My father’s big hands light a hurricane lamp and pull a porch chair closer to his. With a gentle touch on my shoulder, he bids me sit. Trembling joints remind me I have not rested once today. Crackling portable radio grates against my ears, still squawking emergency broadcast After-Disaster instructions.
He places a paper plate and a cup of water in front of me on a t.v. tray and urges me to eat. This tall Texan, who learned to love cooking at his mother’s side, cooks to love his friends and family, from serving up a peeled shrimp and roast beef buffet, to packing a salami and cheese bagged lunch. Tonight, he has assembled a balanced canned meal of corned beef hash, pale green beans, and sliced peaches. Power has been out for five days. Thanks to the gas grill, the hash and beans are warm. What feel hottest are the tears I am trying so hard to hold back in front of him.
I am, after all, a 39-year-old mother of two teenaged girls, both of them, with sore muscles from volleyball conditioning at a school that will not open on schedule. I am “Momma” too, to a small boy who has all he now owns in a suitcase and a red and green laughing Santa popcorn tin of G.I. Joes, Legos, and Matchbox cars. I am the Mom and I need to be in control. Aren’t moms supposed to be strong when life turns crazy?They are waiting for me.
In the aftermath of the storm, I drove them 250 miles north, to the one home that has been consistent throughout their gypsy-lives as “Air Force brats.” Welcomed by their aunt and uncle, they have plenty of power, food, and a swimming pool. My husband and I have chosen to leave them out of the dangerous work we’ve faced today.
“Eat a little, Bron,” my Dad says, sitting directly in front of me. “You’ll feel better.”
I stare down at the half-smiles of peaches. I smell my salty hair and I wish I could shed my damp, gritty skin. Without the overhead fans, Miami’s August steam consumes us, like dusk devours daylight. I long for a shower, even if it is cold. But this meal?
The last bands of the storm are grinding through the glades of my gut. The texture of the hash reminds me of dog food. I worry I can’t keep it down. Feels like I have swallowed one of the splintered palm stumps.
Beyond the peaches, out beyond the screened porch, all I can see is an acre of broken avocado trees and stripped pines. But this backyard where I grew up is merely messy compared to the remains of Homestead Air Force Base, our home these past two years. My mind re-plays the twenty-two mile drive south on the Florida Turnpike, the wind-shredded landscape a Dali masterpiece of houses cracked open like giant eggs, 95-gallon plastic trash cans hanging from power poles, and a lost wandering dog, nose in the wind, waiting for an answer to howled prayers.
Dad calls me back. “Eat what you can, honey. You need some strength.”
I can scarcely see his face as our light dwindles to the lamp glow. He silences the droning radio. The familiar chorus of one-note soprano cicadas and percussive bass frogs fills the void. Mostly, he listens as I tell him how, armed with rakes, rubber boots, and hard hats, my love and I waded into the foot-high flotsam and jetsam of dry wall chunks, insulation, glass, and tarry roof shingles.
Breathing through our mouths to avoid the stink of week-old mold, we poked and sorted through seventeen years of our buried treasures before stowing our finds in a four-by-eight foot U-HAUL trailer. Still crumpled in my damp jean’s pocket is each child’s small “wish-list”: Barbies and ballet shoes, journals and new contact lenses, and a favorite stuffed wild thing, simply called “Puma.” Thankfully, we have found them all. I am surprised by the wild, unexpected gale blowing up inside me, propelling me away from the house. I no longer want to return for any of it.
Whatever still lies buried in the bizarre muck dotted with grape jelly and pickle jars, foil-wrapped leftovers and salad dressing bottles will soon disappear under the weight of a bulldozer.
Homestead’s ruin behind me, the mucky boots thrown in the trunk, I arrive in the old circular driveway, weeping thankful prayers for safe travel and for the sandals on my feet. My husband, in the “warzone,” must stay and work endless shifts beside a boss who claimed, between curses, “Worse than anything I’ve seen in combat. “ They will survive on packaged military rations, and I am still trying to find a way to eat what my father has carefully prepared for me.
He listens to my stream of consciousness utterances:
“. . .found dry shoes and clothes in my closet . . . computer and stereo speakers looted. . . bentwood rocker can be refinished. . . saw a couple of neighbors…guess we won’t see anyone from there again. . . .“
His white hair casts lighted threads like tiny lifelines, as his head shakes. “Unbelievable,” he murmurs. “Is that right?” Then, “I wish I could help you.”
But he no longer has the strength. I should be taking care of him. He wears a large bandage above his eye thanks to a stumble on tangled branches, and he, too, is tired. His constant storm is leukemia and caring for my mother who suffers from dementia. But there is no surrender and no self-pity. Tonight, he gently reminds me, as usual, that his strength is in the words of Romans 8:28, and I know he lives it everyday.
Before he leaves us, he wants to give us that faith, along with food for any journey. How long before I accept that even the darkest storms work to our good? Shadows weave their way into the frayed tropical tapestry, as a mosquito whines in my ear. For a moment, Dad’s voice fades. Ghosts gather near me on this forty-year-old porch. I push the hash around my plate, look away from the waiting meal, and I think I see myself in an old home movie playing in the opposite corner.
Once in 8mm “living color”, it is now greenish and grainy, as though shot through sea glass. A chubby, giggling one-year-old, with fine, downy wisps of hair, stands wrapped in only a big cotton-ball diaper, splashing hands in a tabletop puddle of rain. Droplets fly into little startled, blinking eyes, herky-jerky feet dance in tiny sandals and she steadies herself against a large German Shepherd sidling past. God’s four-footed furry nursemaid. Though silent film, I hear baby laughter: a runaway duet of chuckling and squealing that knows nothing of cancer and Category 5 hurricanes. She knows only sheer joy of water play and a casually snuggled dog, aptly named “Pal.” But, these ghosts melt quickly through the screen and into the humid night.
My soggy hands have not enjoyed puddles today. A tiny sliver of glass, an odd souvenir, is lodged in my thumb. It hurts. But it is too small to leave a scar. I count that as another blessing.
Like a soft rain, thankfulness washes over me, down my cheeks and into the neck of my tee-shirt. My children have been spared any physical injury from this storm. How I ache to get my arms around them! Brave, but anxious, their hungry voices on the phone have begged me for tidbits of news about the fate of their schools and friends whose street signs have blown as far as the Gulf of Mexico. But before I return to them, I need tonight’s rest. And I have to eat something.
I hate corned beef hash, but I love my father. I love his helpless hands and those candlelit eyes. I hear him coaxing me once more: “Try, honey.”
This time, I obey.