A Circle of Safety
The turkey has almost finished roasting when Superstorm Sandy makes landfall. Our lights flicker and go out. I line up candles on the kitchen counter and call our son Mickey to come eat dinner.
“Are we having an adventure?” he asks. He sounds nervous.
“We certainly are!” I say cheerily.
All night I lie in bed listening to the wind howl, praying none of our massive oak trees will fall on our house.
My husband Marc and I wake to news of devastating destruction. Enormous trees have toppled in our suburb north of New York City. Telephone polls have sheared off; electrical wires litter the streets. People have drowned, and entire communities have washed away. NYU Medical Center in Manhattan—a facility we know well from our stays on the epilepsy floor—has flooded. Nurses and doctors have managed to maneuver every single patient, even ones on ventilators, down dark stairways to safety.
We call our older son Jonathan in Manhattan, who has lost power too, and urge him to take refuge uptown with family.
I find Mickey flipping light switches back and forth. “I’m making the power come back,” he explains. Magical thinking.
“It doesn’t work that way,” I tell him, “but we can still cook.” Luckily we have a gas range. I fill a pan with water, strike a match, and open a box of macaroni and cheese.
“This is the adventure?” he asks.
“Oh yes!” I say cheerfully.
We have a gas-fired water tank. As long as the hot showers hold up, we can hold out.
Halloween has been cancelled. I start eyeing all the unopened bags of Fun Size Candy Bars. I distract myself by making strong coffee, and listen to news on the radio. It’s gut-wrenching. A mother’s two children have been ripped from her arms by raging flood waters. As soon as Mickey walks in I switch off the radio.
The food has thawed. We toss everything into four large trash bags. It is 41 degrees outside, yet Mickey still insists on wearing nothing but shorts. He has always hated the feeling of clothes. Why does he seem so impervious to cold?
“Put on sweatpants and a shirt,” I insist.
“No, I need to nap,” Mickey says and climbs back into bed. He resists all efforts to get him out of the house. Finally we lure him to an early dinner at the deli with the promise of burgers and fries. We are walking through the parking lot when Mickey suddenly says, “Oh no. I forgot to put on underwear.”
The eerie silence is broken only by the steady thrum of a neighbor's generator. The power company is saying it will be another week. Just shoot me now.
But I know I have no business complaining when others are in so much worse shape. We’ve been lucky; the house is standing, and we’ve had no property damage. I’m thankful I don’t live on the Jersey shore, where houses have been swept off their foundations. Or Breezy Point, Queens, so ravaged by fires it looks like London after the Blitz.
Our synagogue has power. They invite us to share the warmth and WiFi, so we pack Mickey’s electronic toys, our phones, the laptop, a power strip, and a shopping bag’s worth of chargers.
“We’re still having the adventure?” Mickey asks dubiously.
“Absolutely,” I say, determined to stay upbeat. Marc goes online to order 40 D cell batteries for our lanterns. At the dinner table that night I snap a photo on my phone and post it to Facebook with the caption: “Dining by lantern light. #Sandy.”
I think about packing a bag and going somewhere warm; several families have invited us to stay with them. Which would be worse: uprooting Mickey, or trying to explain his behaviors to people who haven’t met him? How can we leave our two cats? The elderly one has a heart murmur. After I hear a policeman on the radio say, “Empty houses are a burglar’s dream,” I decide to stay put.
Our synagogue invites people without power for a Shabbat community dinner. “Can Wario come?” Mickey asks. Wario is a four-inch beanie baby Nintendo character he used to carry with him for comfort years ago. He jams Wario in his pocket. We enter the sanctuary, feeling shell-shocked in the dazzling light. Clutching Wario, Mickey bops beside us in time to the music. Afterward, he works the crowd. Attention must be paid. Mickey walks up to the new rabbi and introduces himself. “He’s glad-handing like a politician!” Marc says, marveling.
“He feels safe here,” I say.
The cold is relentless. Our beds are piled high with quilts and comforters. Marc and I hear reports of gasoline shortages. Someone has pulled a gun on the gas line. Or maybe it’s an axe.
On the way to the diner Mickey announces, "I'm going to order a burger and fries to cheer me up." He asks if he can get a new game for his Game Boy, and tells me, "I'm going to stay in Best Buy till the cows come home."
Daylight Savings Time ends. The house is dank, and we are dispirited. My muscles ache from shivering. A week in, our cat Fudge still waits patiently for warmth in her customary spot atop the kitchen heating vent. “Is Fudge dying?” Mickey asks fearfully.
“Of course not, honey,” I tell him. “She’s just cold.”
The temperature plummets into the 30s. What if the pipes freeze? The wind picks up; a nor'easter is heading our way. How much longer will this last? Will we?
We are grateful to a friend with power who cooks and brings us a hot dinner. Mickey bolts his food, then climbs back into bed to cuddle under four quilts with Fudge. Marc opens a bottle of Chardonnay we’ve been saving; it has chilled to perfection in our unheated house. We eat in front of the fireplace. It feels basic. Primitive. I think of a refrain from the book “Game of Thrones”: “The night is dark and full of terrors." I wonder what terror the dark holds for Mickey. Our bit of heat doesn’t even reach the rest of the room; it’s black beyond the fire’s protective glow. We huddle close to the hearth in our circle of safety.
Marc attempts to read a book, finally putting it aside. “Maybe Abe Lincoln could read by fire light, but I can’t.”
“I’ll never take our creature comforts for granted again,” I say, even as I know I will do precisely that a month from now.
“I’m not going,” Mickey says flatly. “First lights. Then school.” He struggles to explain, and finally says, “I want to have an adventure with you.”
Does he think “adventure” means excitement, or deprivation? He has endured darkness and freezing temperatures, shortage of favorite foods, the disruption of comforting routines. He has seemed so resilient till now. It is the thought of leaving us that unhinges him.
“How do people die?” he asks.
“They get very old or sick,” Marc says. “Or sometimes they have an accident.”
“Did Aunt Tessie love me before she died? Did Uncle Stanley?” he asks.
“Of course,” I say. “Very much.”
"Because I'm a favorite kid?"
“Yes,” I tell him.
"I’m a cute little guy?"
Sometimes his sweetness slays me.
"I miss my friend Emily so much," he confides. Emily is away at school. He is grappling with more loss than I’ve realized.
We are recharging our devices in the synagogue library when our neighbor calls to tell us we have power. We are back on the grid.
“The adventure is over?” Mickey asks.
“It is,” we reassure him. ”Everyone is warm and safe.”
But of course that isn’t true.
We take it as given that electricity will always flow. That fuel will be readily available. That the food supply is limitless. Superstorm Sandy has reminded us how vulnerable we are, and that safety is a fragile construct.