The Kindness of Strangers

135625464_14719069605411nMy cousin and his family were alone, wandering around their yard with dazed expressions on their faces. They had just returned home from an evacuation to the Dallas area because their home had begun to take on water during the heavy rains from hurricane Harvey. When it threatened to reach the electrical outlets they knew that they had to flee. They quickly grabbed a few articles of clothing from upstairs, turned off the power, and drove away while they still had a chance to at least save their cars and their lives. Now they were estimating the damage and attempting to make sense of what had happened. The looks on their faces told their stories without explanation. They were dazed, weary, worried, devastated.

They moved slowly in our direction and hugged us when they saw us walking up the drive way. They had little to say because there were no words to adequately describe what they had encountered. They had lived in this house for forty years. It had been the place where all of their joys and sorrows, ups and downs had played out over a lifetime. They still vividly remembered the feeling of elation they had experienced when they chose the lot and the elevation for their home and watched their dream becoming a reality. They had brought their baby girl to this home and lovingly witnessed her growing into a lovely young woman. The place had never flooded in all of those years, even when there had been heavy rains brought by other storms and hurricanes. They felt safe and sound inside those walls and would not have believed that they would find themselves in such a predicament, but it was Harvey who had come to visit, a beast of a storm that dumped fifty one inches of rain on the city. This time was different, historical, and the creek that usually meandered nearby became a raging river that first filled their yard and then the rooms that were so familiar to them. Now they would have to clean out the waterlogged mess and somehow find the grit and energy to begin again. Still they wondered how they would find the wherewithal to accomplish such a daunting task. They were older now. This was supposed to be a time to retire and enjoy the fruits of their labors, not a moment of beginning the most difficult work of their lives.

We had come to help and to map out a plan of action. We had called on our children and grandchildren to converge on their home the following day. We were determined to set them aright again no matter how challenging that might be, but a tour of the damage shocked us. Somehow we felt defeated before we had even begun. We worried that our crew of mostly older folk was not going to be up to the task, but we said nothing to my cousin. There was no need to further discourage him, so we simply set to work removing debris that blocked the doors and passage ways one item at a time until we had filled one garbage bag after another. It was a start, but the hours felt like days and we left for the night feeling exhausted even though we had hardly made a dent in what needed to be done.

I used to be very a private person. I hid the fact that my family struggled after my father died when I was still a small child. I rarely spoke of my mother’s mental illness, thinking that nobody would want to know about such a thing. Because I was keeping so many emotions locked inside my heart I began to feel anxious and barely able to cope. I finally allowed other people to see my imperfections and my concerns. I found them to be loving and compassionate rather than judgmental. I realized that people are mostly kind, and so I turned to them once again in this moment when I knew that we needed more people to help my cousin to reclaim his home. I put a post on Facebook asking for ideas and my wall was flooded with suggestions and offers of assistance. I gave the task of contacting the many groups to my husband. He had endured a stroke only two months ago, and I realized that it was dangerous for him to be part of the work crew. His job was to find someone, anyone who would be able to provide us with the energy and strong backs that we needed.

I drove back to the injured home on Sunday. My cousin and his family were already there, and they were still struggling to internalize what had happened. I hoped that a cavalry would be on its way, but I had little hope at that moment. When one of my brothers arrived, he and I continued the task of creating pathways so that we would somehow be able to get the largest pieces of furniture outside into the pile of debris that was already beginning to grow even with our feeble efforts. Then my phone began to ring again and again. A group from West Road Church of Later Day Saints and St. Maximillian Catholic Church was coming in thirty minutes with twelve young people eager to work with us. Then came a response from Lakewood Methodist Church members who promised to arrive in the afternoon. Friends of my cousins came one by one as did the members of my family and two dear friends from my childhood. Everyone donned gloves and masks and set to work with abandon.

We set up places to rest under the shade of trees that my cousins had planted years ago. We had tables of food and ice chests filled with drinks. Strangers stopped to give us extra gloves and masks to wear. The work continued and the numbers of people contributing to the cause grew and grew and grew. Young people brought us hamburgers and hot dogs that tasted so good at that moment. Others came with bags of fruit and water. We did not know any of these Good Samaritans. They smiled and blessed us and did their best to provide us with succor and hope. More people called to find out how we were doing and to let us know that they were sending checks for food and supplies. The mountains of ruined clothing that I had removed the day before disappeared as loving volunteers filled bags and took them home to wash. Boxes of dishes and pots and pans were taken away with promises that they would be renewed and cared for. A miracle was unfolding right before our eyes and all of us were so moved that we struggled to maintain our composure. Mostly we gave in to the tears of gratitude that flowed from our hearts and our eyes.

By the end of a very long ten hour day close to fifty souls had worked on the house. The fouled sheetrock and insulation lay inside a mountain of garbage bags along with the family possessions that were hopelessly ruined. It was difficult to even see the front of the home because the yard had become a graveyard for furniture and appliances, but the good news was that the house was on its way to healing. The seemingly impossible had been accomplished. The foul waters had been removed and somehow even as we saw the visible evidence of the destruction that had befallen the house we sensed that it would become a home once again. A ray of hope shown down and renewed our energy and our optimism.

There is still much to be done before my cousins, will feel whole and secure again. The shock of what they are experiencing is being repeated hundreds of thousands of times all over the Houston area. It is almost impossible to imagine how horrific the damage actually is until seeing it in person. There are millions of individual stories associated with this disaster that will never be forgotten even as we all begin the journey back to our daily routines a sense of normalcy. The Houston area now houses two distinct groups of people, those who were lucky enough to dodge the destruction and those whose lives have been so horrifically turned upside down. Sadly the rest of the world is often fickle. They will move on to the next big story and forget the tragedy that has befallen so many souls, but those of us who have seen the unseeable will never forget. We have experienced the kindness of strangers in a very dark hour and these selfless people have forever changed our lives and our outlooks. Nothing will ever be quite the same again.

If you want to help someone who has lost so much in this tragic event here are some wonderful ideas:

  1. Volunteer to do some laundry or wash some dishes for someone whose home was flooded. There are a number of good recipes for how to do this properly online.
  2. Babysit the young children of families who have to work on their houses.
  3. Bring food, water, snacks, gloves, masks and cleaning supplies for the workers.
  4. Make a phone call or send a message of encouragement.
  5. Have someone who was affected over to your house for dinner or just an enjoyable evening.
  6. Don’t wait for those who have lost so much to reach out to you. Many of them are in such a state of shock that they don’t even know how to proceed. Take the initiative and suggest what you would like to do.

So many wonderful people are working to make Houston and its people whole again, but we have to remember that we are all in this for the long haul.