The night was dark and stormy. No, it really freaking was.
We’d waited all day for the category 1 storm to arrive. I’d spent the last 24 hours amassing all the things that might make our stay inside easier. I’d gone over the lists online and looked at the weather.com feed for ideas. I perused the evacuation lists and thought about where in my house those things might be. We didn’t have a portable radio, and that bothered me. But my biggest concern was the length of time after the storm we’d be without power. I’d filled everything in my recycling bin with water, and I was proud to have stuck some soda bottles in the freezer. I’d even found bread—at the dollar store, of all places.
My husband and I watched Date Night as the wind picked up. The kids watched recorded Disney Channel shows, all of us trying to enjoy the fact that the power was lasting longer than expected. Finally the lights went out, and we all got together in the living room. My husband began lighting candles, and I pulled the last of the huge load of laundry I had drying. I was folding it in my bedroom when I heard a big thump and the ground shook.
We peeked out the front window to see that a huge tree had fallen on the lawn, landing inches from our front door. I called my mom while I herded the kids to the hallway. I marveled at the fact that it had been a silent destruction. There had been no telltale cracks to warn us that the tree was about to fall.
No time to hustle out of the way, so the husband and I tried to decide where the kids would sleep. I wasn’t comfortable with them sleeping by a window, so we decided on a twin mattress in the hallway.
Just a quick explanation about my house: it’s a small brick rambler on a sweet cul-de-sac. Every room has windows, so the hallway is the only window-free space. We have many large trees, but the largest is what we called the family tree. We name everything in my world, just to make the kids laugh or love things. Like stuffed animals. So the huge oak that umbrella-ed the house got the same treatment. The family tree got plenty of love, as far as a tree goes.
I stood the kids just inside my son’s doorway and told them to sit for a minute while I folded by the light of a flashlight. It was going to be a long night. Now I could hear branches cracking outside like King Kong was swinging from tree to tree. I looked out and spied my neighbor in the road, checking on our tree, making sure we were okay. I waved and she ran back inside. My husband and I were so touched that she checked on us.
Soon after that, it happened. Again we had no way to know it was coming when the family tree landed on the roof. No cracking. Nothing. Just an instantaneous thundering and the amazing crunch and whoosh of thousands of leaves. My husband rushed to the kids, screaming at them to stand up as he gathered them in his arms.
The house groaned. My daughter sobbed, and my son paled.
“It hit. Oh my God, it hit.”
I swallowed because my unflappable guy sounded scared. I left the kids in the hallway to take a peek. The family tree’s root ball eclipsed my bay window. I tracked it with my eyes over the ceiling and followed it to the porch. My kitchen’s new view was the top of the massive tree.
My husband hustled the kids to the front door where my neighbors were peering through a pile of trees to wave us an invitation to their house. I knew I had to pack quickly while my husband got the kids to safety.
“Shoes! You need shoes!” My son slipped on two left sneakers. My husband threw our daughter over his shoulder in a fireman’s carry and they threaded their way out the door and through the tree branches.
I gave myself just minutes to grab what I could from the house. I knew how big that oak was, and I fully expected the house to buckle.
Think, think—what do you need? The lists I’d read earlier flashed in my head. Underwear, medicines, important papers, cell phone. I ran to the bedroom and looked at the piles I’d been folding. It would all come. My husband busted back in the front door.
“Deb?” He sounded panicked. “Grab garbage bags.”
My suitcases were in the shed—no way to get to them—so we opened bags, and I began filling. I tried to concentrate. Maybe five days of clothes? I kept losing count. My brain filled with the static of fear. My husband just stood there with a bag. I forced myself to think. Lord help me—I need my bra!
“Go get meds and underwear for the kids,” I told him. I pretended to pack for a vacation, itemizing what I’d usually bring. Kids had clothes—all that was on my bed went in.
He was back. “Grab the bills bag,” I instructed. He was doing great at listening and following through.
I knew next door my girl was panicked, crying for sure. My son would comfort her. But he was so pale when I saw him last…
I ran to the bathroom: toiletries. Back to the bedroom: pillows, blankets. I found a bra and thanked God as I slipped it on.
“Deb, stop,” he said. “We have to get out.”
Think. “Get the kids favorite toys,” I said.
The house groaned as the winds went crazy. Pounding rain. Dogs barking.
Think. Purse, cell phone.
I looked around. That was it. I’d already pressed my luck. I dragged the garbage bags to the front door because we couldn’t get out the back. My husband and I looked at the dogs. They would need another trip. I stuffed his huge shoes on my feet, and we took off. Getting out the door required weaving through the branches of the first tree and ducking under the root ball of the family tree. I slipped in the mud as I maneuvered around the crater that used to hold the large oak.
Getting three dogs and the cat out would be nuts. The rain instantly drenched me. I didn’t look back as we ran the bags next door. It was about 3/4ths of a soccer field away.
I was greeted by hands with towels and water bottles. I shook my head. We had to get the animals. Before we left I said, jokingly, “My parents get the kids.”
As we ran back over I understood my husband’s panic. We could barely make out the small hole in all the branches that led to the door, and the oak was really pressing hard on the roof.
Juggling our flashlights, we made our way back in. He leashed the animals while I hunted for the cat, finally finding him under my bed.
I had nothing to put him in, and he was already clawing to get away. Out in the rain he would get away from me for sure. I met my husband’s eyes, and we were both at a loss as to how to get out and do the brief mountain climbing required. The cocker spaniel pulls with all of her 48 pounds, the blind dog would be more than disoriented, and the poodle was very small. The retractable leashes are even harder to hold.
I stuffed the cat into my lidded ottoman. Soon after I did it I realized it would be impossible to carry across the mud. The cat popped out and took off running. My husband insisted on taking all three dogs.
“We have to get out.”
“You go. I have to grab the cat.”
“I’m not leaving you here.”
“Go. I’ll be right behind you.”
Were we really saying this? This wasn’t a movie. He took off out the door as I searched for the cat.
I checked the dining room, which was now basically a sling for the tree. I couldn’t help myself and swung the light around to see the damage. The ceiling was buckled and pouring water. No cat.
I hustled back to the living room, trying to come up with something to stash him in and coming up blank. The ceiling above the load-bearing wall cracked like an egg shell. The roof protested. I heard one of the dogs yelp in pain from outside.
Think. A backpack!
I ran to the front door, grabbed my son’s new backpack, and went back to looking for the cat. I tried calling him, but my harsh voice scared me too. I got low in my room and saw fur in the flashlight’s beam. I’m sure it will be a few years before the cat forgives me for the way I got him into that bag and fastened it shut. It’s a messenger bag, so his head peeked out. I squeezed him tight.
At the door the poodle looked back at me from the other side. He was the reason for the yelp and must have slipped his leash in the dash. I squeezed the cat harder and locked the door. I ducked, threaded, and slipped while calling the poodle. He followed me but then fell into the crater the tree had created. I watched as he panicked.
I had no idea how deep the hole was. He floundered while I called him. My head raced because if I eased my grip on my cat, he would take off into the night. At least I knew the dog would follow me. I called him again in a sweet voice, as if we weren’t standing outside in a hurricane. The trees bent and limbs fell all around us.
“Here, Spikey. Come here, boy!”
He swam out of the hole and followed. I ran to the neighbors’ and passed someone my angry cat before I turned back outside.
My poodle went back to our house, too afraid to follow. We then played the stupidest and most dangerous game of hide and go seek. I cursed him in my head and smiled like we were totally so happy to see each other out there on the road.
I tried getting low and he inched away. I knew if I chased he would run back to the door. I was really not looking forward to standing under the root ball again. It had been kind enough to not hammer me into a pancake so far, and I didn’t want to test my luck again.
I finally scooped up the poodle in the driveway and felt him go boneless with relief. That made one of us.
I eyed the trees. They were all acting like wet spaghetti. And the wind wouldn’t choose a direction. The gusts picked up. I watched the trees as I sprinted back. The door flung open and there were my neighbors with towels. Someone whisked the dog away. Someone in the room said, “Good job, Momma!”
My daughter came up from the basement to hug me, followed by my son. I hugged them back, but it took me a while to catch my breath, then some more time to slow my heart. I saw my husband, and then there was relief. All the faces are safe.
My neighbors are sweet and understanding. They already had a full house, and yet they made room for all of us and offered ice cold water bottles.
I went upstairs to change into something dry. My husband followed and we stood together and hugged.
“We just lost our house.”
There were no tears, because how could there be? Safe. We were safe with our neighbors—their basement the perfect place to wait out a long storm. I sat watching my kids sleep for hours until I finally just laid between them.
I waited for the sun to come up, and when it did there was still the scary wind. When it finally died down I went outside to see. And I did.
I saw that we were lucky beyond reason. I saw that my house was still struggling under the weight of the oak. My sweet brick home was still trying to protect us, and even though we left, it did a damn good job. Yet another tree had fallen on our house, blocking the front door even more. Thank heavens it wasn’t there when we were getting out.
From my brief trip inside to grab my computer and pictures of the kids, I know the house is lost. The big load-bearing wall is buckling more each hour, the brick seeming to crumble around it.
My town was just beat to hell by Irene. Our roads were blocked completely by trees, and fire and police stopped responding to calls soon after my first tree fell. Had any of my people been injured, no one would have been able to help. That’s chilling—understandable, but very chilling.
I’m writing this on my phone in a cool hotel room. My dogs are here, and my cat is at the neighbors’.
The word safe floors me now. I never thought I’d stuff so many grateful blessings into one small word. Kindness has poured in from everywhere as my house has turned into a must-see destruction zone.
People have been asking me what we need, and I honestly cannot think of a single thing. I had everything that mattered when I stood soaking wet on my neighbors’ doormat.
I have no idea what’s next. We’re meeting with the tree removal and insurance guy today, I hope. I know we cannot live in the house, so we will live somewhere.
I haven’t cried, and I’m surprised to find no need for that at the moment. Grateful, lucky, stupid and loved. I’m feeling all of that this morning.
Deb, your Omnific family is here to support you during this scary and difficult time--sending lots of love your way!