children can contort their bodies to take up whatever bed space is available. Katie’s room is uninhabitable until reconstruction is complete. In the meantime, she’s my roommate.
She sleeps on the right side of my queen-size bed. When I kiss her goodnight, her body is straight, limbs tucked in, head on the pillow. By the time I finally get to bed, she’s violently kicked off the covers by arms and legs all akimbo. There’s barely room for me to crawl in.
I’ve learned how to return her to the other side with enough force to be effective but gently enough to keep her asleep.
By morning, I’m barely holding on to the bed, forced to the edge by wild 6-year-old appendages.
It could be worse. Everyone’s got a flooding story. I’ve heard horror stories about families returning from a weeklong weeklong vacation to find the icemaker has been flooding for days. Or a second-floor accident that seeps downstairs. Or sewage water that destroys an entire ground floor, requiring three weeks of forced evacuation.
It’s just stuff. Living through much more difficult times offers perspective.
When I stood in the kitchen, fighting back tears, I reminded myself that the reason I’m the only adult in the house is because my Steve lived with and ultimately died from cancer.
All the pain and uncertainty he lived with — that’s worth crying over. Life that continues without him — that’s sometimes worth crying about. Walls and cabinets and carpets ruined by water — it’s all stuff. It’s not life and death.
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at

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