Natural disasters have a terrible way of reminding us of our capacity for kindness, acting like a yardstick for our collective empathy or apathy.
With nowhere to go and nothing to do, we drank beers at noon and had horror movie marathons. Eric teased me about the very few ingredients I had in my fridge, with which he then made creative concoctions. He made a macaroni and cheese with a garlic cracker crumb crust that I still think about to this day.
We were safe and out of harm’s way, for which I was thankful. We were oblivious to the damage Sandy was unleashing across the country, unglued from our phones and our screens, attuned only to each other. Those three days were the antithesis to our fancy date, and far better because it was much more fitting of who we were and who we’d become. The three days were like a preview of our life together, garlic cracker crumb crust included.
Like me, my grandparents had thought of hurricanes as a lot of inconvenient rain. The summer before, they stayed with my mom and me during Hurricane Irene. We lost power, sat on the floor with candles, and played card games in the dark. No electricity, however, meant no air conditioning, which made it difficult for my grandfather, who suffers from emphysema, to breathe. Then when my grandparents returned home, they found it untouched. Their suffering in my mother’s hot, dark house without electricity was all for naught.
So when their town was evacuated for Hurricane Sandy, my grandparents didn’t want to leave. Just a lot of inconvenient rain, they thought. No reason to displace themselves and be without electricity. My mother and her four siblings orchestrated a symphony of phone calls and eventually convinced my grandparents to evacuate, which likely saved their lives.
While Eric and I were knee-deep in a garlic cracker crust, and while my grandparents were safely in Philadelphia, Hurricane Sandy arrived. It crossed the Barnegat Peninsula, which acts as a border between the Atlantic Ocean and Ocean Gate, the small town in which my grandparents live. It has one bar, one restaurant, one post office, and one pond where you can feed bread to ducks.
On Barnegat Peninsula is Seaside Heights, a boardwalk made famous by Jersey Shore. The boardwalk also serves as the setting for so many of my childhood memories. My cousins and I would go on rides together, where the hierarchy of our relationships became apparent. We’d play arcade games, at which point my mother revealed her secret talents at ski ball. She’d win so many tickets that she’d drape them around her shoulders. Seaside Heights was home to the first roller coaster I had ever gone on. Hurricane Sandy swallowed the entire boardwalk and swept that roller coaster out into the ocean. Then it came for Ocean Gate’s bar, restaurant, post office, and duck pond.
As Sandy moved inland, the bay between the peninsula and Ocean Gate swelled. Four feet of water rushed through my grandparents’ small town. Everything below the water level was destroyed. My grandparents’ forty-year-old china cabinet and matching dining room set, which hosted many holiday celebrations, were too water damaged to be salvaged. My grandfather’s recliner, on which he had watched the Phillies games, was also thrown out.
My grandfather tried to save the sleeper sofa in the den. Countless Fourth of July weekends were spent sleeping on that sofa bed that somehow, as if magic, accommodated my six cousins, my brother, and me. I imagine my grandfather fought to keep that sofa because it wasn’t just a sofa; it was the place his grandchildren—all of them—slept. The difficulty is rarely in losing the object, but rather what the object represents. But the sofa sleeper had to go. Water damage is often irreparable, even in magical sofas that can accommodate a whole generation of a family.
My grandparents had bought the shore house in 1961. They and their five children spent every summer there. My mother can recall watching Richard Nixon’s resignation in the den; my grandmother had told my mother and her siblings that they weren’t allowed to leave the house that day because history was being made. The shore house, too, would become part of our shared family history.
Since Nixon’s resignation, my grandparents have retired, sold their home in Philadelphia, and made Ocean Gate their singular home. In this time, their children have married, bought property of their own, divorced, and sold said property. Starter homes have been sold to buy bigger homes. My cousins and I have rented countless apartments in countless cities between us. This made my grandparents’ home the singular piece of property owned longest in our family, the one constant around which we’ve orbited, our summer memories serving as the connective tissue between us all.
The bones of the house technically survived, but the process of saving my grandparents’ house was akin to a massive root canal. The water-damaged portions of the walls were cut out and replaced. There was bleach wash to ensure mold wouldn’t grow and industrial fans dried the underneath of the foundation. Even with all this effort, the one door that was not originally replaced eventually turned black. It was later replaced, too.
Water damage is often irreparable, even in magical sofas that can accommodate a whole generation of a family.
Throughout this process, my grandfather, too afraid of losing the house that has been the cornerstone of our family, supervised the construction. During this time, he stayed with friends in neighboring towns and my grandmother stayed in Philadelphia with my mother and aunt. Every other day, my grandfather drove the two hours just to see my grandmother. He commuted across state lines, straddled between caring for two things he loved dearly.
Of course, there’s a privilege to being able to rebuild your home after destruction. There’s an even deeper privilege to gleefully eating macaroni and cheese and falling in love during a hurricane. Puerto Rico is still reeling from 2017’s Hurricane Maria, which caused thousands of fatalities and resulted in hundreds of thousands of people completely relocating away from the island. After this year’s Hurricane Florence, two of the recorded fatalities were suicides of older men whose homes were damaged or condemned, leaving them homeless and distraught. With global warming amplifying the frequency and strength of hurricanes, it’s likely that these types of stories—not ones of falling in love or rebuilding quickly—will only increase too.
In only losing things like sleeper sofas and walls, my grandparents were fortunate. Though at the time of losing what they accumulated over their collective lifetimes, it may not have felt like good fortune. And of course, Eric and I—so unaware of the outside world, so wrapped up in each other—were even more privileged. It’s an odd thing to look back on a hurricane with a sense of nostalgia, but I am blessed with the freedom to do so.
This is all to say that relationships and houses and mankind require a certain amount of empathy to survive. Had my grandfather not had friends who had opened their homes to him, my grandparents’ home may not have been repaired so swiftly—or at all, as the water damage and mold may have spread. Had my mother and aunt and uncles not bothered to convince my grandparents to evacuate, they may not be here today.
The survival of mankind is so dependent on the charity of others. Natural disasters have a terrible way of reminding us of that, acting like a yardstick for our collective empathy or apathy. Sure, there’s that saying about picking yourself up by your bootstraps. But there are also times when you need someone to rub your back at a wedding, or pick you up off the floor at the ballet. When we’re asked to care for one another—be it for our family or our fellow human beings—kindness goes a long way. It’s how we fall in love, love each other, and weather the storms.