What Sandy Gave us

Written By: Francine  Hendrickson

It was like this when the storm came. The birds evaporated into nothing. They had an aerial view of the waves pummeling the shore seven miles away, and it made them nervous. The dogs shivered in their homes and hid under the bed. They heard the wind coming and it made them distant. Tree roots winced as they sucked up salt water. A forty two foot surge of ocean breached the bay. My grandmother saw the water coming from her second floor. Fear bloomed in her throat like an unfolding violet.

I wasn’t there. I was away at college watching the lights flicker, away from the bodies of water I grew up with. I watched them swell on the news. Overwash destroying the dunes of Mecox Bay, boats washed up on Fire Island, bloated sea turtles dotting the shore of Ponquogue Beach, roofs ripped off houses down the street from my grandmother’s. I spoke to her the day before the storm hit.

“Promise me you will take Lily and leave.”
“I’m going to stay as long as I can, and if it gets bad I’ll leave.”
“No. You’ve got to go, now. It’s gonna get bad. It’s gonna be real bad. You saw North Carolina, and New Jersey. Promise me you’ll go, tonight.”
“Okay. I’ll go….I’ll go.”

But I could hear the distraction in her voice. I could hear the list she was going over and over in her head: generator, bottled water, canned food, wooden boards, flashlights.
“Promise me.”
It was like this, when she finally left. A fire engine drove around her block six times, blaring a mandatory evacuation. The tides of Moriches Bay were already creeping up her street. She listened for the small streak of land separating the ocean from the bay and only heard waves. My grandmother looked out the window and saw the water moving like a blue sheet of magma. She grabbed the dog and ran to higher ground where her car was parked. She drove away.

It was like this when the storm hit the house. The water rushed in the front door and broke it right off the hinges. It flooded the room in the live-in basement where my bed was. It paid no attention to stuff piled on shelves up high, it reached the ceiling of the first floor. It drowned my mother’s paintings; still lives of coke bottles, flowers and fruit that I couldn’t stop staring at the year before I started college when my grandmother took me in.
“Your mother painted those when she was your age. She was like you with your writing, doing everything, awards, scholarships, special programs, talented.”

My grandmother was the first person in my family to support me, when at seventeen I declared I was going to be a writer. She gave me money to go into the city to take poetry workshops. She came to my poetry slams. She celebrating my decision to go to undergrad for Creative Writing. My grandmother believed in me more than I believed in myself.

Up at school, I dreamed of the bay back at home. The moon was big and gleaming. Orange buoys were washed ashore, the dunes were nothing more than demolished heaps of sand. In the dream I walked from the shore all the way up the street, the waves following me, eating up my footprints. I woke up and called her. My grandmother’s blue eyes quivered over the phone. After the storm hit, I went home as soon as I could.
My grandmother picked me up from the train station. She talked as if there was still a hurricane coming.
“Now, you’ve got to understand. I did the best I could. I didn’t know it would be this bad, I put all your stuff up high you know, on the bed, on the shelves, but the water got to nearly everything. I tried to save as much as I could, I put it all upstairs to dry, I’ve been checking on it and I think I salvaged some.”
I said that stuff was not important, and as I said it I realized that she could have died, could have been swept away, could not have any house to come home to at all and I tried to say this but she said “No. It’s important. I know how important it is to you.”
It was like this when we walked into the house. Debris littered the first floor. My room was not a room but a brown water stain. I looked at the bags of wet clothes, my destroyed camera on a shelf, light bulbs rotting in their sockets, garbage from the street, dirt and leaves and wires all over the place. Lily, the chihuahua, still wouldn’t look anyone in the eye. Panic hung in the air like a sheet of blinding sunlight. I walked up the stairs. There were papers laid out on every inch of dry carpet in the living room. Notebooks on the kitchen table. Pages stained blue lining the heater. More papers on the windowsill with the windows open, held down by cans of soup.

“What is this?”
“It was the first thing I did when I came back to the house. There was water up to my knees. I wasn’t supposed to wade in it, because of the electrical wires, but I was careful. I knew where your writing was. I grabbed it. I’m sorry I couldn’t grab your other stuff, but I knew you would have wanted me to save…this. So I grabbed it, the whole bag, some of it was wet. I put it up here to dry.”
As I picked up each page, my throat filled with water. The first short story I’d ever written about a baby bird. Another story I won a prize for in sixth grade. A journal from my first intensive writing program I took as a teenager. Magazines with my poems in them. Musings and doodles and monologues. She had kept every piece of writing she could get her hands on, tucked it away in a big black bag, now immense and spread across the living room like a planet drying, the first thing she thought to save after the storm.

I picked up a piece of paper in a picture frame on the kitchen counter. Neat blue cursive was scrawled on the page, organized in little stanzas. It was the first poem I had ever written, a gift to my grandmother on mother’s day years back when I was just a kid. A poem about spring, and new beginnings. It was like this, the poem:

“…A gentle breeze swifts by, blending a rush
of cool to the stale heat of the smile-lit
sun. The feeling caresses you as an ocean wave,
gliding all the time, a lasting joy…

Destiny seeks a journey of nature
a rise of soul, a rouse of beginning.
A wondrous beauty…
has awakened each spirit.”

I could not speak. I had no words. I understood, what it was then. My writing was not, is not, will never be mine. Does not belong to me. It comes from a place that not even a hurricane can touch. It is here, in me, like the Atlantic itself, bringing me closer to the people and places I love yet receding as soon as I touch it. But I was no longer afraid of this gift. I realized in that moment, I was not dipping my feet in the water alone. I was bringing my grandmother, and this story, with me.