He asks the question with a smile, as a casual opener before we move on to “real” issues, and is shocked and appalled when I burst into tears because, well—I don’t cry.
“Are things back to normal?” he says and immediately wishes he hadn’t said it, and doesn’t know where to go from there. And I’m shocked too—I don’t know where the hell those tears have come from, because I’m fine, we’re fine, everything’s just fine.
Except, of course, it’s not.
We had this flood in YYC and Southern Alberta back in June, you may remember (my flagship post about it was unLessons from the flood: We are amazing, and if you want facts, visit the evolving Wikipedia entry or the Calgary’s Herald’s The Great Flood of 2013 page), that devastated my neighbourhood and so much of our city. An army of citizen volunteers turned out in the tens of thousands to respond to the crisis. It was amazing. It was euphoric. It had us walking on air and out of crisis mode in a couple of intense weeks.
People were asking a week, two weeks after the flood—as soon as the rivers receded, as soon as most of the debris that was our basements, our houses, our possessions, our lives, was taken off the streets and into the dumps—“Are things back to normal?”
And in late July, August, euphoric, proud, we could smile and say, “We’re out of crisis mode.” And maybe talk a little about insurance, and the Disaster Recovery Program, and plans for reconstruction. And laud our mayor’s leadership and bitch out the provincial government and, you know, do all those “normal” things.
I’m not sure when “normal” got harder to fake. Maybe in September, when we’d reconnect with people we hadn’t seen for a few months, and they’d say, “So—did you have a good summer?”
Funny—we are so socially programmed to be inoffensively happy and placating, the autoresponse to that question, which the mouth starts to form before the brain has a moment to reflect, is, “Yes. And you? That flood thing? A minor inconvenience. Moving on. Going to Disneyland!”
I did not have a great summer. We did not have a great summer. And things are not back to normal. What does that mean, anyway?
I look at him as if he can give me the answer, but of course he can’t. And he’s never seen me like this before, or under stress before, but he’s spend the summer ripping out friends’ basements, and they’re none of them quite “normal” right now either. But they’re not talking about it. “We’re fine, everything’s fine.” So what’s going on? What’s up with us, what’s tearing us up, as we move into month five after the flood?
I struggle to put it into words.
The obvious answer is that reconstruction is not going well. The rip-outs, it turns out, were the easy part. Putting things back… Well. We’re all at different stages. Sunnyhill’s probably further behind than many others because of our need to rehabilitate all 41 damaged units simultaneously. But I don’t know anyone who was affected who’s totally “done.” Most of us—all of Sunnyhill—have been back home for a long time. But we’re living in reduced, scarred spaces. An eternal mess. That’s hard. I know every time I walk in and out of my front door, every time I see the ripped door casings, the dismantled walls, the hole where my hall closet used to be, my jaw tightens.
So. That kind of sucks. But—really—I’ve been through renovations before. Who hasn’t? We are, I tell him, the mildly inconvenienced. We know this. Bitching and complaining about naked joists, drywall dust and “what the hell did the contractors do now?” seems like such a First World Whine. And that’s the other thing.
We feel bad—guilty—over feeling bad. Because. India. Colorado. Fuck, High River.
That sure doesn’t help.
He refills my glass. He tells me about his friend, whose house is fine but whose rental property was devastated, and how guilty she feels that her own personal loss wasn’t greater. That she was, ultimately, only financially inconvenienced, while her tenants lost—everything.
Stupid, I say.
Human, he counters.
I start crying again. He gives me his napkin to wipe away tears, snot. I hide my face.
We’re exhausted, I say when I can talk again. I’m the mother of three young children who all went through severe insomniac stages—and I’ve never been this physically exhausted. And it’s not from physical labour, the way it was during the crisis. We were entitled to be exhausted then, right? But now—others are doing the work (or getting paid to do work the results of which we’re not seeing, I snarl, and I laugh, and he does too, because that’s “normal” for me, much more normal than these uncontrolled tears). We’re just doing the everyday stuff—well, a little more, and so much of the everyday stuff is more difficult, but… Not entitled to complain. Not engaged in heavy physical labour. And, frankly, letting a lot of the everyday stuff go. Never did one thing to the flooded garden this year. Cleaning windows? Ha. I barely clean the kitchen. And my kids have never eaten so much take-out, ever. So what are we exhausted from?
Living? he says, gently.
I shake my head.
Frankly—I look at him through the wine glass, and it’s the refraction of light through liquid that blurs his features, not the water still swimming in my eyes—frankly, we’re exhausted from being so fucking positive and amazing. We know we pulled off a miracle. We were awesome. We were strong.
And now we’re really tired, and we’re done—except, of course, we’re not done.
Because things are not back to normal.
But tears aren’t swimming in my eyes anymore and I heave a sigh of relief.
Jesus, that felt good, I tell him. And then—I’m so sorry. We were supposed to talk about…
He interrupts me, waves my apology away. And he tells me—how he’s been struggling. Trying to figure out how to be a good friend to his floodster (we don’t do the victim thing in YYC, and survivor’s a rather dramatic term, don’t you think?) friends post-crisis, and feeling at a loss. And how he needed to hear this as much as I needed to tell it. And how he will never ask anyone in any of the affected Calgary neighbourhoods “Are things back to normal?” ever again.
We laugh. Order dessert. More wine.
In this moment, although things are not back to normal, I’m fine. We’re fine.
Or, at least—you know. Functional.
The writer engages in overt emotional manipulation, both to achieve a level of release and to communicate that which is hard to articulate. My family and friends won’t finish reading this post—they’ll be texting me in a panic before they get to the end of the first paragraph. Chill. Although things are definitely not back to normal—and for the love of any and all of the gods I don’t believe in, do not ask your flooded (or otherwise whacked by life’s events) friends and neighbours if things are back to normal, ok? Just don’t—life is unfolding as it must. And in my own beloved little corner of the flood plain, we are all doing what must be done. And—because we’re a community—we’re helping each other through it. (And possibly drinking too much wine, but. So be it.)
But if you’re on the hills and edges of the flood plains—if you’re on the edges of any life affected by a traumatic event—and you’re struggling to figure out how to help your friends who are clearly post-crisis but equally clearly not-ok, do this:
- Listen. Don’t tell us how strong, wonderful, amazing, or lucky we are. Just listen. Let us feel bad, sad, frustrated, furious. Tired. We know we’re amazing. We kind of need permission to be… whiney.
- Connect us to help. If you’re a local reader and you need to help a local floodster, a good starting point is the resource list provided by Alberta Health Services here. But babe, remember how I was telling you during the crisis to see the need and fill it, how saying “How can I help?” isn’t enough when people are in shock? Sending your friend the link or telephone number may not be enough. Walk the line between empathy and obnoxiousness as best as you can, but a “May I call and make an appointment for you?” is likely more helpful than “Here’s a link I thought you’d find helpful” email. For your hard-core entrepreneur friends who don’t want to do stress-relief acupuncture and roll their eyes at sacrocranial therapy etc. etc., the Canadian Federation of Independent Business has some hard-core resources—that include getting connected with counsellors if that’s what you need.
- Recognize that we’re not as… full, or resilient as we used to be. And so—take less. In a way, take more—we’re not as patient or tolerant as we used to be either. Nor necessarily as rational. Deal with it. And, if you can, look for ways to fill us up. (Preferably not just with wine. Although that sometimes does do wonders.)
- Invite yourself over. Our scarred houses are difficult to love right now. Sometimes, company is difficult to seek out. But isolation really sucks. Come on over.
- Invite us over, or out. Our scarred houses are a little oppressive right now, but suck us in with all their demands. Get us out.
For my neighbours, who are awesome, and doing all the things. But who are also exhausted and running on empty, and need to have those feelings acknowledged and respected. (Especially my beloved L. So much love and appreciation for all that you’re doing.)
For my friends, who helped so much, and who are always trying to help. In the most creative, occasionally disturbing, ways. (Yeah, I’m talking about you. I’m not saying it didn’t work… but that was really weird. Still. Thank you.)
And, for myself. Cause I really needed to cry.
Sat., Nov. 2nd P.S. You’re breaking my heart but also feeding my soul with what you’re sending to my in-box. Yes, you are free to share this piece wherever you think it needs to be heard. The private place to cry is firstname.lastname@example.org. Much love. J.