For Every Storm, A Rainbow

November 13, 2012

When I was six years old, my family home caught fire. We escaped out an upstairs window, climbing onto the sundeck and then dropping what seemed an interminable distance to the ground below where people wrapped us in blankets. There were firemen there, and firetrucks, and lots of people standing, in their nightclothes, at the end of our driveway. I remember all of that – the people and the flames and the sirens and the drama – but mostly I remember my mom standing in our neighbors’ flowerbed in her nightgown, crying.

It was her crying that scared me most of all.

Here’s the thing about seeing your parents in pain – the thing that caused me to hide from my own children my tears about the Hurricane Sandy damage to our Catskills property – it reminds you (or, if you haven’t yet had this lesson: it teaches you) that there are some things that your parents can’t make okay. There are some hurts so deep, some fears so scary, that they freak out even your mom or your dad, and your mom and your dad are not supposed to get freaked out. The world is safe and the world is good and monsters stay in the closet precisely because your mom and your dad and all the grown ups are pretty cool with it all. They don’t need to leave all the lights on at night, and they don’t burst into tears in the middle of the day. Until they do, and then you’re forced to confront the truth: some stuff is just bad. Some stuff can’t be kissed or soothed or night-lighted away.

That’s why I didn’t want my kids to see me cry when we went up to our house this past weekend, to assess the damage ourselves for the first time. Kyle knew it was bad. I knew it was bad. My kids had no idea it was bad, and I wanted it to stay that way. They could smell the damp and see the wet and there it all was, as Kyle moved and cleared and hoisted and lifted and drained and dried, all of our stuff, all of our ruined stuff, but they don’t know from mold and water damage. They don’t know about all the boxes of papers and pictures and heirlooms and memories, or, to the extent that they do, they don’t know these things to be precious, and they don’t know them to be vulnerable to water. All they saw was a mess. They didn’t know that that mess was a bad mess, a hurting mess. It was just the biggest mess that they’d ever seen, and messes, I have always taught them, can always been cleaned up. So the Great Big Jumbled Mess in our yard wasn’t threatening or sad-making, it was just, you know, kind of interesting (‘Daddy, what’s a record?‘) until Jasper found his Iron Man mask and that became more interesting. If they had seen me cry, if they had seen me disappear across the yard to a sunny – dry! – corner to sob, they would have known. I didn’t want them to know.

Which is wrong, maybe. A few people on Twitter – because, yes, I was tweeting; of course I was tweeting – said that it was probably good for the kids to see me cry. So that they would know that it’s okay to cry in moments like these. So that they could comfort me. So that we could share this experience in all of its emotional messiness, together. But for better or for worse, I didn’t want that. I didn’t want to pull them into my experience. I wanted them to pull me into theirs.

——

It was the hat that did me in. One of my dad’s hats; an Aussie-style oilskin bush hat that he loved, a hat that I pulled immediately from the mass of his belongings when he died and squirreled away to keep, a hat that I have been known to pull from the shelf and put my nose to and just inhale of, deeply, because it still smells like him, or at least I imagine that it does. Imagined, that is. Past tense. His hat was in a box in the house, because everything was in a box in the house, because we had only just moved all of our belongings from Canada to that house, and also most of our belongings from New York City, because we just moved apartments, in the days just before the hurricane, and I’d insisted that we just bring most of our stuff to the country, all the papers and the photos and the memories, so that we could be really scaled-back in the city, in our glass condo in Brooklyn. All of which is to say, everything was in the house near the Delaware, everything, including Dad’s hat. Which was the second or third thing that I saw, when I went in to look. On the floor, in an oily puddle, mangled and misshapen and already speckled with mold. And it felt like I’d lost him all over again.

That was when I cried. That was when I left the house and walked up the drive and almost to the edge of the property, to a spot near the stone wall, a really, dry, sunny spot, where I sat with my back to everything, and cried.

Of all the things that we lost – and we lost a lot – the hat was the thing that got to me. There’s a part of me that believes that I’d handle the rest of the loss with grace, if only I could have that hat back. This is probably not true, because we lost a lot of stuff, but still. I tell myself this, because it seems like so little to ask. Just that hat, God. Just that hat.

——-

It was only a hat. And it was only stuff. And we still have a bright, dry – unheated, but whatever – space to live in in the city. Many people lost so much more. Some people lost their homes entirely. Some people lost their lives. The story of that mom on Staten Island whose boys were swept from her arms by the floodwaters… that’s a deep and abiding loss. That’s a loss to make you lose your faith. My loss is not that, not by far. But loss and hurt do not admit of comparison, not in the moment, when you’re feeling them. Hurt is hurt. I’m keenly, keenly aware that we are among the lucky ones. I’m keenly aware that I am privileged. I didn’t need someone on Twitter to remind me – and someone on Twitter always does, as the Internet always does, as the Internet did when my dad died and did again this weekend when I posted, simply, that I was having trouble keeping my tears from my kids – that I am privileged, and that some people had it worse, and who am I to shed tears over this stuff? I know that this is just about stuff. God, you don’t think I know that? I know.

But it still hurts. Hurt is not rational. Hurt does not respond to calculus. Hurt does not reflect upon the condition of its own hurtness; it does not say to itself, be less intense, because this only a cut, and others have been cut deeper. My cut will heal faster, but it still hurts.

If only pain were relative; if only. So many terrible things happen in this world; if the net emotional and physical impact of my hurts were distributed according to their weight on a World-Historical Bad Pain Scale, they would barely register. But there is no such scale, and my hurts hurt relative only to the resiliency of my heart, which itself is relative to such uncertain things as the feel of the wind on my cheek and the precise degree of the upward tilt of my daughter’s smile. So. Please don’t tell me how to hurt, and I won’t tell you.

And maybe we can just circle arms or something, and comfort each other, and empower each other to comfort others, and focus on how we can make each other feel better, coming out of the storm, how we can help each other find the light. Because there is, always, a storm to come out of, and sometimes the most important thing to do after the storm is to look to the sunlight.

Because there is, always, sunlight.

My rainbow.

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    { 30 comments }

    Dan Pearce November 13, 2012 at 8:58 pm

    This is such a beautiful piece, created from such horrid events. Pain cannot be compared, nor is it rational. I think it would have said more about you had you not cried, and I for one was thankful for the very real tweets and instagrams you sent out.

    And, I know I’m preaching to the choir, but don’t let the idiots get you down.

    Love you girl.

    debby matassa November 13, 2012 at 9:16 pm

    Having gone through Katrina, I know exactly how you feel…I also know that it will pass. Thank goodness it will pass. But it will take a while and there will be things you see or smell later on that remind you of this big mess you are in and you will cry again. But less and less as time marches on. It made me very hesitant to replace a lot of the “stuff”. I just recently bought a sofa and a couple of chairs, then caught myself worrying about them…especially during hurricane Isaac… It took a while to get over worrying, then I worried about worrying…But mostly I have to tell myself to breathe! So… just breathe, then breathe again and again. I’ll be thinking of this story for a long while.

    Carri November 13, 2012 at 9:16 pm

    Your post reminds me of a quote/phrase I saw recently, that for some reason makes me feel better. Telling someone not to be sad because someone has it worse is the same as telling someone not to be happy because someone has it better.
    Best of luck to you.

    Kim November 13, 2012 at 9:24 pm

    I came to your blog through Dan’s Single Dad Laughing link, and wanted to thank you for sharing this very beautiful, insightful, and real story. Your comments about loss and pain being beyond reason really hit home for me. I am one who probably would have wanted you to share your grief with your children. But as I read your thoughts, I remembered my own grief over something that was lost to me, and how I kept trying to tell myself that I SHOULD deal with it in a way that I wasn’t. Someone told me to let myself feel how I felt, to not worry about correcting it to fit anyone’s idea of what it should be, including my own idea.

    I wept for your father’s hat, and I wept for your rainbow. Thank you for letting me see them both.

    Lynette November 13, 2012 at 9:45 pm

    Thank you for your tranparency and vulnerability. I have never gone through anything like that (at least not when I was old enough to understand!) but I did volunteer for Hurricane Katrina. I sobbed and sobbed as I knew we were throwing out people’s things which were physical representations of their memories because it simply wasn’t safe (mold, etc) to keep them. It broke my heart. May you continue to have strength as you process. Draw on your network of friends to sustain you and lift you up. They will!!

    Kristin November 13, 2012 at 9:47 pm

    I too, came through on SDL, and really this hit me in my gut.

    I didn’t lose my childhood home and memories to flood waters, I lost it to creditors. But it’s a loss that stings nonetheless. My mom kept it from me until it was too late for me to drive the 700 miles to try to salvage some of my childhood. I didn’t find out until the day my mom brought my 3 youngest siblings from Chicago to Central Arkansas that my blinky eyed doll named Irene, now belonged to some strangers that didn’t care that she belonged to my mom first or that she kept monsters away at night. Someone will go through out 30+ years of memories, auction off what they can, toss what isn’t worth anything to them. I try to remember that these are things and the irreplaceable price tag we place on them is irrelevant because they simply do not matter. At the end of the day, you are loved, your family is safe and so are your memories. Cause the physical may be gone, but the mental and emotional memories are there for a lifetime.

    sarah gilbert November 13, 2012 at 9:54 pm

    I truly believe that there is and should be no scale of hurts, that hurts are not comparative, and that we deserve to honor our own pain in whatever way we need to. And I have sat in my kitchen in tears because a bottle of teriyaki sauce spilled over my box of precious papers from high school, and while I certainly knew even at that moment that those were such small losses — still. I was sad.

    There is something, too, about mementos like your papers and photos and memories, that are not precious in a financial sense, not precious like LIFE, but are tangible representations of ourselves at other ages, in other times, when we were less jaded or less secure or less who we have become, now. It is hard enough to mourn the loss of those times — the way the baby looked at you when he was breastfeeding, the way you wrote when you were in high school, how much you loved that boyfriend or your husband or someone entirely out of reach, that is hard to recapture through memory and needs that THING. And when you have to mourn twice, the loss of your once-long-ago self and your children, plus the loss of the things that kept the memories tangible, that’s so hard.

    anyway. This is a long way of saying that you should not listen to the trolls or even your own sense of comparative loss and let yourself mourn. My heart goes out to you and your family.

    Katherine November 14, 2012 at 6:23 pm

    Thank you for your honest voice. I am sorry for this sadness, and I understand the need to experience it privately. I also honor your need to feel sad, even when others are (legitimately) sadder. We can’t think our way out of being sad.

    On crying alone: even if it weren’t about the kids, sometimes you just want to feel your feelings without the extra work of dealing with other people reacting to your feelings.

    And to Sarah Gilbert: I love your comment just as much as the piece itself.

    Amanda November 13, 2012 at 9:59 pm

    Hoping you can find some measure of solace within your galaxy.

    But still, damnit. Wish we could give you the hat back from our wishing.

    Alli November 13, 2012 at 9:59 pm

    It’s OK for them to see you cry.

    The boys have seen me cry. Hurting is part of living on this Earth.

    We live. We hurt. We cry. We recover.

    It is the recovery that is important.

    Strength comes after recovery from that pain.

    They will learn that life hurts, we all will hurt, and we will be OK.

    And you will be OK.

    Love you <3

    Julie H November 13, 2012 at 10:02 pm

    I came to this through a link from Single Dad Laughing.
    Thank you for writing this. Reading it has reminded me that privileged does not mean impervious to loss – which you would think would be obvious… but in the coverage of Sandy by NPR that I heard the other day, someone was lamenting his loss of a great summer house … and suddenly I wasn’t at all sympathetic. All I could think was something very unkind about spoiled people who bemoan the loss of a second home when I struggle so much to hold on to a house at all, and I know that I am immeasurably privileged compared to someone without a house, without work, without an education. So thank you for reminding me that I don’t have any idea what that man lost in that house or what you lost in yours. I need to remember that everyone has problems and having more money/stuff/whatever doesn’t fix everything. I’m sorry about your Dad’s hat and the loss of your Dad, and the storm that made you lose him again in a way.
    And I think you were right to let your kids keep believing in the power of adults for now. They will find out the truth soon enough.

    Christy Laverty November 13, 2012 at 10:11 pm

    Love this. I am so sorry for you loss. Loss is loss…not matter the size.

    Cristie November 13, 2012 at 10:17 pm

    I hate that crap about “other people have it worse”. Oh, I say it all the time, especially to myself. But sometimes, I hate it because you know what? Of course other people have it worse. Of course you (and I)are privileged. We know that. We mostly do stuff to make the world better because of it. But sometimes, sometimes the crap that’s happening in our own lives feels like the biggest thing there is and that is OK. It’s ok that you feel like you lost everything sometimes. It’s ok if you cry, or if you don’t. It’s ok for you to feel like crap and then handle those feelings however you see fit. The worlds’ bigger problems will still be there in the morning. And I have no doubt you will, as you always have done, set about working to fix them again-after you deal with your own crap for a while. I’m so, so sorry about your house. Right now, there is nothing worse and I hurt for you because of that.

    jodifur November 13, 2012 at 10:19 pm

    I hate competitive pain. You have pain and loss. And it is okay to feel that pain and loss even though it is not as deep and that other person’s pain and loss. You lost a HOUSE AND STUFF AND MEMORIES. And quite simply, that sucks. Allow yourself the time to feel it.

    I’m so sorry for all that you lost.

    Mitchell November 13, 2012 at 10:24 pm

    This was a privilege to read. Thank you for sharing your path along a difficult experience and I’m sorry to all who have felt so much loss through this.

    Aimee @ Simple Bites November 13, 2012 at 10:52 pm

    I’m sighing over here and am so very sorry for your loss. What devastation. As someone who keeps boxes of old letters, photos and other memorabilia and places great value in the memories they hold, I can partially understand your pain. Hopefully something good will come out of this.

    Thanks for sharing.

    Colin November 14, 2012 at 12:06 am

    Thank you for sharing this. It takes a lot of courage to share things that have impacted you negatively. As for those who would dare to tell someone else how to feel about a loss, please do the world a favor and shut it. We could all do with a little less stupidity. Keep your chin up and your stick on the ice.

    Major Bedhead November 14, 2012 at 12:19 am

    I think it’s OK to cry over stuff. Sure, it’s only stuff, but it’s your stuff, imbued with your memories and it hurts when it’s gone. Even though it’s only stuff. People say that stuff doesn’t matter, that you have your health, your family, but dammit, it DOES hurt. It may not be the same hurt as others have suffered, but it still hurts. I hate it when people try to invalidate that.

    Scatteredmom November 14, 2012 at 1:49 am

    Oh Catherine, I’m so sorry. We sat here near Vancouver, watching and thinking of you and other people we know in NYC, and I was so happy to hear that you were safe. I saw your tweets and worried, but thought things were fine, until you mentioned the house. Loss is loss – none greater or more important than the other, because they all hurt. If I lost the mixer that Anne, my best friend who passed of cancer this summer gave me, I’d come absolutely undone.

    I hope that you can find some peace. xoxo

    Connie November 14, 2012 at 2:02 am

    I just cry BS on those that say “well, it isn’t as bad as….” Everyone has a personal story and a personal limit. So, yes, you aren’t dead, but beyond that… Stop comparing.

    Christine @ Quasi Agitato November 14, 2012 at 9:04 am

    Your losses are real. You don’t need me to tell you that. And there’s no right or wrong to whether or not to let your children see you cry, it’s just your choice.

    We came through completely unscathed and I still feel free to talk about how much I miss Fairway. It’s a loss.

    I find it fascinating that your kids weren’t too upset by the scene. Kids can see things so differently than we do. And, just by virtue of being themselves, they were able to comfort you. Like you say, your rainbows. Just beautiful.

    Schmutzie November 14, 2012 at 11:10 am

    Hurts are definitely relative. Would you believe that, because I didn’t feel I had cancer bad enough, I didn’t let myself grieve my losses for a long time? Pain is pain, even if you’re not in the worst of all possible situations.

    I’m so sorry about the hat.

    red pen mama November 14, 2012 at 11:56 am

    I’m so sorry about your father’s hat. It really breaks my heart for you. Because of other beautiful things your have written here, I know how much he means to you and how much his loss hurts you.

    And thank you for writing about the uselessness of perspective. Having perspective can really help, but sometimes we have to lose perspective so we can grieve. In the babyloss community, we sometimes call it the Olympics of Pain. Some people want a medal so badly. Me, I’m happy to have just survived.

    Five days after Sandy’s devastation of the East Coast, it was still raining in Pittsburgh. And I was so fricking cranky about that. And I did take a deep breath and say, “Whoa. You have your stuff and your power and your children and husband and health.” I mean, it’s okay to be cranky, too, but in this case perspective was good for me.

    I am sorry for your losses. I’m glad you have survived to write and to move us with your writing.

    Issa November 14, 2012 at 1:08 pm

    You are entitled to your pain. People shouldn’t say the crap they say. They shouldn’t, but they do. I have things that mean nothing to anybody, but it would devastate me if they were lost. Mostly because they are the very few reminders i have left of people gone.

    I am glad your house is fixable, but very sorry that you lost so much. Hugs Catherine.

    Eliana Tardio November 14, 2012 at 6:46 pm

    Love you and admire you. You are a brave warrior. You have the most important, a family :) hugs!

    Asha November 15, 2012 at 1:18 am

    I’m so sorry, Catherine. Your experience is your own, and no one (not even the well-meaning ones) can understand the complexities of what this must be like for you and your family. As for people pointing out others who had it worse…who knows why people do such things. I’d like to think they are the unfortunate few…and that so many more people are sending love and warmth your way.

    Christie S. November 15, 2012 at 12:04 pm

    This made me cry this morning, for so many reasons. When you talked about your house fire when you were young, it reminded me of the story of my Mom’s home burning down when she was 7, also too in her nightgown, all pictures and belongings lost. And I cried more when reading the part about your Dads hat. I lost my Dad 12 years ago and I pull his hat with the turkey beard out and his wallet, which I’ve sealed in 3 ziplocs and a duffle bag, and I smell them from time to time only to realize that they no longer smell like him. I grab that bag every time we’ve had a weather scare along with other treasures. I’m so thankful for what I have and my three little blessings. Your words reminded me of how I feel with severe fibromyalgia/CFS and how I feel when I hurt, when I suffer, and when u need to complain and then I tell myself “it could be worse” or others tell me “at least you don’t this or this” and I love what you said! Thanks for this post and God Bless your family :)

    SMITH BITES November 15, 2012 at 10:18 pm

    i have no idea how i came to this page, this post but i am glad i did. i don’t really have anything significant to add to what others have already said: we each grieve in whatever way we need to – you don’t need anyone’s permission to grieve nor do you need permission to grieve for however long the process takes. tears fell for the burning of your childhood home; tears fell for your father’s hat; tears fell for your experience.

    i lost a granddaughter to cystic fibrosis a year ago and although i’ve released her physically, i still have her photo on my cell phone wallpaper, i still have a ceramic box she made in a pottery class, i still carry the last text message i sent to her in the hospital – and if i close my eyes and quiet my spirit, i hear her laughing. it hurts. and i miss her terribly. and there are many, many parents, grandparents, siblings, family members who have lost loved ones under worse circumstances. but i will not feel bad about those days when i am still grieving, a year later.

    there is a community here willing to walk the journey with you and when the grief is too much, we will raise you up and carry you along. much healing to you and your family Catherine. thank you for your honesty

    edenland November 18, 2012 at 9:12 am

    As soon as you mentioned Aussie oilskin bush hat I thought, “That’s an Akubra, I can just buy her a new one!” But of course I can’t, because there was only one of those hats in the whole world.

    I’m so sorry.

    Donna November 20, 2012 at 6:57 pm

    Thank you for this post. This beautifully written account of your loss and pain made the effects of Sandy more real to me than all of the pictures I’ve seen. Your father’s hat and your desire to shield your children especially spoke to me.

    When I was eleven, the home we rented was destroyed by flood waters. I remember awakening in the middle of the night because I felt a chill. My bedroom was off the kitchen and the kitchen door was open as my parents and their friends moved our possessions out of the house. As a child, the event was more of an adventure than a tragedy. As an adult now, I can imagine the pain and fear my parents must have felt. And as a parent, I can understand the desire to keep one’s own pain from your children.

    I’m sorry for your loss and pain. Wishing you strength, courage and lots of rainbows.

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