What life brings - Reflections on the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy

The night of the hurricane

One of the warming aspects of tragic happenings is the well wishes of others. In the case of Hurricane Sandy, this includes notes and calls received from people all over the world, as well as local friends, neighbors, colleagues. I was able to tell them we were all right, perhaps a matter of luck, and I felt thankful for their care.
The night of the storm, my wife went out to see the fallen trees across the roads and yards in our Brooklyn neighborhood. A huge old tree bends threateningly over our century old house. My older son who was with us also went out late, and so did I. We three went separate ways at different times, as our moods dictated. Fallen trees everywhere, crazy that we are. At my age, unwilling to miss the last big storm I might see, and my son, well, youth. My wife a free spirit and caring neighbor.
The terrible news is when my wife went out in the morning, she learned that two people were killed by a fallen tree around the corner while walking their dog, who also was injured and remained sitting by the bodies, which were still there, pinned by the tree.  It appears they were there all night, till a neighbor discovered them in the morning. They graduated from local high schools six years ago, now friends in their early twenties. Here you can see photos of Jessie Streich-Kest, her dog Max and of Jacob Vogelman.

The day after

The next day my wife and I walked to the site together and surveyed the huge, fallen trees, three in a short space. City workers had already cleared the streets so cars could go through. My wife and I and others lingered in the chilly, gray day, feeling close to two people we will never know, close to the others lingering like us who felt the same way.
Just a year before I spent the night bailing water in my basement during Hurricane Irene. It felt good using my body with all its might, keeping barely ahead of the rising waters. My younger son happened to be with us that night and when he joined me in the basement it felt like heaven. After four or five hours, the water began to subside. When the plumber came and cleared the pipes the next day he asked, “Why didn’t you call me?” I said, “Three in the morning during a hurricane?” He lives in Staten Island. He said, “I’m your plumber.”
This year during a much worse storm, we got off more easily. No flood and the huge, old sycamore bending over our house didn’t fall.  While my wife and I were walking we saw a city worker in his car looking at the trees and taking notes. I called to him and pointed to the sycamore bending over our house, branches above our roof and told him it was leaning more since the storm and the sidewalk was looser. The sidewalk by the fallen trees around the corner was nearly vertical, big concrete slabs standing upright in places. I was surprised how nice the worker was. He said he would look at the tree and we chatted about sycamores. I expected to be snubbed and told to contact the city, that he had no time now. Just the opposite. City workers all over the place, clearing and checking old trees. What it takes to get attention! 

My patients

I did phone sessions from my home this week and today we cleaned storm debris from our front yard so trick and treaters have good access. The neighborhood will Halloween! The kids who came around never looked better. We remembered what it felt like when we were their age in costumes and felt teary. There are few neighborhoods in the world with the packed diversity of ours. The children’s smiles of life, “Trick of Treat”, “Happy Halloween” To feel their happiness, the ones who came – a heart treat.
And my patients? Phone sessions? Some go better, some worse. I’ve even had the experience of doing better with some patients by phone than I ever did in person. Some patients don’t like the phone, find it painful or empty and I feel their kindness in getting through a session with me.
All talk about the externals of the storm, how they are doing, whether they have electricity, water, problems, and ask how I am. So much depends on what part of the city you are in. All are doing OK, one or another way, in spite of difficulties. But I do notice an increase of emotional storminess with many. Without connecting outside and inside, one individual starts talking about her “uneasy internal world, so much goes on inside me I take to bed, try to quiet the turbulence,  hide under the covers.” She looks down on herself for being weak.
I remark on her mercilessness, putting herself down for failing to be Superwoman. She tries to convince me she is terrible for being unable to surmount her inner difficulties, her turbulence. “Other people don’t have this kind of unease, at least they don’t talk about it. I’m the only one. ” We go back and forth until I blurt out, “If you didn’t live in an uneasy internal world, then you’d be the only one.” This, at least, got a little laugh, and brought a moment’s peace.
Another was in part of the city that lost power for two days, no lights or phone. She dreamt the lights came back on and a friend she hadn’t seen in ages, who might have been dead, was now alive and visiting her. She had a couple of dreams in which life came alive in some way.
She then confided that she thought she caused the blackout. The lights went out when she turned on the microwave to cook something. Since then she’s eaten very little. She remembered that years ago during one of the big New York City blackouts, her friend’s mother was convinced that she caused the blackout by turning on her iron. The moment she began ironing she saw the lights going out in the city, area by area.
My patient was a little amused at the power of self-causality. The good feeling of seeing through it returned her to the good feeling of her dreams of light and aliveness. We enjoyed a moment sharing appreciation of the Great Well of the Unconscious.
More could be said, of course, but I will close with lines from a colleague, Dr. Marlene Goldsmith, in Pittsburgh. “Such tragedy and sadness in your neighborhood...I'm so sorry. This type of loss can be wrenching for a community, even if the people killed were not known personally. The thunder of the storm stamps its mark in the heart.”
A heart with such mixed feelings and possibilities.
Michael Eigen, Ph. D.