Sunday, November 6, 2011

What Happened When the Lights Went Out

Snowstorms where we live in southern New England are by no means uncommon. Just last December a storm left 22-plus inches on the ground. Snow in October, however, is rare. "I want snow! I want snow!" Anna had been shouting for the past month, and every time I reminded her that the most we ever see in October is a quick flurry. The most, that is, until Saturday, October 29, when the snow began in earnest around 1 o'clock here in north-central Connecticut and kept snowing throughout the night. A foot of heavy, wet snow on the branches of trees that had still had many leaves meant trouble. Very big trouble. Just a few hours after the snow had started, the branches, trees, and power lines began tumbling down.

Day 1
Our power went out at dusk while the kids were playing in the wonder of October snow. "Can I eat it?" Ethan was asking with joy. Anna mushed the flakes into snowballs and began lobbing them at me. I looked around and marveled at the world turned white. Our pumpkins and mums on the front steps were quickly disappearing. Next door, I noticed the flicker of a candle in the neighbors' kitchen. Glancing inside our own home, I saw indeed that our lights were gone. This was not so much of a disappointment but rather a piece to add the adventure. We could do this! Two months ago we'd prepped for Hurricane Irene only to be left with a lot of batteries and jugs of water. Our street never lost power never lost power in general. We'd hunker down and camp out and this would quickly blow over.

"Deb, you've got to see this," Dan was calling from the front yard. I rushed over with the kids and saw our small dogwood tree so laden with snow that several branches had already snapped. "Noooo!" shouted Anna. "I love that tree!" We frantically grabbed brooms and tried to brush the snow off the leaves to relieve the pressure. Our efforts were futile. In ten minutes nearly all of the branches on the tree had snapped.

Heading to the backyard, I realized the snapping sound was everywhere. In our backyard... across the the neighbors' yards. By the time 10 more minutes had gone by a small evergreen had come down in a yard two houses down. I heard a crash across the street as a huge oak branch fell in the road. A branch cracked and fell on the other side of our house, not far from where Ethan and I had just been walking. At that point the snow was no longer fun, but for the first time in my entire 36 years living in New England, frightening. We ushered the kids inside and lit candles. We listened to the radio; we saw lightning and heard the rumble of thunder snow. After the kids were in bed, Dan and I stepped outside into the fury. The crackling of limbs was all around us. In the snowy darkness I saw more fall. Transformers exploded again and again, sending an eerie glow in the sky. I heard the whine of sirens in the distance. In bed attempting to fall asleep, I truly wondered for the first time ever if a tree was going to fall on the house.

Day 2
I woke when it was still dark. Downstairs, I lit a candle and stared out the window. We live on a fairly busy street and once in awhile a car drove by. Every time one did the car headlights illuminated a massive branch down across the street. How bad is this? I wondered, waiting impatiently for the sun.

I watched the candle in my hands flicker and dance, watched the way it threw shadows on the walls. Once I got up too quickly and the light snuffed out. I reminded myself how fragile the light is. I thought about how fragile we are. We are blinded sometimes by our invincibility, by the supposed surety of bright lights and buttons and screens, yet there was a beauty in the little candle's quiet dance that I'd never appreciated before.

When daylight came I ventured carefully into the backyard to survey the damage. No trees were down, just very large branches. The kids' climbing tree was most likely going to make it. Wires were down across the street. The snow had transformed us into January overnight.

That day we ventured to Lowes, where of course the generators were gone, and found a charger that would help us run a little electricity off our car's battery. We learned that 800,00 other houses were in the dark as well. A search for gas turned up a few open gas stations within a 10-mile radius. At one, we waited in line for a half-hour (Ethan was quite happy, I must add, that we spent much of that wait parked in front of a street that had both a "No Outlet" and "Dead End" sign). When I finally went in the gas station to buy some bread, I suddenly heard a man shouting, "Here's right there, officer!" and two cops were yelling and handcuffing a man on the ground right in front of me. Apparently he had stolen a car and then waited in the gargantuan line to get gas, where his owner had come by and recognized the car.

Two hours later I went searching for food in Hartford (which had much more electricity) and ended up finding a McDonalds and a gas station open. Waiting to fill up Dan's car took 45 minutes. People were running out of gas in line and making the traffic worse. Almost everyone was filling up both their tanks and gas cans for their generators.

Over in McDonalds was more craziness. Apparently it was one of the few restaurants for miles around opened. I saw other people from our town, including the mom of one of Anna's classmates. Two ladies from Texas and California from a hotel across the street were also in line. They had come to visit family and look at the foliage, which of course was now buried under the snow. The line took another 45 minutes to get through, and in the end they got our order wrong. But as I drove home I thought about about how that was the most conversation I'd ever had while waiting in line around here. Connecticut is not the south or even, say, Maine. People keep to themselves. But now everyone had a story to share.

Day 3
Monday was Halloween, only everything was cancelled, including the Harvest Party at Anna's school. No one was thinking about trick-or-treating, anyway, with branches and power lines all over the sidewalks.

We drove 25 miles north to my parents' house. Their power was out but they had heat and hot water. Their street in Springfield looked worse than ours. The kids and I enjoyed the beauty of bathing and showering and we visited for awhile. Driving down I-91, all I could see was empty store parking lots. All of the towns in our little north-central Connecticut world were still dark.

The house was getting colder. Dan and I talked and decided if the temperature went below 50 degrees, we'd find somewhere else to say. We put on layers and ate chicken off the grill. Anna and Ethan slept bundled up together in Anna's bed.

As I sat shivering under the covers, I kept thinking of the Laura Ingalls Wilder book "The Long Winter." I remembered the morning she had woken up with frost on top of her quilts while a blizzard howled outside. Something about the fact that other people had gone through this long ago brought me comfort, and I slept.

Day 4
Our fireplace, used just once in the seven years we'd been in the house, suddenly became a necessity. We found some logs and got the thing going, although it certainly wasn't going to heat our house or even the entire living room. Still, some heat was better than none.

While Ethan napped in the afternoon, Anna went to play with her friends at the neighbors' house. They had a generator, and when I went to retrieve her, I was enveloped by the heat and lights. They had numerous family and friends over there; someone had driven all the way to Long Island to get the generator and everyone was trying to make the most of it.

Anna was sad to leave the jovial atmosphere. I couldn't blame her. We discovered the homemade sauce and meatballs I'd had in the freezer was going to go bad, so we cooked pasta and sauce on the grill, making many dishes before realizing our kitchen sink was clogged. The pots went in the backyard and were filled with snow. We'd figure that out later.

Day 5
In the middle of the night, I heard whimpering. I went downstairs and found Ethan, half out of his jammies, lying in bed shivering. He'd had a bathroom accident of the worst kind while he was sleeping. Apparently at some point he'd tried to get out of bed and go to the potty but couldn't clean himself up. There was poop everywhere.

My heart broke at the sight of him shivering uncontrollably. In the lantern-light I cleaned him as quickly as possible and got him into fresh clothes. But there was a mess on the floor and Anna's rug is white. I knew I had to clean everything then and there, so at 3:30 in the morning I began scrubbing and crying. Dan came down and threw the poopy things out in the trash. Who knew when we could run a washer again? I scrubbed and shivered and wondered just how Ma Ingalls had done this.

In the morning, Dan said he'd stay home from work to help us (his office in Middletown had somehow never lost power and life was going on as normal there). We left that morning on a quest for firewood, gas, and maybe a heater we could run off the car battery in spurts.

Heading up I-84 towards Massachusetts, we found what the things we were looking for. We drove a little further, into Sturbridge. As I got off an exit, I came across a man in a car with New York plates frantically waving me down and telling me to open my window.

"Where can I find gas around here??!" he was yelling.

"Um, I'm not from here. I just filled up 15 miles down the road," I told him.

"I'm about to run out!!" he shouted and drove away maniacally.

That night in the car Anna and I saw men working on the high tension wires that span the Connecticut River. In Price Chopper, the one supermarket in town with a good working generator, everyone looked a little bit frazzled and a little bit unkempt. "Is this food fresh?" a mom with two young girls asked the pizza guy.

"You would know if it wasn't," I told her, thinking of the Shop & Stop down the road, running on minimal power and smelling of moldy, decaying food. She smiled gratefully.

At home, we had a laundry situation. Thankfully, everyone still had clean underwear, but otherwise we were running very low. I considered washing clothes in the tub but after attempting with one blanket I abandoned the idea. How would they dry, anyway? We decided to go through the least dirty of the clothes and wear them once again. Ma Ingalls would not have been impressed.

Day 6
We had developed a new routine each morning. The kids would wake and we'd eat breakfast around the fireplace and listen to the governor update everyone on power situation on the radio. Then we'd go somewhere, usually to find hot coffee and hot chocolate. Later, the kids would amuse themselves with our portable DVD player or games on Dan's phone.

In the afternoon, the kids played outside with the neighbors' kids in the quickly melting snow. As they laughed, pelting eachother with snowballs, I realized how much kids needed play, especially in times when their schedules are uprooted. Over the past few days Ethan had taken to carrying an old clock radio around and plugging it in in various places, pretending it was his movie theater and asking us to come watch. He would bring it in the car, too, almost like a security blanket. In his own way, he was trying to cope through play as well.

That night driving on another errand with Anna we spotted power trucks on our street and houses lit up a mere mile or so away. When our street turned dark again Anna began to cry. Seeing the houses with light reminded me of the whole other world that was going on without us, the world with power. On the news on my XM radio in the car, no one was talking about this storm. They'd moved on.

I thought about Katrina. Joplin. Even 9/11. When we're not personally impacted, when our lives aren't specifically uprooted or affected, how quickly we forget and move on. Not that we were experiencing that kind of suffering, but even our little taste was a jolting reminder that people going through tragedies and natural disasters are hurting long after the cameras have left.

Of course I wanted our lights back. But as I looked out at the night I realized I'd miss being able to see so many stars.

Day 7
Everything went on exactly as it had the previous six days. I saw more power trucks and felt hope. The temperature kept dipping lower inside.

I realized that not every day has a profound lesson to learn, except perhaps that sometimes the only lesson is to just keep going, keep persevering, when absolutely nothing seems to be changing.

Day 8
I heard the trucks before I saw them. Rushing to the window, I could see them working far down the street. The sun had been up barely an hour and already the neighborhood was buzzing with chainsaws as everyone attempted to clear their debris.

By lunchtime the trucks were closer. I could see they were from a company named Pike from Savannah, Georgia, one of countless crews from states around the country who had come to help. I could hear their slow, southern drawl echoing over the intercom as the guys communicated about what to do next.

We dragged our brush to the curb. The kids filled leaf bags. We watched Pike inch closer. By 2pm they were outside our door. I wanted to hug them. I wanted to offer them warm cookies and hot drinks, except I had none. Our neighbor, after learning one of the guys collected souvenirs from every state he visited to help, gave them an old Connecticut license plate.

A man with a salt and pepper beard and sunglasses gave Ethan a little wave as he watched them work. Another man chatted with the boy next door about school and tossed him a bottled water. For some reason, that made me want to cry. I asked the man if a small branch resting on one of our wires would be a problem, and he promptly got a long pole out of the truck and poked it down for us. "There ya go, ma'am," he said. "Now that won't give you any trouble."

"Thank you soooo much," I answered, wishing I could convey how much I truly meant the words.

Our online notification was that power would be back on by 6pm. We went to dinner hoping to return to lights, but our street was still dark. We drove the next town over, which was also dark. Online via Dan's phone, they were now telling us power would be restored the next day, that they had run into more problems.

We considered bringing the kids up to Dan's parents house, since they were away in Maine. I began to wonder for the first time when we'd wake up and real life would begin again. I kept thinking of the verse that talks about God enabling us to do anything with His strength. "It's like having a jar of medicine with you," I said, trying to explain to Anna using a not-so-good analogy. "Sometimes you don't need as much. But there are days when you really need a lot of God's strength to get through. This is one of those times."

We drove home, defeated. Yet as we drove we noticed the lights were on closer and closer to our house. The intersection right nearby that had been dark for a week was working, and as we pulled into our driveway, for whatever reason, we saw the lights on in our house that had been on when the snowstorm first hit.

And then there was great rejoicing.

Today as I write there are still thousands of people without power in Connecticut. I pray that they too will soon return to life as we usually know it. But there are some things I still want to hold onto. I want to remember to say hi and chat with people I don't know just a little more often. I want to remember to appreciate the smell of clean clothes from the dryer or clean skin from a hot shower. I want to remember that we are not as invincible as we've convinced ourselves we are. I want to relish the silence sometimes. I want to sit in the dark and be still and just listen, and watch the tiny flame on my candle dance. I want to never forget my true source and provision. As we sang in that old hymn in church yesterday:

"Be thou my vision, O Lord of my heart,
naught be all else to me, save that thou art;
Thou my best thought by day or by night,
Waking or sleeping, thy presence my light."

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