The Things We Carried

How does one prepare for a hurricane?

The first ten days of September were one achingly long crescendo of anxiety here in Florida. We watched Hurricane Irma churn from the African coast to the Leeward Islands, devastating Burbuda, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and on to Puerto Rico and Cuba before crushing Miami and the Florida Keys, Marco Island, and Ft. Meyers.

Here in Tampa Bay, we waited.

Since we aren’t in an evacuation zone, Steve was comfortable in staying. He knew how to prepare for a hurricane, and I followed his lead. We were ready in every way possible with 40 gallons of drinking water, plenty of provisions, medical kits for various degrees of injury, and a secure house. On Saturday, Steve rode his bike two miles to check on his sons, his mother and sister, and his ex-wife. Everyone was well. We were all as prepared as we could be.

On the morning of September 10, we learned that instead of following the east coast of Florida as expected, the eye of Irma was to pass over our tiny home sometime around 2am the next morning. I’d lived through a direct tornado hit in 2012, and weirdly expected a hurricane to feel like a 12-hour tornado. Instead, it was an excruciating exercise in patience. For the entire day, I struggled to stamp down the panic rising from my gut. As the gentle and steady rain began falling, Steve and I  built over 50 sandbags by digging a hole in the backyard and filling plastic grocery bags with Florida sand-soil. We brought our plants inside: a hibiscus and two small papaya trees Steve had been nurturing since they were tiny shoots. We made afternoon espresso, which felt both satisfying and scary: as though it were the final coffee we’d ever share, as though “before Irma” and “after Irma” would be markedly different. As the details of Irma’s strength and trajectory were updated, we made tough decisions. If the roof were to blow off of our home, or if 140 mph winds blew out our windows, what were the most important things we wanted to protect?

We had a small safe and two large army-issued waterproof cases to fill. Passports, love letters we’d written each other, Steve’s fountain pens and his father’s pocket knife. My daughters’ shot records and social security cards. Small toys from his sons that they’d snuck into his rucksack before deployments. The wedding rings from our first marriages, still poignantly tender to both of us. A Bible, dated 1871, that a Park ancestor of mine had received as a teenager.

How do you measure your life in the weight of one small waterproof safe?

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Terror.
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The irreplaceables.
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“The rains. They are coming.”
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Florida plants safe from Florida weather.
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The most important place in the house.
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The calm before the storm.
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Which books are most important: the ones you’ve read and loved the most, or the ones yet to read? Also: don’t forget the tiny robot.
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Steve’s ocean god, purchased after he almost drowned while surfing in Hawaii decades ago. It was a comforting presence as Irma bore down on us. Not today, weather. Not today.
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Red wine vs. white wine.
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Reading aloud, waiting for Irma.
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This is not a good feeling, when you are the blue dot.

The army-issued waterproof cases, we decided, were for our favorite books (how to choose favorites?), our diplomas, and photographs of us and of our children when they were small. We tried not to be sentimental about our short courtship and six-month marriage, but holding our marriage certificate, a few photographs, and seeing the 20-years of history that came before our union felt significant. We are brand new at this marriage, this blended-family thing. I felt a moment of hopelessness, that our future wasn’t in our control, that one storm could erase us and everything we loved. Things are only things, mementos of living, small reminders of where we’d been. As we filled the boxes, all I wanted was to continue moving forward with this man that I love so dearly, and for a few moments, I was gripped with the terror of losing him. Things don’t matter, truly. They are only things.

As the evening progressed, the winds grew louder. Peyton sat quietly, engrossed by her phone, tracking the storm and reassuring friends and family in Texas and Kentucky that we were fine. We hadn’t lost power, so I made us a meal. Steve set up the chess board, thinking we might play, but by 10pm I was obsessed with following Irma online as she slammed into Ft. Meyers. After losing the wifi we agreed to turn off our devices, and so while Peyton took a shower, Steve and I sat together on the couch and read the T.C. Boyle story, “Peace of Mind” aloud to each other, alternating sections.

Soon we moved to the hallway to sleep. Pey was on one twin mattress and Steve and I shared the other one in a cramped tangle. Fitfully, we slept.

At 2am, I woke to silence.

I got up, walked through the house, confused. The power was on. No windows were broken. Our roof was exactly the way it was supposed to be. My dear Florida Cracker got up behind me and calmly said, “We must be in or near the eye now. Let’s get out of this hallway and go to bed.”

There was no tornado-moment of shrieking wind. Our dogs slept through most of the day and night like any other day and night. And thankfully, unlike 60% of Hillsborough County, we never even lost power. We’d slept through the worst of it. Bullet dodged.

The things we carried were totems of little value to anyone but us. What are a few books, a few documents, a scattering of photographs? Of everything we sealed in boxes, only the love letters, the fountain pens and pocket knife, and the 1871 Bible were irreplaceable. The things that matter were in that cramped hallway: my daughter, our pets, my new husband and his prepared, calm ways. We weathered Irma no worse for the wear. We’re thankful.

We have each other, today and always.

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