PATRICIA GROSS

A FLOOD OF CHANGE

 

Gazing through the rain-speckled window on that gloomy June day, I wondered when the incessant rain would let up. I thought longingly about the kids and I being able to play with the new swing set and trampoline that we had purchased just a few days prior. They sat out in the front yard alone and unused dripping raindrops slowly and methodically from the perfectly painted hollow tubes that held them together. I could almost hear the ting, ting, ting sounds that the raindrops were making. I had always wanted a trampoline growing up, but with eight children my parents were never able to afford one. Nor did we have a swing set, but we did have an old tire tied to a tree. It is amazing how much enjoyment kids can get out of an old tire swing; that is, until the rope snaps and it sends the child flying across the lawn.

When my husband and I did decide to have a child, we agreed on only one so we could provide, what we thought was a happy childhood full of the material things we did not have. Back then I didn’t see that it wasn’t the toys that made my childhood happy, it was my siblings, my family. Now, while I was yearning to jump on the trampoline, I was listening to the sounds of my once only child laughing and playing with his cousin who had come to live with us. Toys were not the cause of this laughter, but love and imagination were. In the years that followed this tumultuous day, my son’s cousin would become his sister, and his best friend.

In my childhood I also had a best friend, a rather unconventional friend; it was the stream by my house. The creek, which paralleled the quiet country road I grew up on was where I spent most of my childhood days, playing in its round rocky bed, catching the occasional fish or just sitting in silence after I had an explosive argument with my parents. As I grew older, I would spend hot summer days in the creek with a good book letting the smooth cold water glide over my bare feet as I basked in the sunlight while quietly turning the pages.

As it does, life goes on, and I spent less and less soul refreshing time with my old friend the creek. I moved away and ended up living on the dark and cold river that my beautiful creek emptied itself into. There was a steep mountain behind the house which cast, what seemed like, an eternal shadow that I could not escape. Winters were always so frigid. Off in the distance, I could achingly see the golden sunlight shining down on where I grew up and what was accurately nicknamed “Sunshine Valley.” It was not long before I was able to move back, but because my husband and I were just starting out we couldn’t afford much, and my beloved creek was not only across the street but behind a small grove of trees as well. But for me, that sufficed and allowed me to leave behind the soul-sucking darkness of that house on the river.

Our new home was located almost at the very end of the road which did not feel very much like the heart of Sunshine Valley where I grew up.  There was just one more property that saved us from feeling like complete outsiders, and that was the Romano Estate. Back in its heyday, when my father was a child, our road was like a little town which boasted a small brick school and a one-room grocery store. Well, the Romano Estate which was a large white house, had this small pathetic looking one room building right next to it. This was the old grocery store. Possibly charming to look at in the right context, the white paint was peeling in long curly shavings, and the large front window always had a layer of dust on it so thick it often looked like brown glass. That little old store was stronger than it looked and it played a big part in helping my family on that gloomy June afternoon when my best friend would turn on me.

As I had mentioned before, my niece had come to live with us, but what I did not mention was that for a little while so did her baby brother.  In order to take them in, my husband and I had to become certified as foster parents, which we gladly did. We spent the first few months of 2006 in a dizzying whirl of abnormality which eventually changed into a calm routine by Spring. Working full time with two children and a baby took some getting used to, especially in a small three bedroom home, but we managed, and it was full of love. That year was particularly rainy, and my old friend the creek was restless. Twice that soggy Spring I got a phone call from the fire department warning me to be watchful of the creek and evacuate the area for fear of flooding. Twice I did not listen and stayed right where I was. It was difficult packing up a baby and two children and spending the day somewhere else, especially when I thought I knew better. After all, I grew up there. I knew that creek was not going to flood, and definitely not all the way to my house. I was right. “Over-eagerness” I arrogantly thought. Even when my creek was raging during the spring thaws every year its color reminded me of delicious chocolate milk, nothing to be afraid of. As Spring turned into Summer, our lives changed once more, and my nephew left to live with his father. My niece stayed with us as she was no relation to the boy’s father. The rainy springtime weather had halted, and a hot drought had settled in. The drought was finally broken the day after I bought the trampoline and swing set, which is what brought me to gaze out through the rain-speckled window.

The deluge of rain was so intense and long lasting that it was dubbed the “rain train,” and it kept coming. I’m told that because the ground was dry for so long that it couldn’t absorb all that rain, and thus created the perfect condition for massive floods. The rain water just ran off the ground and down the mountains and into my creek in Sunshine Valley. We inevitably got our third evacuation phone call that year, third times the charm, right? This time, since it was just the three of us, and no baby to pack up, I decided to visit my sister and let the kids play together in the air conditioning on this awfully humid day.

The kids were playing upstairs, and my sister and I were just finishing up an intense game of Phase 10 when we go a phone call that a few beaver dams above my house had broken and there was serious flooding on my road. My sister Laura’s house was high on a hill and looked down at both my house and the creek, so I decided I would take a walk out on her road to check things out. The downpour has slowed to a drizzle, so I decided it was safe to grab my camera.  Peering down through the jungle of trees which separated her road and the creek, I could see that water was in my front yard. I was not too concerned; it was a large yard, and my house sat higher than the lawn. Although the water had never been up that high, I was certain this was as high as it was going to get. There’s that arrogance again.

I walked down to where I could see the large white house and the one room store. By this time everyone had been evacuated, so the store looked extra lonely and small. As I was contemplating the store’s size, I watched a bright orange basketball float around the back of the tiny white building and get sucked into the current headed for the wild creek. I took a picture. My first thought was how the vivid orange of the ball contrasted with the brown muddy waters. Almost instantaneously my thinking changed, and I exclaimed out loud to no one in particular since I was alone, “That’s my basketball!”

Before I could get my feet to move back up the road to look at my house, I saw my blue Rubbermaid bin full of my wedding memories float down what was once the road. I had to stop my first impulse of running down to the creek to save it. The bin gradually picked up speed and bobbed its way into the frenzied creek. I felt a wave of hurt rush over me as I realized what was happening. My skin became hot, and I realized that I would never be able to replace those important memories as easily as I could that orange basketball. Down floated more of my storage boxes and then my garbage cans. With some relief, I recognized that these were the contents of my shed, not my house. Trying to look at the bright side I thought, “At least I won’t have to go to the dump this weekend.” With a bit of sick in my stomach, I trekked back up to where I could see my house through the trees. The water had markedly risen and easily opened the doors of my shed that had been damaged by a bear earlier that summer. Everything was floating out. There was nothing I could do. I was astonished to see that the water was now two-thirds the way up my deck. I stood there for a few moments in the silent pitter patter of the light rain, watching like an irritated mother ready to reprimand a disobedient child. The creek was stronger and more independent than I had thought it could ever be. I took a picture.

Tearing me from my admonishing stare, I heard a car horn wailing from the vicinity of the large white house and my heart started racing with concern. Rushing back down, I was relieved to see the neighbor’s abandon Jeep in the water with the lights on and horn sounding. There was no one in it; everyone had been evacuated, but the flood waters were doing their damage and the Jeep was starting to float, back end up. The creek was so strong. Just then a bunch of debris came rushing down the swift moving part of the dirty chocolate milk creek. It was obvious that it was fragments of someone’s home. They had lived closer to the creek than I, and now all of their belongings were gone. Just like that. The thought of the devastation the owners of the destroyed house must be feeling prompted me to check on mine again. Before I started up the road, a group of brown ducks caught my eye. It was queer the way they were swimming against the swift moving currents. These currents that were moving a jeep, the same tides that just demolished a home, and these ducks were able to swim against this torrent of water! I was in disbelief. These little brown ducks so strong against the rough current, sticking together. It was so strange. I took a picture.

While trudging up that quarter mile of road, straining to see through the trees with the abundant late June foliage, I saw the peculiar sight of my grill floating by. I knew what was happening, but it still felt so bizarre. One expects to see a canoe or a person on a tube lazily floating down a creek, not household items being whisked away. So I ran. Reaching the clearing in the trees where I could see my house, the water was just starting to take everything off of my deck. It had already taken the grill, and now it was sweeping away the chairs and the kid’s toys. In short time everything was gone, and my deck was stark. I took a picture. I hadn’t even noticed that the new trampoline and swing set were already gone as I wasn’t used to seeing them there anyway. In a few days, I would find them in their final resting place, wrapped around a tree at the end of the yard never to be used, never to share in the magical laughter of children.

Looking at the empty deck covered in a thin layer of brown water, I realized that this meant the water was now flush with my front door. “Oh, my carpet and floors!” I watched for a while with irritation wondering how much it was going to cost to replace floors and if it was something my husband and I could tackle together. “Oh yeah.” I thought. “I better call him.”

Catching my husband up on what was going on, I walked back down to where I could see the large white house. While I was talking and walking the water had risen significantly. I know now that about a mile up the creek, the beaver dams that had broken had gotten stuck on a bridge adding significant strain. Eventually, the water level had risen so much that it took an entire deck with a hot tub off of a house just above the bridge. When this debris came crashing into the already strained bridge, the entire thing collapsed, and the water came rushing down towards my house.

The call with my husband ended, and the empty and alone feelings inside me were growing. I was standing alone watching my sweet Sunshine Valley wash away piece by piece. The soft sprinkling rain seemed to physically comfort the yucky feelings in the pit of my stomach. Slowly, I realized that the water was much, much higher. For the last time that day I sprinted back up to where I thought I could see my house. I saw nothing but the miserable brown water. I walked up a bit further thinking I was in the wrong spot. No, too far. Maybe I had gone too far. Panic was setting in; I did not want to believe what was staring me right in the face. Straining to see through the trees I finally came to realize that the vacant spot that I had been looking at was indeed where my house used to be. Where the hell is it!? I ran down to the large white house in search of debris or anything that resembled my home. Nothing. I became more confused by the minute. “Was it all gone?” I feared, “Dissolved like my unfortunate neighbor?” No, maybe I really was in the wrong spot, maybe some of the trees were swept away.

As I slowly and methodically walked up the road straining to see something through those damned trees, I saw it. My house. It was torn off of its foundation, spun around, and crashed into the sturdy little one-room store. The big deck on the front was firmly implanted in my living room wall. The water was nearing the roof, and half of the deck was in my house, but otherwise it was mostly intact. Not like my poor neighbor’s house which was ripped apart, piece by piece, earlier. The feelings inside me were mixed. I know I should have been feeling sad but I was shocked, and a little amused, that this little old store was still standing and stopped my house from rushing away down the creek. That forsaken store which before today sat vacant with no other purpose.  I stood there for a while just staring while a million thoughts ran through my head and not a one registering. I took a picture.

Booming in my ears was the constant stupid rush of the water in and out of the creek. The creek that I grew up with playing in on hot summer days. That babbling brook which comforted me when I had a bad day. My precious stream that I loved so much. It had betrayed me. It took away my physical memories, my pictures, my children’s drawings, my wedding albums, daughter’s first communion dress, and son’s heirloom baptism gown. I was not angry but hurt and defeated. I just stood there. I did not take another picture.

My sister came out and stood by me. “Wow, that’s high. I bet some water got in your house.”

Continuing to stare straight ahead at nothing, I squinted a bit in the light drizzle and said, “It’s gone.”

“What?” was her incredulous response.

“Yeh, look.” I replied in an ‘isn’t that crazy’ tone and pointed through the trees.

She told me we could stay with her for as long as we needed but again, nothing was really registering at the time. The only thing I wanted at that moment was my husband, but I couldn’t even have him as the water had washed out and closed the roads. The group, or family of ducks as I now refer to them, burst into my thoughts and I wondered where they went and again questioned why they were there in the first place. The next couple of days were filled with sadness and hard work. We went through what was left of our house and were only able to salvage very few items. However, if not for that little old store we would not even have them. The anxiety about the future felt like a quicksand that we would never survive.

Then time started to fly by, and we saw the best and worst that our small town had to offer. There were some who generously gave what they could, whether it was time, money, or a place to stay for a bit. We were all thankful. Then there were those, few, who took advantage of the situation and that was sad, but we could not dwell on that sadness. We had a bright future to look towards.

I can’t help but sometimes think that if life before the flood had been different, and I still had little Billy at that time, I do not think the situation would have turned out so well. I might have stayed home that day. In total, we only lost physical memories, things, four walls, and a roof, but what was truly important was safe, and that is what mattered. Our family got by together, and we were stronger because of it. I would like to think that my family and I weathered that bad situation like the ducks in the stream, we stuck together. No one was hurt. So many blessings and good fortune came from something so terrible, tighter bonds and eventually a bigger house on a hill, and away from water.

After adopting my niece, we were asked if we could take in other foster children as there were no more beds in the County. Because we had a bigger house and abundant blessings, we wanted to share those blessings, and we decided it was the right thing to do. Children have come and gone; heartbreak is always inevitable, but we’ve learned it’s what you do with the heartbreak that counts most. Do we grow from it or do we let it change us for the worse? We choose to grow. Because of fostering, we now have five wonderful children, and I found a new passion that guided me away from my previous hectic business life and toward the giving world of teaching and working with children. If not for the flood drastically changing our lives and our outlook on life I do not think we would be where we are today.

 

Patricia Gross is a thirty-six-year-old mother of five. She is a double major in Education Studies and English.