Friday, June 20, 2014

The Past Cannot Be Forgotten

Three years ago, today, I was sitting on the patio at my Dad's house enjoying a nice, hot, beautiful, Michigan vacation with family, when my phone rang. It was my husband, of course I answered it. On the other end, there was a lot of noise and my husband frantically said, "What do you want me to save?" I was completely confused. No "Hello" or greeting, just a question. I walked away from my family and went to my room. "What? What are you talking about?" I replied, even more confused but now with a gut sinking feeling in my stomach. "We're getting 10 feet of water. It's going to flood. We have three days to get everything out before the water gets here. What do you want me to save?"

I was in shock. Wouldn't you be? I mean for months we'd been watching the river in the town rise, and to have a little flooding after a long, record breaking winter made some sense, but 10 feet of water? In our house? "Everything...." I replied, quietly." "Well, that's not going to happen, we don't have any place to put this stuff and they are evacuating us, like 12,000 people, Abbey. We can't save it all. We're going to lose everything. Our house will be underwater, do you understand that?"

He wasn't being harsh, or mean, he was being himself. He's logical, he's rational and is very matter of fact. I was holding back tears, it was kind of easy because I was immediately filled with anger and sadness, surprise and shock, but I still was speechless. "I what you can, the big stuff, the expensive stuff, the stuff that is important to us...". "OK, I have to go, we're running out of time. I'll call you later."

And that was that. I immediately went to the computer to get as much information as possible, but there wasn't much. Some reports out of Minot said 3-5 days before the flood waters got to us, but of course, the sirens went off early on June 22, 2011 around 1 PM. In an instant, the whole town felt defeated. The levy had broken. Now it was only a matter of days before the water could get to our house, it would be several weeks before a picture of our neighborhood would come available, and a month before we could see our house and the damage, and even longer before we could start to rebuild our lives.

Over the next year Eric and I spent many nights fighting over the flood, who was to blame for the lack of flood insurance (that we were NOT required to have due to FEMA taking us out of the flood plane thanks to new dams along the river), and how we were going to rebuild our lives, we lost 7,000 lbs of goods in that flood, not including our house. We spent two years trying to rebuild our marriage and our family as Eric worked a full and often overtime job in the Air Force while moonlighting as our cleaner, builder, electrician and plumber. I spent that two years trying to stick to a very strict budget thanks to FEMA and a loan from the city so that we could rebuild our house without losing everything, while raising a newborn and a 20 month old, and having a full time job. It was a lonely, difficult time. There were days when I'd be sick to my stomach, nights I couldn't sleep, and yet, I'd try to put on a smile each day for my boys who desperately missed their Daddy and tried so hard to understand what caused their life to turn upside down.

Of course we talked to them about the flood. Nothing scary, but made it clear that our home was destroyed by a flood, that daddy was rebuilding it for us, that we had to replace a lot of things in our home, that we had to talk about it so that we could start to heal.

All of that hard work paid off, because one year and one day after the flood, we returned home. The house wasn't finished, but it was good enough to live in and resume our seemingly perfect life in our first home. I wanted to move back there, Eric didn't. I wanted the closure. I wanted to have Theodor have his first steps in that house, I wanted him to have a birthday there. I wanted our boys to run around in the yard we picked out for them. I wanted my first house back, I wanted my life back. I wanted the boys to live in the house that their dad built from the bottom up, and I wanted them to see that it was all worth it.
The Water Mark. The bottom marker is from the 1969 flood highest water level (at Eric's head).
The Plate at the top of the telephone  pole marks the 2011 flood highest water level. 
When it came time to move from that house due to a new military assignment, I was horribly sad. I hadn't gotten all of the love out of that house yet. Henrik was angry. He didn't want the house that his Dad made to go to some other family. And of course, he didn't understand what was going to happen to him, or his belongings. He was so worried that he would never see his things again. He asked daily if he would have his toys back, if he'd have his bed back and if we'd be a family. It broke my heart. We'd tried so hard to keep the flood a positive thing for them, but clearly he was affected too.

A few days ago I got a check from the city for some of our sales tax on the materials we paid for during our rebuild. It was the last thing we were waiting on to close that chapter of our life. We no longer could claim the flood on our taxes, the city owed us nothing, we still have flood debt, but man are we happy with our $5,500 debt, we could have much, much more.  Our house is being enjoyed by a new family, and we are a happy family again.  It was over. Finally over.

But, about a week ago we got a lot of rain, I was talking to my step-dad about how much water there was on the ground in such a short period of time and sure enough, without missing a beat, my boys stopped what they were doing. Theo said, "But we need to get a ladder to clean up". At first we didn't understand, but then Henrik said something about all of the water on the ground and I put it together. They were worried that with all of the water, another flood was coming. Why wouldn't they think that? Heck, they hate the Dinosaur Train episode where their nest gets destroyed in a hurricane and I completely understand why: there was a lot of water, they lost their house and the kids were sad because they missed it, but happy they were able to build a new nest. So when Theo made those comments, it was hard to hold back my tears as I told him that we weren't going to be flooded, that there wasn't going to be enough water to flood. We showed them how much rain two inches was, and we showed them how much water we had in our flood (seven feet in our house). They calmed down.

I guess, disasters like this never go away. We may not have to "deal" with it on a daily basis anymore, but the lasting effects of the flood are still inside us. I don't think that's a bad thing.

Three years ago I would have told you that this flood couldn't possibly bring anything good to the table, but I was wrong. I got to know my husband better. I got to know myself better. I got to teach my children about what is important in life. I got to understand what is important in life. I will remember the day I stepped on to our lot the day after we were allowed back in our home. I'll never forget the smell or how I tried not to cry in front of Eric as I saw my scrapbooks ruined, or my grandmother's china safe in the kitchen cabinet as I did a walk through. I'll never forget how my jaws hurt from holding back those tears and the cry that needed to happen, and I'll never forget the look Eric gave me as I looked at our house before we left that day. I will never forget cleaning the things we were trying to salvage and how I laughed at a souvenir cup that made it through, a glass I hadn't used since it's purchase, and thought about getting rid of, but now was the only memento I had from that event and it survived the flood, so I will keep it.

 I will never forget the help we had from our family and friends as they assisted in getting our stuff out before the flood and back in when we moved home. I will never forget the first night we slept back in our house and as I turned out the light my heart was at peace.

These are the important things in life. There are no bad memories, they are just things that build the character within us and shape us into who we are, and for that, I'm glad that I've now realized that that flood will never be over. Time will pass, people moving into our house next may not know the blood, sweat and tears, or the love that built that house for them. But I will. And so will my family.

A Blog From July 2011:

After 24 hours of driving and several stops along the way we arrived in Minot. As we neared Ward County, we could see the Souris (Mouse) River and the damage it left behind. When we came into town on US 2 (Burdick Expressway) that runs next to my neighborhood I looked in horror as I saw what the flood had done to this town we call home. 

Even a mile or more away from our house I could see the sepia painted town that we were about to embark upon. The debris, the pumps, and the damage that people had already begun to clean out seemed fake- like it didn’t belong. This stuff only happens in movies and to people along the Mississippi, it couldn’t happen to me and it would never happen in North Dakota. 

It didn’t really hit me until we turned onto 16th Street into my neighborhood. Dirt took the place of the road, broken windows were everywhere. There was trash and debris along every fence and home. There was water blocking our way- still. And there was a smell. A sewer, moldy, rotten smell that seeped through the car. My neighbors were tired, sad, and  hot, but they worked hard and had a look in their eyes like they were going to win this battle.

I started to choke up as we turned down 18th Street, SE. My street. This was once a lively, but quiet street with a lot of green trees, flowers, kids and families. But not today. It was gloomy, dark, dirty, and brown. It didn’t look like my street at all. Fences broken by swing sets, sheds upside down in yards, cemented down decks just thrown around; how could this be where I lived?

As we pulled in front of my house, I started to cry. It was exactly how we’d left it- minus the giant limb that had unfortunatley not fallen on our home, and the brown, muddy non-existant grass. I no longer hand plants, I no longer had a garden that screamed joy and happiness. There was no color. There was no sign of a happy family living there. 

A few hours later, Eric and I returned, ready to enter the home. It was a 90 degree day, and yet, we put on our HAZMAT suits, socks, boots, gloves and covered our heads and faces. Drenched in sweat after only seconds of wearing our flood gear, Eric looked at me and asked if I was ready. I nodded. He asked again, “seriously are you ready? It’s a mess in there.” I told him that I needed to see it, no matter how hard or bad it was. So we entered. 

The musty, moldy, wet air touched my cheeks and I still could smell it through our ventilated masks. The living room had wine glasses, momentos and mud. The floors were bowed. The walls were moldy, and there was mud everywhere. I honestly cannot describe it. There are no words but “disaster”. Eric and I didn’t exchange many words as he took me on a tour of our home. I managed to hold back my tears as I saw bits and pieces of our life thrown across the floor, damp and destroyed. It was hard to see Henrik’s quilts that didn’t make it out. Hard to see his toys just thrown around the home, and hard to see the house we worked on so hard and were proud to show off look like a condemned disaster zone. 

Then, Eric led me into the office. This was where all of the scrapbooks were stored on the top shelf of the closet. This was where a memory box containing all of the letters Eric and I exchanged during basic training, pictures from our 10 years together, and things we’d collected along the way. This was the room I’d been dreading to enter. The water went higher than the shelf and the shelf collapsed. All of those things were now piles of wet, blank paper. But there on the floor so I could see them, were two scrapbooks that fell apart in my fingers. It was hard to see. Hard to imagine that those books were gone. The memories aren’t but the images are. 

Eric and I managed to get a few things from the home, my Munga’s china- completely unharmed, my teapot, and Munga’s paintings from the garage. They all survived. It’s hard to understand how water works. It has this amazing strength and amazing power to destroy, but it left those things unharmed. Why? 

As Eric grabbed a few more items from the garage and made his way back to the car, I just stood there looking at my backyard. It was the place where we’d spend our Summer nights staying up late eating Smores and drinking wine until we realized that it was morning. It was where we worked hard to make a beautiful garden like on HGTV. We played with Lila back there, we played with Henrik and taught him about the birds and butterflies we’d worked so hard to get to our yard. We spent hours on our deck while we strived to make it the cheaper version of a Pottery Barn magazine. Now, the deck was missing some lattice, and a step. The lawn furniture was thrown all over the place, the grill upside down. The flowers were gone. There was no backyard oasis. It was a mud pit.  

It was then that I started to cry. Eric saw my tears through my goggles. But his touch in our HAZMAT suits wasn’t comforting. In fact, I shook his hand off my arm and turned away. Why? It’s okay to cry. It’s okay to be upset, but it was more than that. It was anger, it was loss, it was relief. 

We got out of our suits, got back in the car, nodded our heads at our neighbors, and as we drove away I let out a sigh. It was finally over. 

A Blog From June 28, 2011

Three years ago today, veiled in lace and pearls, I stepped out on a beautiful Greek Revival front porch over looking the Village of Dexter. Greeted by my Prince Charming lookalike soon-to-be-husband, we declared our love and devotion for one another. 

It was there, on that porch, with our friends and family to witness, that we made the most sacred promise to one another- not that we’d be married forever, not that we’d love one another for eternity, but that no matter what we were in this journey together. 

Eric declared, “I pledge to you that no matter the obstacle, our love with remain and strengthen.” 

In return, I promised, “ be there for you in times of sorrow and struggle, in good times and in bad, when our love is simple and when it is complex.”

And today, just a few years into our married life, we were faced with our largest obstacle, our most sorrowful day, and what will become the largest struggle of our life. 

Today, June 28, 2011, we finally got to see our neighborhood. Knowing that this day would come, knowing that it wasn’t going to be easy, and knowing that our house was already underwater couldn’t even have prepared me for this. Being states away from your best friend, your shoulder to cry on and the sturdy column that holds up our family made it more difficult to face the reality of what our life was going to be after this flood. 

Trying to hold back tears, I stared at this image. I couldn’t take my eyes off of it and I kept thinking to myself, “Is this real?”. And, when Eric called to wish me a Happy Anniversary at the exact moment I was looking at this picture, I lost it. Comforting me, Eric promised me we’d make it out okay. He promised me that he’d do everything in his power to build us a new home, and he assured me that our life would continue to be the fairy tale we’d lived for three years. He then tried to make me laugh and told me how much he loved and missed me. His words were comforting and kind. They reminded me of our long distance relationship, that we were now reliving. 

June is supposed to be a happy, love month filled with weddings and babies. But this June has been nothing but anxiety and tears...until this moment. On the phone with Eric, I realized that love and anniversaries are much more than flowers, chocolate and dinners. It’s more than the expectation of warmth and butterflies when you see your loved one. It’s more than the anxiety over finding the perfect gift.  It’s the connection you share with someone when life just really sucks. It’s the joy that fills your entire body when your loved one tells you that he will be your Knight in Shining Armor and will whisk you away from the evil, muddy, flood water and build you a new, better castle to start your life in. 

It’s the moment when he says, “Abigail, I love you” that you are able to take in a deep breath, stop crying, and know that he means what he says. It’s then, that you, in return, promise to stay strong and move forward with whatever comes your way and reply, “And I love you”.  

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