Swept Away

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Photo by JohnCarlo Giambrone.

Last year, on Monday, Oct. 29, Hurricane Sandy struck the four-block-wide peninsula of Rockaway, the tight-knit beach community in Queens, N.Y., that I’ve called home since the age of eight.

News of the approaching storm reached me the night before, when I was buried deep in the library after returning from fall break. Like my classmates, I was excited by the prospect of an extended weekend and was periodically refreshing my email to check for announcements about cancelled classes.

At around 7 p.m., I called my parents to check in about preparations for the storm. All seemed well; according to my mother, the sandbags were in place, the windows were shut, and the dinner (roast pork) was in the oven. Five minutes into our conversation, my mother paused on the phone. She must have been looking out our front window.

“Hey, Frank,” she said, addressing my father, “that’s a lot of water coming up the block …” Less than a minute later, the line went dead.

What happened next was a foregone conclusion. Storm surges from the ocean came racing like chariots up our street and joined Jamaica Bay on the northern side of the peninsula, damaging thousands of houses, cars, and electricity poles in their path,and leaving Rockaway’s residents stranded in the dark. For a good six hours, as my father said later, Rockaway “disappeared off the map.”

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***

I had a hard time sleeping that night, not only because I knew my family was in danger, but also because I didn’t know the nature of their distress. Did they have electricity or a reliable phone signal? Could they leave Rockaway by car if they needed to?

It wasn’t until several hours later that I learned the answer to all these questions was “no” — the aborted phone conversation with my mother left me with only my imagination. Before going to bed, I read an article a friend had sent me, which reported massive fires breaking out along Rockaway’s peninsula. As the front page of The New York Times stated the next day, “flames … fueled by Sandy’s neck-snapping winds and undeterred by its steady rains, leapt from house to house, then block to block.” When my friend asked in his email how my family was doing, I couldn’t answer. I simply had no idea.

Throughout the night, a vision from the film Titanic flashed repeatedly in my mind: a few members of the ship’s orchestra begin to play music, trying to calm the passengers as they await their watery end.

 

***

The hurricane was not the first time I felt cut off from my family. Just a few months before, in May, I was even farther from home, studying abroad in France. As a French major, this was what my studies had gradually been building towards. I could walk through the Luxembourg Gardens, visit some of the world’s most gorgeous monuments, and picnic along the Seine, all in a single day. Like Ernest Hemingway, I was a young man with the world before me, and I had a moveable feast at my feet.

The night after I arrived in Paris, my parents made an emergency Skype call to inform me that my grandfather and namesake, Andrew, had suffered a massive heart attack and died on the way to the hospital.

Sick to my stomach, I sat alone in the room my Parisian host family had provided for me. I felt angry and foolish and sad all at once, especially when I remembered my grandfather’s last words to me before my departure.
“Parlay-voo-frahns-say?” he had asked, with his usual toothy grin. I had rolled my eyes and chuckled. Now, over 3,000 miles away from home, my French textbooks and travel brochures, which had earlier beckoned me with the excitement of new experiences, only seemed to mock me.

Although we’d learned how to ask for directions to the bathroom in French class (où sont les toilettes?), we’d never learned to express grief. I apologetically stumbled through the facts while speaking to my host mother the next morning — using words like de mauvaises nouvelles (“bad news”), grand-père (“grandfather”), décéder, (“pass away”), and hier soir (“last night”) — before scurrying off to class and embracing the anonymity of the Paris Métro.

At my father’s request, I wrote a tribute for my grandfather’s funeral once class had ended that afternoon, and sent it to my brother using the free wireless network at a Starbucks near La Bastille. A part of me wanted to return home, but the reality was cold and clear: I couldn’t book another flight and postpone my studies. (In my parents’ words, I needed to “do what I needed to do.”) From what I’m told, my brother JohnCarlo delivered the speech with grace and poise. I know I couldn’t have.

Hurricane Sandy made the recollection of those first days in Paris come flooding back. Along with it came another memory, still vivid in my mind, of the first week of my freshman year. In between what could’ve been the 12th and 20th orientation events of the day, my parents called to tell me that my maternal grandmother, after battling pancreatic cancer for months, had died. I soon found myself in a car headed home, the pomp and circumstance of Yale forgotten.

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***

The morning after Hurricane Sandy struck, I received a spotty phone call from JohnCarlo, who wanted to make sure I knew my family was OK. I had never heard him sound as exhausted as he did then. Only later did I learn that JohnCarlo and my father had stayed up the entire night with a fire extinguisher at the ready, lest the flames that burned so near to our house leapt in the wrong direction.In a single night, Hurricane Sandy had smashed through Rockaway and left its storm-shocked residents to pick up the pieces. About a dozen houses within two blocks from our own had burned to the ground. The beach house down the street had crumbled into the sea. But miraculously, our home had survived.

From the isolation of my college dorm, I realized that for the first time in our lives my family had become dislocated — popped out of place, like a shoulder or a spine. The floods destroyed nearly all the belongings I had accumulated up to that point, including my Harry Potter books, a cherished collection of The Adventures of Tintin in French, and childhood friends dear to my heart: Winnie the Pooh, Barney, and over three dozen Beanie Babies. So they wouldn’t grow moldy from the flooding, my parents lined up these toys like tiny soldiers on our front porch. The ones they could salvage they gave away to children who walked by our house.

***

As winter crept into Rockaway, schools and stores closed. Children stopped playing on the streets, and families deserted the peninsula to stay with relatives in nearby Brooklyn or Queens. For about two months after the storm, mine moved in with my grandmother and aunt, who live in the Dyker Heights section of Brooklyn. Like many of our neighbors, my parents returned almost every day to the peninsula, in a pickup they had rented, to repair our house and clean up the debris. This required them to take weeks off from work to trudge back and forth between boroughs in a sad caravan of displaced residents and FEMA trucks.

Meanwhile, JohnCarlo — then a senior in high school — had to adjust to living in a new home as he finished his college applications. One night at home over Thanksgiving break, my father joked to him, “Well, at least you’ll have a good personal statement now.” JohnCarlo rolled his eyes. Mine dropped to the floor. Knowing my family had survived loosened the knot I had felt in my stomach during the storm. But, unlike my brother, I didn’t have to deal with a lack of heat, hot water, and electricity at school, or assist with the recovery efforts. When I contemplated returning to Rockaway the weekend after the storm, my parents adamantly told me to stay at Yale and “do what I needed to do” — just as they would at home.

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***

After my grandmother’s funeral my freshman year, doing what I needed to do meant meeting as many people in my entryway as possible, and throwing myself into my books and classes. Sometimes, while reading The Odyssey, I’d get lost in the hero’s struggles and temporarily forget those of my family. In Paris, the summer when my grandfather passed away, I took to wandering the streets. One day, I stumbled upon a book fair outside Saint-Sulpice, where vendors were selling limited edition books and artwork under white tents.

“Look at this book here, young man,” an elderly woman said, holding out a collection of poems by Paul Verlaine. “I think you might like it.”

I bought the book and read a few poems on the steps of Saint-Sulpice. To my surprise, I found that I was happy.

After Hurricane Sandy, I returned home to Rockaway for the holidays, but the weary sight of my family and neighbors told me that things had changed. Running had always been a way to clear my head; now, without a boiler or hot water, I ran to keep warm. (My family received a few government-issued electric heaters, which I’d accidentally knock over while walking around the house in my fuzzy slippers, much to my parent’s chagrin.) Without an open grocery store in the neighborhood where I could buy fresh ingredients, I got creative, using non-perishables we had saved from before the storm to cook. (Dry oatmeal with peanut butter, honey, and a sprinkle of cinnamon became a staple.) Without my books to read, or access to the Internet, I began writing again.

Unexpectedly, Hurricane Sandy allowed me to spend more time with my family and friends from home than I would’ve otherwise. Meals became extended conversations that lasted for hours; nights spent at my aunts’ and uncles’ apartments had all the wonder of childhood sleepovers (and just as many cookies). In the same way I had found solace in the classrooms of Yale and the strange streets of Paris after my grandparents passed away, my shifting circumstances after Sandy gave me opportunities to cope.

***

At Thanksgiving dinner at my aunt’s one year ago, a month after the storm, neither my grandmother nor grandfather was present. This meant no fried rice on the table and no money under our plates (traditions of theirs, respectively). Yet we still had a 25-pound turkey and enough stuffing and dessert to feed an army.

My parents, brother, and I left the meal as full and as warm as ever, even as we headed back to my grandmother’s — a house that was not our own. The next day, as we crossed the bridge to Rockaway to repair our home, I gazed over the peninsula and saw mounds of debris shining in the sober sun. We were returning to a junkyard of houses, cars, and memories, as seagulls and scavengers flew overhead. The hurricane had taken us many places, but our home was still there, waiting.

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