It feels surreal to name a catastrophe – to give it a boy’s name; the name of my nephew and of an angel and a Catholic saint.
Now, “Matthew” is also the name of a disastrous storm that ripped up people’s homes and yanked the Atlantic Ocean onto land. Matthew creeped up to our doors like a methodical, patient predator. We had to wait for Matthew to come. We knew that this “it” was on its way to us. We knew that it was plowing over sea and land, vacillating in its cone between “almost too close” and “hopefully far enough.” But really, it was here before the winds; before the rains; before the storm surge and the swelling of seas and bulging of rivers. It was clouding over our every thought – because we had to wait for it to come. We had to be reminded over and over again how cataclysmic it would or could be. We had to watch the people before us living in island nations, woefully accepting terrible, horrifying blows from the storm and hope we would suffer a lesser fate.
Our little family lives very near the ocean in Jacksonville Beach. We have never been told we must leave our homes until last week, when Matthew crawled up the coast like an angry sea monster. So, we left. We left with baby books and first tooths and locks of hair. We left with important papers. We left with our iPads charged. We left with our hearts in our throats. Then, we waited, glued to televisions that were never turned off, waiting for images of doom and destruction to find our small space of the world. We texted each other, we tossed and turned in beds that weren’t ours. We crammed families into anxiety-filled little rooms. And we waited.
Because most of us were evacuated, we never saw the actual “hit” – the moment Matthew breached our dunes, tore down our trees and sent foamy waters into our streets.
When the skies parted and the rains moved to our northern neighbors, we breathed in deep breaths of relief and guilt. We could go home. They were just now getting the brunt of it as Matthew went hard for the states above us.
Our little city opened its bridges, and we all drove home with a mixture of trepidation, fear and hope. Some of us fared better than others. Trees found the inside of neighbors’ homes. Waters seeped into bedrooms and living rooms and offices and nurseries. We helped those worse off than us. The sun began to shine like it does on a bright October Sunday in Florida. We shook off the despair and got to cleaning up our town.
With debris now neatly piled onto every yard, eagerly awaiting our trash collectors, and storm shutters and boards slowly coming down, we settled in. Everyone accounted for – the people of the Beaches communally breathing in regular rhythms.
Then, we turned on the presidential debate, and I felt like we were watching a catastrophe methodically creep into our homes again. Months and months of waiting for disaster, watching disaster, listening to disaster and waiting and waiting for impending doom to cloak our country like a dark, massive hurricane. Like Matthew.
At the Beaches, we know we pay for living in a beautiful slice of the world with chaotic and sometimes dangerous weather. We accept this, just as we accept that elections are tough. Emotions run high and we see things we wish weren’t part of the cultural fabric of our nation. But, like Matthew, this storm is so different. We are figuratively asked to “leave” – leave decorum, leave integrity, leave kindness, leave what makes us feel good and patriotic. We leave it, suspend it almost, and just hope for the best.
It’s hard to explain the approach of a devastating storm to an 8-year-old. It’s hard to make him feel safe as fear and anxiety about his life and his home build up all around him, while we and neighbors quickly pack our cars. But, it’s so much more difficult to explain what now slowly and methodically shatters our nation. How do you tell him the word “stupid” is okay for the potential leader of the free world to keep using to describe our country? How do you explain lying and hatred and scandals and “deplorables” and racism and walls and insults that pervade Twitter and news and classrooms? The cone of uncertainty looks about as promising as it did with Hurricane Matthew, only so much more far-reaching.
Like the hurricane updates, I’m compelled to eventually turn it all off and hope that when we cross over that bridge, we’ll pull together and rebuild all the decency that has been shredded apart; all the debris that is laying in our streets and on our lawns. I hope the clouds eventually part. We’ll have to collectively hope for some November sunshine and really good trash collectors.
Michelle Branham lives in Jacksonville Beach.