What happens is this: First, there’s the sense of panic. It’s physical, and you find yourself short of breath although you’ve been in one place. You’re gasping for air, bit by bit in shallow swallows. You need to get home immediately. Except that home is more than three thousand miles away, and you’ve had several flights cancelled already.
Instead, it’s a grey day in London and getting colder and by the time that you get back to your friend’s house, it’s only a few short hours before the storm is predicted to make landfall. So, you do the only thing that you can from afar: check in with your family to make sure that they’re prepared.
It happens just as your father is reassuring you and telling you that everyone will be okay. It is a sound like nothing you’ve ever heard before. Like thunder and every dish you’ve ever owned breaking and walls coming down and splitting apart. It is a tree falling through the side of the house where your parents live.
After that, things happen quickly, and off screen. You can hear the wind and the fireman who has arrived at the house, but as you stare through your FaceTime app, all you can see is darkness. Next, they’re evacuating and you’ll have to wait as they drive to your grandmother’s house in winds that were strong enough to fell a tree that’s been on the property more than sixty years.
So, you wait, hoping to hear that they’ve made it safely. Time moves interminably slow. In the meantime, trying to deal with the mess of your lost luggage if only to distract yourself from the fact that the storm is getting closer and closer to land and they’re still out on the road. It doesn’t work.
When you receive word that they’re arrived in one piece, you attempt to sleep, only managing a few short fitful hours, haunted by the sound of all of the breaking. When you wake up, the storm is still raging on another coast, and you begin scouring the internet obsessively again, trying to find out whatever you can. It doesn’t look good: A transformer has exploded, leaving large swaths of Manhattan, including where you live, in the dark, and Manhattan is completely cut off from the rest of the city. Elsewhere, large stretches of the Jersey shore have washed away and an entire neighborhood in Queens has gone up in smoke.
That morning, when your friend who is unexpectedly hosting you for an undefined period of time asks about your family, you break down in tears. As far as you know, the house is gone, and you are completely stranded. You’re dripping wet, having just showered and idea of simply getting dressed, let alone going to another friend’s house, is too much to bear. She takes the morning off of work and sits with you, so you won’t be alone and tells you to stay where you are. You’re overwhelmed, with the loss and the unknowing, yes, but also with the act of kindness. You don’t know what to say. So you sit and stare off into the distance, feeling further from home than you’ve ever been.
You start to see reports that the worst is over, and again, you’re waiting, this time until it’s a more reasonable time to call your family in New York to make sure that they’re okay. You last until 7 am EST, when you wake up your sister who is one of the luckier ones—trapped in Manhattan. She calls your parents with you on the phone, since you can’t call the states on your phone. As she holds the corded phone up to her iPad so that you can hear your father speak, you think, this would be funny if it wasn’t so serious. You start to hear responses from the roll call you sent out to your friends. They’ve made it through.
You attempt to sleep, unsuccessfully. Throughout the day and the week that follows, you’ll speak to your sister every few hours. After the initial shock has subsided, you’ll start to catalog things in the house, that are likely lost—your birth announcement, her research, all of your mother’s work and projects for her classroom and your father’s stamp collection. Ultimately, it’s just a list of stuff, but this is also the house you grew up in, and the one your parents live in still. It’s filled with memories, including one of your family huddling together in the house twenty five years earlier as Hurricane Gloria raged on.
When it’s late in the day, you think that maybe, just maybe you’ll be able to sleep that night. No day will be as bad as this one, and although it will be days before you can go home, it’s true. Elsewhere, there are people who have lost their lives, whose homes have washed away or burned to the ground. For now, your family and friends are all accounted for.
You finally make it out on Friday, six days after your flight was originally scheduled to depart. The flight that ultimately sticks is the fifth one that you’ve been placed on.
As your plane circles New York, preparing to land, you’re shaking again. You’re almost back and it feels as if you’ve been gone far too long. You’ll have to wait to go back to your home, as your neighborhood is still without power. And, instead of the usual twenty minutes to get from the airport to Manhattan, it takes many hours. On the way, you see people waiting in lines that span city blocks simply to get on a bus. And, when your bus stops on East 39th Street, you see that the north side of the street is completely illuminated while the south side and beyond has been plunged into darkness.
Still, you’re in New York. And, a day later, the tree has been removed from your parents’ house and it has been pronounced salvageable. It may take months or a year, but it’s there. As are all of you. And, ultimately you feel lucky, because you have so much, when others have so little.