Yesterday, on Veteran’s Day, my husband Don; an EMT, an animal activist, and a United States Air Force Vet who was born on Election Day; went to The Rockaways, in Queens, New York, to help take part in Hurricane Sandy Relief efforts.
Except that he didn’t. He couldn’t.
My husband is not here. He is gone. Dead. He died suddenly and unexpectedly on July 13, 2011, of a massive heart-attack at the young age of 46. But in the 16 months since his death, I have felt his presence in my life and in my heart countless times. Just like in his life, he shows up whenever I need him. He shows up to comfort me, to help me, to make sure I am safe. So yesterday; when I volenteered to serve food, drinks, and generally help out in Far Rockaway with the good people of The Gibbons House in Maspeth, NY; it was really my late husband doing the work. It was that part of him – that kind, selfless, generous soul – that lives on in me now. He is a part of me now, forever, and he is what led me there yesterday. He also led me to learning some really life-changing lessons over this past week. Lessons that connected Veteran’s Day, Election Day, Hurricane Sandy, and our values as people; in an unexpected way. Lessons that I did not necessarily see in the horizon. Lessons of surprise and purpose.
November 6th. Election Day. My husband’s birthday. Technically. I’m pretty confident that you don’t keep getting older when you’re dead, so the idea of wishing a Happy Birthday or acknowledging the birthday of someone who is no longer alive to celebrate life or live it, seems rather silly to me. However; grief does strange things to a person; and grief held me down and made me buy my dead husband 3 birthday cards (our tradition – one from me, and one from each of our kitties), fill them out, and then leave them on his favorite chair wrapped in his favorite Special Dark candy bar; waiting for him to come home and pick them up. Except he didn’t. Because he’s dead.
So, instead of staring at candy I don’t even like, and cards with messages read by nobody, I walked down the street with my husband, and voted for our next President. And before you roll your eyes and think to yourself that this lunatic widow lady has really lost her mind, please don’t worry. I really haven’t. Believe me, I realize he is dead. I am acutely aware of that horrific fact every second of every day. But that doesn’t mean he isn’t here. There are certain, very specific times when I can literally feel and almost clearly see his presence and his being, with me. His birthday – election day – was one of those times. As I walked the 2 blocks to my voting site, my mind and heart recalled doing a similar walk, hand in hand, with my husband, four years ago in New Jersey, as we made our way to the local high school poll site to vote together, for Barack Obama. There was such excitment in the air that night, such a feeling of wonder and hope. This time, my vote was the same, but I did it alone, and with an empty feeling in my chest. The feelings of hope had been replaced by intense sadness and reality. How could my husband, someone who loved history and politics so much, be missing all of this? The realization that he would never live to know who our next President is, or ANY President ever again, hit me like a chainsaw as I exited the building. And that is when I saw him …
A voice from around the corner, at the top of the stairs that led to the street and sidewalk entrance of the school. He was yelling to nobody and everybody. Screaming at the top of his old, tired lungs. From his wheelchair. “Goddamn liberals!”, he judged. “Lazy, no good unemployed trash, lookin’ for a hand-out. Get this socialist negro Muslim out of the White House! Put him back to Kenya or wherever the hell he’s from! Jesus Christ!” He was ranting endlessly, and people began walking around him and sprinting down the stairs to get out of his way. He looked into all of our eyes, accusing us of destroying his world, his vision of what America should be. He threw his cigarette down by his feet, on the cement, as he stammered in one last cry for attention: “Goddamn country has gone to Hell.” Well, alrighty then. This guy was like Archie Bunker, minus the charm, likeability, and TV show. Total silence.
As I stood next to him at the top of the cement stairs, only a short distance seperating us, I wanted to punch him in his eyeball. I wanted to duct tape his mouth shut and make him shut up for 5 seconds so I could tell him how incredibly wrong he was. How judgemental and rude. I wanted to tell him that my husband was a Vet who served in Desert Storm. That he was an EMT who saved people’s lives everyday. That he held down not one, but two jobs just to support us, and that he collapsed and died while helping innocent animals, volenteering, on his one day off. I wanted him to know that today would have been his birthday, if he was alive and here to see it, and that I’m a teacher and a struggling artist who works my ass off and still has no health insurance because my husband is gone. I wanted to find out why the hell a cranky, bitter douchebag like him gets to live a long and miserable life, while someone as wonderful as my husband gets screwed over by death.
And then, out of nowhere, I remembered Don’s favorite t-shirt. It was one he had made up for himself by my friend Dave, who creates logos, t-shirts, and signs in a Sign Shop business. On the front of the shirt was the symbol for EMS. On the back, it said: “I’m not here to save your life. I’m here to prolong your miserable existance.” My husband used to think that was the funniest t-shirt on earth, and he loved that message. Me? I never really got it, because I wasn’t an EMT, so how could I? But standing there with that miserable prick of a man in the wheelchair who was judging my life based on absolutely nothing but his own ignorance, I suddenly understood exactly what that t-shirt meant, and why Don found it so hysterically funny.
I started to recall all the many times he would come home from work, telling me about the patients he had to deal with that day. The drug-addict who spit in his face and tried to punch him because he was so jacked-up on cocaine. The teenage girl who was so drunk when EMS arrived on the scene, she threw up all over Don 3 times as he gave her much needed care. The old, angry, half-senile woman, who simultaneously peed down his leg and cursed him out violently, because she had no interest in being taken away by ambulance. There were hundreds more. People who were not pleasant to deal with, but who needed help nonetheless. It was the exact reason my husband loved animals so much. Animals never judged or criticized or insulted. They just wanted to love and be loved. That’s it. That’s all. Simple. Don used to always tell me: “Boo, if my patient is an asshole, I still have to help him. I can come home to you later on and bitch and complain about what a fucktard he was, but when I’m on the scene, there’s a job to do, and everybody gets the same treatment. That’s why I cant get emotionally involved. If I did, I wouldn’t be able to properly do my job. And if you think about it, who cares if the guy’s an asshole? He still needs help.”
Yes, I suppose he does. So with my husband’s heart and words on my mind, I walked over to the ginormous prick in the wheelchair, and I asked him matter-of-factly: “Do you need help getting down these stairs?” Suddenly, two young-ish looking men appeared out of nowhere, teaming up with me to get this old fuck down the stairs to continue his mission of misery on earth. “We can do this. You want us to lift you down, sir?”, they said, unaware of the sharp tongue they were about to receive.
“What is this, some kind of do-good-er’s convention? Now that you voted for Obama, you gotta help the old cripple? Forget it! I’m fine.”
The two men looked at me and I looked back. We all somehow silently agreed what would happen next. This asshole was going down these stairs, like it or not. As we started to slowly roll and lift him down, one step at a time, two other strangers joined in to assist. It was an all-out, free-for-all Kindness Attack!!! The old man grumbled and groaned the whole way down, all eight, wide steps, shooting his mouth off and spewing out insults with each lift and roll. “Make sure you go pick up your Boy Scouts badge for this later on. And the broad can probably get one too, with women being equals now. How old are you fellas anyway? You look about 16. Right around the age to drop out of school and live in your mom’s basement free of rent. I’m sure your precious Obama will support you and your food stamps and your welfare checks while the rest of us pay for it.” We all remained speechless. Where was this guy coming up with this stuff? Who the hell shit in his oatmeal this morning? And how the hell did he get up those stairs to vote in the first place? As we reached the bottom step and the street level, he coughed and then said in his phlegm-filled voice: “Hey! What did you hipsters do with my cigarettes? You steal ’em?” I ran to the top of the stairs and picked up the half-used package that had fallen out of his pocket, and handed it to him as I borrowed a classic line from my husband: “Enjoy your cancer sticks, sir.” One of the other men added: “While the rest of us pay for it!” And with that, the old fuck rolled away.
Veteran’s Day. Yesterday. Went out to The Rockaways to help with Sandy relief. To serve food. Beverages. Give supplies. Sweep someone’s basement. To hug someone. To talk to people and really hear them. To stop watching the madness on TV and actually see it for myself. To give these people a voice. A purpose. A beer.
Packed up my peanut-butter sandwich and my bottled water and my facemask, after being warned several times about the dangerous and terrible elements in the air out there. Brought my bag filled with donated items – a random collection of things – batteries, tape, flashlights, toilet paper, kleenex, pens and pencils, crayons, coloring books, kids toys, pet snacks, socks, toothpaste, floss. Met my friend Heather and the others in front of the friendly, Irish pub The Gibbons Home, who, along with about 7 or 8 other local-area restaurants and bars, donated tons of hot food, drinks, supplies, and organized this amazing outing out to Rockaway Beach. Well, beach is a relative term. Just like it is virtually impossible to know the incredible pain and complexities of losing one’s spouse until it happens to you personally, such is the same with Sandy. There is no way you can grasp the level of devastation, fear, darkness, and loss of what happens after a storm of this magnitude, until you have lived through one, and made it out alive to tell your story.
I heard so many yesterday. Stories. Endless, emotional truths told through pained and worn-out eyes. Funny and real snippets of a life changed. There was the old man and his dog, Andy. The old man was pushed by the surge out of his own home, and his dog was left behind. The man’s next-door neighbor broke through and then swam through the man’s second-story window, to rescue his dog for him. This guy says he lost everything – his home is flooded and destroyed, but he still has Andy.
A woman named Erica and her teenage daughter Alexis touched me to my core. They are locals now, but are originally from North Carolina. They moved to Far Rockaway, New York, in August. Just over 2 months in their new home, and the worst hurricane in over 100 years hits their new neighborhood and their lives. There is no heat or power at Alexis’s school, so she has been sent somewhere completely new and different, with kids she doesn’t know. Do you remember how difficult it was to be a teenager under normal circumstances? The confusion and loss of hope in her young eyes made me so sad. For someone her age to have to go through this and see this, is simply not right. Mother and daughter walked around together in the dirty, kicked-up sand, clinging to one another for support and comfort. Erica is a nurse, so I connected with her immediately. My husband loved the nurses on his shifts. It was often his favorite part of the job – joking around and having fun with the E.R. nurses. When he died, they all lined the walls of his funeral service, coming straight from and during their shifts, all dressed in scrubs. I asked her if I could hug her, because in some odd way, doing so made me feel close to Don right then.
She told me about how high the water came up, past people’s porches and 2nd floors, like nothing she had ever seen in her life. Her and her daughter evacuated and stayed in a hotel for the first few nights, until money ran out, and they were forced to return to the nothingness of what used to be home. She said the cliche scenes and montages and stock pictures they show on TV are “insulting” to what is actually going on, and that it is the hardest thing she has ever been through. She spoke of the cruelness that nature can bring, and the widespread fury that was dealt to so many with no thought, rhyme, or reason. “This thing didn’t care if you were black or white, or a nurse or a scientist, or rich or in poverty, or where you lived or any of that”, she said. “This thing hit everybody.” We talked a lot throughout the day, and I gave her my contact information for this blog, asking her permission to quote her and use her name. She said she would keep in touch. I really hope that she does.
As we served food and drinks to locals, EMS, sanitation workers, Red Cross volenteers, soldiers, and anyone who came over to eat or chat; there were stories of hope, humor, survival. An older lady told me about her attempts to receive funding from FEMA, who, after she filled out the appropriate paperwork for, told her to “check their website in 3-5 days for an update.” She stared at me in disbelief. “Your website? Are these people high? I have no lights. No shower. Half my walls are gone in my home. Where the hell am I supposed to check your damn website from?”
And that’s the thing. Amongst the horror, in the middle of the sand pits and dirt-piles that used to be a neighborhood, people were still people; laughing and eating, complaining and whining, nitpicking and delaying; and doing things that people do. Children still ran around the trees that were standing upright, and played in the corner with the toys we donated. Moms still yelled out to their little boys: “No donuts! Eat an apple!” An older man asked if we were serving hot tea, and then waited on the park bench for 20 minutes for it to be ready, because he liked to have a cup of hot tea every single morning. Volenteers washed down the soot and sand in their throats with cups of Dunkin Donuts coffee.
A woman named Bina (short for “Columbina”, she said) who lived in one of the only close-by houses that still had running water, let all of us come in and use her bathroom, one by one by one. All afternoon. A couple of us really needed to pee, so we walked over to her front porch with the intention of bribing her with “beers for bathroom.” There was no need. She was an Angel. At the end of the day, we gave her and her husband a giant tray of leftover Shepherd’s Pie. “At least you’ll have dinner tonight”, I said to her as I stood inside her living room that was half-missing. She responded with a heartfelt: “You just don’t realize how much you miss real homemade food like this, until you no longer have it. Seroiusly, if I see one more carboard pizza box, I might scream forever. This is all so amazing.”
People needed to feel like they could still read their newspaper, or walk their dog, or tell their child not to run too fast – be careful. Even if they didn’t have a house to go home to, they could still have some coffee or a bagel . And in this way, we all connected. Through plates of warm penne pasta and bowls of chicken noodle soup, people would bond.
None of us knew exactly what we were doing. We just showed up, parked our cars amongst the chaos, and started unloading. We set up tents, tables, and large amounts of hot food. Sandwiches. Bottled water. Iced tea. Coffee. Fruit. Cookies. Snacks. Endless hot, homemade dishes from so many restaurants – beef stew, shepherds pie, Ziti Bake, Chicken Marsala and curry, Pulled Pork, potatoes, rice, hot soups. All day long, the people came. They ate. They talked. They smiled. And as I stood there spooning up plate after plate of pasta, I heard one phrase more than any other: Thank You. And it broke my heart. Because it very well could have been me on the other side of that line, accepting that hot meal instead of serving it up. It could have been me trying to swim to safety from my own home, or run from the burning flames that came soon after. It could have been me. Or you. Or anyone. There is no such thing as “us and them.” They are us. We are them. It’s like my husband used to say about his patients: “Everyone is the same.”
After an entire day in Far Rockaway, there are many things that will stick with me, probably forever. The gray-ish, colorless skies. The homes, lining the streets, that had missing steps or porches or roofs or doors. The American Flags that hung from house to house, worn down and torn. The roads that were not recognizable as roads; completely covered in dirt. Hundreds of abandoned cars; parked for miles along roadways and sand mounds; flipped over, on their side, completely crushed. Sanitation trucks lining Dead End streets, picking up someone’s music collection or stuffed animal or wedding album, magically turned into cruel dust.
Piles everywhere. Stuff all over. No sunshine anywhere. Everyday working people, walking around in suits or heels after a day at church, soot and grime on their nice clothing. People clinging to their cell phones, as their only form of communication to the outside world. Overhearing talks of those who would walk 3 miles to go to the library that may have power, so they can charge their electronics and use a computer. The creepy and sad darkness that took over as daytime ended, and the pitch-black reality set in. No street lights. No light anywhere. Sirens blazing. Everyone leaving all at once, getting out before it gets dark. Leaving there with the knowledge that we are able to go, and they cannot.
Looters. Crime. People guarding what is left of their lives, sleeping next to the pile of their precious things. The gigantic boat that washed up smack in the middle of a busy 2-lane highway, just sitting there, confused. The hum-vees that passed us, one with a sign inside reading: “FUN-vee!” That sick feeling in my stomach as I looked around at that familiar smell, that sand and soot that gets in your lungs, that panic and anxiety of what is to come. The buildings and businesses and restaurants with blown off signs, letters, windows. The beach that now looked like a desert that was bombed. The flashbacks to post-9/11. The eery similarities. The fears of tomorrow.
I will also remember hugging strangers. Sharing recipes. The little boy in a little brown suit who belted out the words to Kelly Clarkson’s “What Doesnt Kill You Makes You Stronger”, as he happily ate his spaghetti and meatballs. The children giggling and chasing each other around in the grass. The little boy who sat on a cooler up against a tree, drawing and creating on the donated Etch A Sketch. I will remember how in those moments, on that day, we were able to allow some people to feel human again, just for awhile. I will remember that in every tragedy, there is triumph. In every death, there is life.
The biggest message that I came away with after Veteran’s Day, the Election, and my day in Far Rockaway, was something so unbelievably simple – but that I never really thought about until now. Never judge a book by it’s cover. It’s that thing that my husband taught me, the message that was on his sarcastic t-shirt all those years ago. No judgement. Just help. Sure, you’re a miserable bastard, but I’m gonna help you anyway. Just because someone is homeless, doesn’t mean they are lazy. Not all black people like Obama. Survivors of hurricanes come in all shapes and sizes, and have suffered very complex and emotional situations. Once you start judging their individual circumstances, you are going down a dangerous road.
When people need help, and you are in a position to help them, you should help them. It’s that simple. Black and white. No questions asked. Who cares how they got there or why they need the help? Who cares that the man in a wheelchair is a complete asshole? He is still in a wheelchair, and he can’t walk down those steps. Instead of wasting your time accusing people of who you think they are, why not get to know them instead? Say hello. Strike up conversation. Have a beer. You really can’t ever truly know someone’s plight, until you’ve walked in their shoes. It all starts with some Shepherd’s Pie, and an ear that’s willing to listen.
Never judge a book by it’s cover. Never judge an asshole from his wheelchair. Never walk away from someone who is hurting, from someone who needs help. Never. Because tomorrow, or the next day, or any day in the future; it very well could be you whose spouse goes to work one morning and never comes back. It could be you whose legs no longer work, and who sits at the top of a staircase in a wheelchair. It could be you standing in the flooding waters, amongst the piles of soot and dirt that used to be your life.
Today you might be a King. Tomorrow you might be sitting on a park bench in a grey, dismantled town, waiting for that hot cup of tea, because it’s the only thing left that you can still call home.
Thank you to the wonderful people at “The Gibbons Home” in Maspeth, New York, for allowing me to crash your awesome day of help. Give them your business everyone. Go have a pint and a chat!