By Sheryl McAlister, a writer based in Columbia, SC
As you might expect, out of the epic flood that took Columbia, SC, hostage last week, there are thousands of stories. Stories of people who did the right thing. The lives that were saved. The countless acts of courage. The harrowing tales of strength and survival.
Now, school buses have started running again, and the water we’ve had to boil for so long is suddenly okay to drink. Large appliances are still sitting in trees, but runners have taken back their streets where only last week the creeks overflowed. A beloved college football coach abruptly resigned; the state fair came to town on schedule.
But the return to a semblance of normalcy feels a little disrespectful. Like the world should stop a little longer so that those who were hurt the most can catch back up to it.
Those of us minimally impacted feel a little helpless, like we wish we could do more. But, then again, it’s not about us. It’s about people who have suffered mightily and lost things that can’t be replaced – loved ones, homes, everything.
I imagine going through something so horrific is a very lonely process. No matter how many friends you have. No matter how many people love you or volunteers help you. No matter how good your insurance is. It all boils down to you.
And, frankly, the least the rest of us can do is give you a break.
I blew it the other day. I meant well. But I blew it, all the same.
I went to the post office. Predictably, the line was long; the service was slow. But people were mostly quiet. No one was complaining, which was a good thing. A firefighter came in, smiled, took his place in back of the line of about 20 people and said – only to himself and to me – “Gosh, I don’t think I’ll make it on this lunch hour.”
I asked a simple question of the folks in line. “Would anybody mind if this fireman goes to the head of the line?” Given that it had only been 9 days since the worst storm ever in SC, and the firefighters had been pretty busy, I didn’t think it was an unreasonable question.
Apparently, it was. There was a guy in line about 8 people from the front. A young guy — 20-something. He went completely bananas. Completely.
“NO!!!!!!!” he shouted at me and anyone who could hear him. Which was pretty much everybody within a 2-mile radius of the place. “If it’s not an emergency, he can wait like the rest of us.”
O! M! G!!
I mumbled something like “Gee whiz, you must not have needed a firefighter during the floods.”
To which the young guy screamed: “I lost EVERYTHING!!! You want to make a comment about that?”
I, of course, did not.
Uncharacteristically, I shut my big mouth. What in the world had I just done?
Everyone in line looked shocked, and sort of eyed him like he’d done something wrong. Someone else in line exchanged a few words with him. I wasn’t listening. I tried to disappear into the concrete wall. I studied my mobile phone as if my life depended on it. After things had settled down, I watched the young man.
I line-stalked him a little, I guess. He had on a brand new gray, flat-billed baseball hat. He had on shorts and a long-sleeved t-shirt and flip flops. Cute kid. New clothes. He was quiet again after the poor firefighter left.
And then he got to the post office window, and this is what I learned. (Disclaimer: I was not actually stalking the guy. We were in line at the post office. Everybody can hear everything.)
He had lost everything. He was there to turn in the key to the mailbox at the apartment that no longer existed. He was there to tell the postmaster that he couldn’t get his mail anymore because the apartment was gone. His belongings were gone. He didn’t know what his address was going to be. It would be another couple of weeks before he even knew where he would live.
Receiving his mail was beside the point. His clothes looked new because they were probably all he had.
He didn’t look homeless. But he was. Lonely and desperate.
When he walked past me to leave, I moved my hand out gently to touch his arm. I didn’t know if it was appropriate. It just seemed like the right thing to do. I whispered to him, “I’m sorry about that.” I tried to shake his hand.
He leaned in and gave me a bear hug. And he held on for a second longer than most total strangers would. So I did the same, until he let go. And then I said something I had no right to say. I put my hand on his shoulder and said “It’s okay.”
He turned and looked at the line of people and said, apologetically, “I’m sorry. I’ve had to talk to FEMA and ……” I don’t know what else he said. I honestly don’t. It took everything I had not to burst into tears. For him. And my own stupidity.
He walked out the door. The line was quiet again. It moved forward slowly as the line at the post office usually does. And, one by one, each of us left. To go do whatever it is we had to do.
As we move through this aftermath of the worst storm in our state’s history, and as we get back to our lives, we have to remember that some people have lost everything – however that’s defined for them. And no doubt in that desolate journey toward what will become the next phase of their lives, they are likely teetering on the edge.
I hope I do better next time to remember that. We owe it to each other to remember that.
Copyright 2015 Sheryl McAlister©
Epic Storm Images