Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Hurricane Sandy and Dotsy

In the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy, my mother is unaware of what has just transpired.

There was no disaster in her universe, no howling winds, no loss of heat or light, no paper that did not come to the door or phone that suddenly served no purpose. The only things that she knows, the only things that she comprehends are the comfort of the bed and the taste of the food. Unable to see or to take in a change in any other circumstance, she perceives that all is in order.

My wife has made the trip up the seven flights in the stairwell before me. Like a coal miner, she wears a small headlight to guide her path. There are no emergency lights here. As I hold onto the railing as a guide, there is suddenly illumination coming towards me. A family of four heads down to the lobby, two young children clearly enjoying the novelty. They move away from me, and darkness again becomes my companion. I become slightly dizzy, making what seem like constant sudden turns to the left.

I try to count the floors, and when seven is reached, I move towards what should be a door. I push it open and find myself in a hallway. Hearing the sounds emanating from but a few feet away, I know I have calculated correctly.

On the kitchen table are close to a dozen hard boiled eggs. What appears to be recently cooked meat sits nearby. The gas stove is still working and so, at least for the moment, is the running water. Well, only the cold water.

My mother lays asleep in her room. During the worst of it, her hospital bed was wheeled down the hall into an alcove, across from her bathroom. Here she would be safe, even if the window in her room shattered. Now, it was back in its place. The problem, and it was one, was that the electrical controls were, like almost everything else in this altered world, not working. And so, it was an immovable object, at least in the sense that it would lower its inhabitant into position to be lifted up and out. My mom was a prisoner.

Today I made two trips up and down the stairwell. The first brought news to my mom's caretaker of the outside world. There was no certainty when power would be restored. The apartment was getting colder, and only a few lanterns kept this space from total darkness as soon as night fell. The second was to return dirty laundry now clean and a cell phone now charged.

My sister and I, and our respective families, must decide with my mom's caretaker if it is time to leave. But how and where? The first hurdle is to get my mom down seven flights to begin her journey. It seems to me that everything that holds her together is so fragile that I dread the thought of what that trip will do. And even if that happens, even if the fire department, or the ambulance corps, or whoever rescues people rescue her, then what?

We have all been on the phone trying to locate a local facility that is willing and able to take on the responsibility, short term, for my mom. Some have too much red tape, some have no openings, some are struggling with the impacts of the storm themselves, and are unreachable as a result. We struggle to match need and availability.

And my mom's caretaker insists that she and mom are fine. There is plenty of food and water, and no good reason to put my mom through the stress of displacement. What if the power comes back soon? What is the right thing to do and when?

In the morning a call should come from one of the nursing homes. Two of their residents went to the hospital today, and if they are not returning to the home, then there will be openings and a decision to be made.

POSTSCRIPT (NOV 1, RJ): Good news! Hard-working PSE&G crews have been restoring power all over the state of NJ, and Dotsy's building got it back late last night. She lost power for just over 48 hours. There are still hundreds of thousands of homes in the state without power, but we are grateful that our situation has improved markedly, and so has that of many of our neighbors.

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