Two years after Superstorm Sandy slammed into the east coast, destroying the first floor of my home in Rockaway Beach, N.Y., it’s as if she were never here. I can cook dinner again; my husband and two kids can pile onto the couch and fight over the remote again. There are no contractors stomping in and out, bringing in blasts of blustery air as they haul in supplies or calling up to me, “Mrs., we have a problem…”
My house is whole. My family is fine. And yet Sandy’s ghost lingers like a loved one whose death you, for a moment, forgot about. I have to call her! you think. And then you remember, and the pain floods back.
Recently I searched my bookcase for one of my favorite books, Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. It’s the story of a Midwestern preacher who knows he is dying and so he writes his memoirs for his young son. The beauty of her prose was humbling. I remember circling passages, writing notes in the margins, reading a single sentence and then having to close the book and think, think, think.
Even as I scanned the shelf once, twice I knew – Gilead is gone. Washed away like so many other markers of my past life. I’ll never be able to look back and see what struck me during the time in my life when I read that book, when my firstborn was a baby, when our lives were in a different kind of upheaval, when I was trying to figure so many things out.
In our garage I kept what I called my “Sid box.” (Sid being my husband.) It was a black Bloomingdale’s shirt box, sturdy and elegant. Inside were flower petals from the first rose he ever gave me, a heart-shaped silver chocolate box (contents long-since enjoyed), and the letters – actual handwritten letters – that he and I swapped in between classes senior year and later, during that first year of college when there was no money for phone calls. In my Sid Box was The Letter. In it, he quoted lines from Peter Gabriel’s In Your Eyes. (It was 1989 after all, and we were 16.)
when I want to run away
I drive off in my car (“I wish,” he added)
but whichever way I go
I come back to the place you are
He followed it up with a quote from Always on my Mind (Pet Shop Boys version) and then, in script written with a brown pen, he told me for the first time that he loved me. In my mind’s eye, I can see that letter. His 16-year-old handwriting. The way the paper was folded again and again until it was small enough to fit into the palm of his hand. That letter was my most precious thing for so long.
I do not know if that box survived the storm. I am too afraid to ask Sid, who cleared out the garage while I dealt with the closets and their drowned christening gowns and those baby scrapbooks I always thought I’d finish someday. I’d rather think that it’s still there, that it was on a high shelf, than know that it is gone forever. I console myself with the fact that my memory can fill in the blanks; that it was the experience of those letters rather than their actual existence that made the most impact on my life. But like most consolation, it rings hollow.
There was a time when optimism was my default. No matter what challenge we came up against, I truly believed we would persevere. But loss, change, unsurety has hardened me. Two years later, I’ve regained some of my positive outlook, but now I’m an optimist with an asterisk. I believe less in fairy-tale endings but am confident that hard work will propel you forward. I put greater value on experiences than things, because things lack permanence. But the imprint of a shared moment, a spoken word, a thoughtful touch is eternal.
People still ask about Sandy. “You live in Rockaway?! Were you affected?” Yes, we reply, and we see the way people’s heads cock to the side, their eyes soften, hear them say “I’m sorry” as if they are paying respects. Recently my family and I had one of those particularly great post-Sandy days, the kind of day we wouldn’t have had before we realized that experiences matter more than stuff. Sid and I took the kids, ages 10 and 7, to the Museum of Modern Art. We stopped at the Terrace Café and got an outdoor table overlooking the sculpture garden. Sid and I shared a bottle of wine while the kids drank ice cream sodas.
We got to chatting with our waitress. “You live in Rockaway?!” she began. Then came the softened eyes, the words of condolence. But I wasn’t sad about our Sandy story. What’s gone is gone. I was living in the moment, and that moment was pretty stellar. “Everyone has storms in our lives,” I said. “This was just ours.”
And that’s really it. We all have crises; we all have things we love taken from us. The remnants of our past are gone, replaced by the memory of the moment they represent. And then we move on. We create new memories. We craft a new record of our existence. And that’s how we survive.