Seeking mom: In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy
By Cora Schenberg
Every day for two weeks following Hurricane Sandy, I try and fail to get a call through to my eighty-two-year-old mother, who lives on Long Island with her eighty-four-year old boyfriend. Mom and Edmond’s house is in Copaigue, a few blocks from the ocean. A canal runs past their backyard. Every time I punch in their number, I get a busy signal.
I tell myself that if something terrible did happen to Mom, we’d have heard about it. Besides, my mother is and has always been a force to be reckoned with. This is a woman who was widowed in 1980, at age fifty. My father went out to do the grocery shopping, got caught in an unexpected wind storm, and was killed when a tree fell and crushed his car. After a year of grieving, Mom had an epiphany that she wanted to give up her career as a reading specialist for disadvantaged kids and study psychoanalysis. She also decided she did not want to spend the rest of her life alone, and signed up for a dating service.
Within a few months, Mom was ensconced in the certification program at the New York Psychoanalytic Institute, and had met Art Ritter, her second husband. But two years later, in Mom’s words, lightning struck again. Art was diagnosed with lung cancer, and died within a few months. Once again, Mom grieved and then rallied.
She not only survived, but went on to enjoy a successful career as a psychoanalyst. Today, thirty years later, she has just gone into semi-retirement, and lives with a wonderful man, whom she met online thirteen years ago. Each time I talk to her, she tells me, “Edmond’s so good! I’ve never been so happy.”
Even as I remind myself of all these facts, an internal voice responds that Mom is no longer what she was. She suffers from both diabetes and early Alzheimer’s. While Mom still knows the most important people in her life, last spring she got lost on the way to the office she’d worked in forever. She lost thirty pounds and now resembles all the other tiny, grey-haired ladies with dowager’s humps. I worry about her and Edmond stuck so long in a house without power.
Meanwhile, in the week following Sandy, a lot happens at our house in Charlottesville. Our son Gabriel’s theater group at Charlottesville High takes second prize in the Thomas Jefferson District One-Act Theater Competition and advances to the Regionals. Gabriel himself wins the Best Actor award. It feels wrong not to be able to share this news with my mother.
A few days after the theater competition, my husband’s beloved Aunt Roz dies. Mom had met Roz several times. I’m not sure she’ll remember her, but still want her to know what’s happened. I keep calling, to no avail.
A week after Sandy, I sit down and write Mom an old-fashioned letter, telling her all our news, and hoping we’ll get to talk soon. I have no idea if she’ll get this letter in a week, two weeks, or ever. I might as well be putting a message in a bottle and tossing it in the ocean.
On the day I mail the letter, I get a call from a distant relation of Ed’s.
“I’m Elaine,” the woman says. “My husband and I went to see Rhoda and Ed this afternoon. Rhoda wants me to tell you she’s fine.”
I let out a breath I didn’t realize I’d been holding. Elaine tells me that she lives on the Island, too, but away from the water, so had her power and phone service back.
“We helped Rhoda and Ed get all the stuff out of the basement,” she tells me. “You know– pulled up the carpet, threw out papers that got ruined. Oh, your Mom’s computer was down there, so it’s gone. They had five feet of water in that basement!”
“But they’re all right,” I say.
“Fine,” says Elaine. “Although Rhoda was a bit forgetful. Anyway, we don’t need our generator anymore, so we brought it over to them, and a space heater, too.”
“God bless you!” I keep saying. “Thank you so much.”
As soon as I hang up, I email the good word to Mom’s siblings and my sister.
A week later, I dial Mom’s number, and to my amazement, she picks up.
“Hi, honey! We just got our power back!”
“Thank goodness!” I tell her.
“We were lucky,” Mom says. “Lots of people lost their whole houses. We didn’t have heat, but we had the fireplace. And we were able to cook with the gas stove.”
When I tell her about Aunt Roz, it turns out Mom does remember her.
“She was a lovely woman. Give Wade’s family my condolences.”
I harbor no guarantee that all future storms will pass us by, as Sandy did. I’m also more acutely aware than before that my days of being able to call and chat with my mother are limited. But for now I’m grateful to hear her voice on the phone, raving about her grandson the actor.Read more on: family