“Adversity is like a strong wind. It tears away from us all but the things that cannot be torn, so that afterward we see ourselves as we really are, and not merely as we might like to be.”
Two days before the epic Calgary flood (the worst natural disaster in Canadian history), I broke down in tears with a longing and a sadness of being distanced from friends. After a harsh season, I was planning for a fun-filled summer (as I mentioned in previous posts), but I’d still felt isolated.
The night of the evacuation, I packed up to leave for Edmonton. I have family and long-time friends there and a birthday party was being held that weekend. Concerned as they watched the news, friends Lynnette and Dave called twice from Edmonton to ask if I was out of my apartment yet. I rushed to pack the things that I needed for a few days and I was in the midst of a spring cleaning and laundry day, so worked at lightning speed to get things tidied away, knowing the police were only a couple of blocks away for the building to building notification.
When I’d left a few hours earlier in the day to write at the café, there was no alarm. I went to check the river because of the amount of precipitation that had fallen the night before and it was fast and high, but there were no crews about.
When I returned, one forewarned neighbour who had a sister living upstream was lugging her things upstairs to higher ground.
After I packed, I put everything at the door and went across the street to assess the river again. In the time I’d been inside, the water had risen a couple of feet further from our park bench. During the growing activity outside, my closest neighbour came home looking ill and tired. I suggested she get in fast to pack before the police arrived.
“I have bronchitis, I have pink eye, I’m tired and I’m hungry. We’ll see about that. First, I’m making myself a sandwich!”
Hmmmm … I thought. Other neighbours were exiting the building with small cases and I was concerned for her wellbeing knowing she can be a bit of a renegade.
I went back into the apartment and did two things I’ve never done before. I stopped to study my apartment and then said a fond farewell and “be safe” (I have a tendency to treat my things as living objects). In spite of being a fallen Catholic, I next said a prayer to the Virgin to protect the Windsor and left for Edmonton.
The first night and next morning at my mum’s the TV was blaring with continuous updates. As the water rose, my anxiety for all involved did too. When I saw shots of the Stampede grounds, only then did it dawn on me that not only was my home in peril, so too was my business. My book storage filled with stock is located near the grounds and I saw how high and how quickly the water was encroaching the buildings in video coverage.
As I visited, I vacillated between calm and angst. Via an aerial shot my cousin sent, I eventually had confirmation that my home was surrounded by deep water. Friends were supportive, fed me, and sent me off with candles and a case of Perrier. My dad chatted with me over lattes and sent me off with gas money and my mum packed to come back to Calgary with me so I would not be facing the messy verdict alone.
What lay ahead was a hell of a lot of dirty work, lugging, phone calls, purging, packing (and more packing; writers are notorious book accumulators), home hunting, and taking care of business. But what also lay ahead was an unexpected review of my life and the lives of my little community of peeps in the Windsor, a place where I’ve lived almost a third of my life.
Digging our way through the silt, stink and mud soaked belongings in the dank basement storage with miner’s headlamps, we dragged out a large box of loose photos. First I wiped down a batch and laid them out over the apartment then my mum painstakingly did the same the next day, as only a mother would do.
It was a flashback to see all of the events and people from my past history fanned out all over the floors and tables. Mum asked about various people and noted that I’ve had a wild ride so far with many play-filled times, cool travels, and different characters.
I spent a long day alone with my many files so I could focus on what was salient and what was obsolete. To see, in one large nutshell, the amount of work I’ve done over the years for my writing dream was staggering. It was an affirmation of my faith and belief.
After dragging out 16 years worth of a life in storage, we slogged through the garage to unearth more lifetime treasures and mud covered sporty stuff. I don’t know why, but it was my childhood Barbie collection that finally did me in. Up until then the lump that had been creeping up in my throat would go away when surveying the enormous amount of work yet to do. But as I pulled out the little plastic bodies one by one, wedged in deep mud in a corner behind a large desk then placed them in their case, I could no longer hold back the nostalgia and emotion.
At only two years of age, I abandoned dolls and would only play with Barbies (I already knew taking care of babies was not my idea of a good time). These little people were my most treasured playthings. As I got older, my mum sewed an extensive fashionista wardrobe with leftover fabric to match my own handmade clothes. With the collectibles mud-drenched and looking ruined beyond repair, it took a little time for me to allow my mum to throw Ken and his harem onto the humongous heap of garbage on the front lawn.
As the days passed, neighbours converged in camaraderie in darkened hallways, at the garbage piles and in the pit of muck behind our garages.
Disaster is a study in human nature.
I learned that my friend and next-door neighbour (Sandra*, the one who’d wanted the sandwich) had somehow escaped the police and had stubbornly stayed in her second floor apartment. She was awakened early in the morning to the sound of rushing water and left in hip-deep waters. Across the street was another basement-dwelling neighbour, Brad, who’d apparently returned to the scene and was standing in a stunned daze to the realization that his entire life was being washed away. Together they made their way down 4th Street in search of breakfast and ended up all the way at Community Health. With Brad still distraught, Sandra decided they should go to an afternoon matinée and forget about it all for a couple of hours.
Another neighbour, Dana, had come in the first day, chipper and in control. The next day she had two men and a truck and began packing with the good news that she’d already found a new home. The following day, she was quiet and disoriented. She was geared up for the basement excavation and sullenly told me the deal had fallen through.
My normally boisterous German neighbour looked strong, but a bit overwhelmed as she surveyed her losses (car included) and her extensive pile of mud encrusted belongings. A few days in, she succumbed to a day-long crying jag.
When it came time for me to take the first painting off of my walls, I was seized by an unwillingness to dismantle the life I have known for so long. When I took the apartment after a monumental life upheaval, I’d planned on being there for two years. I’ve been there many years past that.
It’s rare in a bustling, money-oriented city to find a sense of community you’d find in a small town. Sandra has been in the building for 18 years and has been an amazing neighbour and friend. She is a cheerleader of my dreams and has been there to chat, comfort, discuss, and advise. I’ve delivered her steaming pancakes at 8:00 a.m. and Greek dinners at 11:00 p.m. She’s watched my plants and taken in my mail on extensive trips and I’ve done the same for her. Without batting an eyelash, she covered my rent the month I was in treatment.
We’ve all felt free to borrow everything from butter to shampoo when we’ve run out. One neighbour once delivered a deluxe, ribbon-wrapped warm chocolate cake in foil on a cold night. We leave each other notes of jest and of encouragement as well as small gifts and treats. We have been respectful of the others’ peace and quiet and we’ve taken care of each other when sick. If I’ve gone away, I’ve let neighbours know they can use my prized parking spot. Unexpected friendships have developed in the building. If anything looks off, we’ve checked to be sure all is well.
Our resident caretaker is normally inebriated past 5:00, but he is a deeply sensitive and caring fellow who is always willing to help out. For a busy period of my life, he was my “maid man” and I’ve hired him for all kinds of odd jobs over the years, such as building new shelves. When he heard about my diagnosis, he came to the door in tears with a teddy bear, a card, and a fierce hug.
The building is vintage and has been poorly maintained by the owners, but its inhabitants stayed because of the strong community we’ve developed and the beautiful inner city locale with its majestic trees and river walkways.
In the aftermath, the residents of the building all rallied around each other to share and help. Some have been wiped out clean; some have chosen to move; some have been immobilized by the mess and are hanging in suspension to await the verdict of the inspectors. The garages have been condemned, there is no power or hot water and the rickety old basement is still in a disastrous and toxic state of affairs with a likelihood of further mould and foundation issues.
I handed over the keys to the caretaker after Sunday’s final move. I left some things behind for him because his entire apartment was wiped out. He wept unabashedly and with that, so did I. We hugged our farewells and I told him to call my cell for anything.
Like a homing pigeon, I keep gravitating to the Mission area. Even before I defected from Edmonton, my business apartment was situated there for two years, quite on purpose. It is disorienting to realize my small sanctuary in my ‘hood is gone. Thankfully my business is still intact, albeit with a loss of 250 precious books in my home storage.
Well into the thick of it, I realized how much love and support I have around me. I had packers, movers, was well fed by many friends, and had many offers of lodging. Schoolmates from last year asked how they could help. I stayed with good friends for the cleaning out period and my ex-instructor has lent me her house for a month while my things are in storage and I regroup. Pre-flood feelings of being distanced have vanished.
In times of adversity, our shit comes up, but so do our inner reserves. Our friendships are either strengthened or dissolve. In my little microcosm, the event is a major catalyst for change and restructure. When we ask for a new life, sometimes it comes in ways we can’t anticipate. There may be losses. Our ruts may be washed away for us if we can’t climb out of them.
It is the ending of a long era. On one hand, it stirs a sentimental journey, which is deeply weaved into my genetic DNA. On the other, while still hanging homeless and in flux, there is the anticipation that Mother Nature has flushed me out of the old to something bigger and better that still awaits me.
*Names have been changed.
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