La Tempête de 1999

I have just propped my feet up on my desk and am leaning back in my comfy leather chair before I begin tick-tick-ticking away at my laptop. The moon is still high at 5:30 a.m., the boys are still safe and soundly asleep, the house stone silent, and I know I can get in a good 45 minutes’ uninterrupted work  before they stir and the morning routine begins.  It’s a pregnant moon, I watch for her hidden pulse beneath the mottled ivory skin so ripe, taut, engorged with fecundity, and through my open window I hear the peep-peep from the garden of the first morning birds.  A copper-colored squirrel flits up a tree past leaves that hang gracefully, their changing colors a muted swath of fabric that barely flutters as the night stirs into morning with one stroke of a breeze. No, hardly a breeze, really, more like a breath. I like the window open at this hour just for a brisk shot of chill, and I like that I can close it off, too, and that it’s not yet legitimately cold, and with those dozy thoughts I burrow into old photos to add to the post I am composing about a blissful birth in a cozy château setting almost as silent as the one I am sitting in as I write.  Yes, I recall, circling my neck once to loosen shoulders, that birth was also under a full moon.  Magical.  I take a sip of warm peppermint tea, watch the steam rise from cup, let it soak my face a bit like a momentary sauna.  Dry air today, I think to myself, might need to set up the humidifier and, uh-oh, apply extra hand cream.

On the paired side of the earth:

“Fast, faster, c’mon, faster! Get them up here, faster!!”

The nurse wearing green scrubs and an orange headlamp is yelling, motioning down the lightless corridor on the eighth floor of New York City’s Langone Medical Center, waving frantically to get the team of EMT personnel and a trailing firefighter into the delivery room where Julia Alemany is in the pitch of labor. “Right here, guys!” the nurse yanks them through the door, “Hurry, faster. Who’s got lights?”

Doron, Julia’s husband, is crouching next to his wife, who has had her hands curled over her eyes and against her forehead for two hours now, while Hurricane Sandy pounds demonically on the walls of this building, shaking it, slashing at it with wild whipping vacuum-like winds, hurling branches and metal scraps against the windows, yowling like nature herself is giving birth to the devil. Julia writhes on her side, panting, crying out, “I can’t do his anymore, someone help me, heeelp me. Where’s my doctor? Dor, what’s gonna – ?” and she lets out a low, guttural moan, clenching her belly with both bare arms.

The nurse jumps as something crashes into the closest window, rattling it in its frame, cracking the glass in a splintering thunderbolt pattern she can see when the real lightning outside explodes in one brief smack.  The rain and wind flog and lash, and Doron, normally a calm guy, is thinking how this feels like being trapped in the bottom of a huge electric mixer, nightmarish, impossible. He tells himself he will not lose his cool, he will not lose his cool. “’Kay, babe, we’re going to make it, Jules, we’ll make it hon, just stay with me, we’ll be alright, they say the pain guy’s on his way.”

Doron looks at the nurse, who shakes her head once. No sign of an anesthesiologist anywhere, although she’d called for him on the P.A. system when the power was still up almost an hour ago. “You’re doing great, Julia,” the nurse says, stepping closer, putting her hand on the nape of Julia’s neck and stroking the woman’s sweaty dark hair from where it’s gluey in her collar, “We’re here with you. We’ll figure this one out. Hey, what happened to the firefighter who was supposed to get me some li – “

The firefighter runs in, his red and silver industrial-sized flashlight now cuts a white tunnel through the shadows, and just behind him comes another man wheeling a portable I.V. He’s carrying a small suitcase of equipment, too, and Doron leans closer to Julia, his voice suddenly a register higher, “Okay, Jules, we’re cookin’, doll, he’s here. Pain guy’s in the house, folks, pain guy’s in the house.”

Six glowing cell phones, a red and silver flashlight and four minutes later, the needle is in Julia’s lower back. Doron puts his hand on her forehead. “Epidural will kick in, they say, in about five, six more contractions. They want to know if you can handle being moved? Can you move?”

On a medical sled, the EMT and medical teams carry Julia down eight flights of unlit stairs with Doron, now in his own headlamp and holding three phones aloft, leading the way, looking back up the stairwell with every step, barking at the men to “be careful with my baby men, just be careful.” The firefighter’s shining his flashlight right on the exit where an ambulance is waiting to take them to Mount Sinai. The moment they open the door, sheer force of wind suction yanks at everyone’s shoulders like a riptide yanks at your legs, and the team has to steady itself ­– “Hold on, guys, hold it, slowly,” – as they inch against the gale while someone swings wide the two back doors of the idling vehicle. “Watch the curb!” someone yells, “Keep her flat!” another snaps,  “Jules, are you with me? Can you feel it working now?” Doron’s face is wet with hot perspiration and rain that is not falling, but slicing sideways.

Julia nods, but says nothing.  Her eyes are firmly closed to the pandemonium and the icy gales that rage all around her. She’s saving energy by concentrating on nothing but the thudding of her heart as it ricochets all over inside her ribcage. Doron tucks a blanket up to her chin just as she is hoisted into the ambulance, and climbs in right after her, reaching for her hand as the sirens start whirring.

In spite of the half tree that falls across the hood as the ambulance approaches Mount Sinai, in spite of Hurricane Sandy, in spite of the devil of nature being born in New York City and up and down the eastern seaboard that night, at 12:48 a.m., Micha Alemany-Markus is born to grateful though exhausted parents, Julia and Doron.

And about that same hour, in a distant time zone, I sip on my third cup of peppermint tea while listening to birdsong and stretching my arms to the ceiling before pasting in my last sunny photo of the painless April birth of a little prince in a castle in Versailles, France.

**

“A human being is a part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feeling as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”—Albert Einstein

**

Only once in my life have I experienced anything that could be put in the same genus as Hurricane Sandy.  That storm was called Lothar or La Tempête de 1999, and was equivalent to a category one hurricane, mowing with 80 kilometer winds a path of devastation across northern Europe, plowing right through Versailles, right down our street.   A dramatic event, an historic event, a sorrowful event as fifty-three lives were lost, homes were demolished, historic treasures were ripped out by the root (10,000 rare trees in the Gardens of Versailles) or ripped to shreds (wings of the castle, windows, artifacts), and the equivalent of six billion dollars’ damage.

Still, its effects were miniscule compared with Sandy’s awesome ruin. In fact, I hesitate even printing “Lothar” and “Sandy” on the same screen, they are so far from each other in terms of magnitude of human and economic loss.

Lothar sent us flying from our beds that Christmas Day night, running frantically through our house, gathering our young children into a central and protected place, racing to the windows and battening down shutters to be sure that the old thin glass was not going to rattle itself into shards. There was debris and there were whole chunks of things – trash cans, shingles off roofs, shutters, a child’s bicycle – sailing through the air. I remember an image: the enormous tree in our neighbor’s yard was wrenching and jerking so violently, that its branches, normally a dozen meters from our home, scratched within centimeters of where I stood on the other side of glass.  Death’s claws, I thought. How close they came.

But Lothar lasted a mere two hours.  We actually returned to our beds and fell back asleep.  The next morning, Randall and I kept the shutters locked and let the children, who’d been up those two hours, sleep longer in the still and the darkness, then we awoke them and went about getting ready to go to church.  When we opened our front door, this is what we saw.

That day, we walked to church, as did most of our congregation. If their cars had not been damaged in the maelstrom, they couldn’t drive them for all the downed power lines and tree graveyards that just the evening before had been lovely manicured roads.

But here’s my point. Because I lost nothing in that storm – no loved ones, no property, no livelihood, not even more than two hours of sleep – to me Lothar was a single event, a story to tell one day in the future with a couple of impressive pictures, almost a titillating narrative, but not a life-changing landmark by any means. I have few vivid memories of that spot in time, in fact, beyond what I have shared here.

Others, though, people very much like me, people I have thought of since, will always consider December 25th 1999 the day their life split, the moment everything stopped. They lost the most precious things – a husband, wife, father, mother, sibling, child – to two unpredicted hours of a freak climate tantrum, and then, in the ruin, had to dig themselves out.

To take that reality one step further, as I sit and type this, not only are people climbing out of Sandy’s wreckage, but others are bracing themselves for it.

And to take that reality one step further, as I finish this paragraph, this one you are reading, someone else, and it could be anyone, and it could be myself, is going to be visited not by a category one hurricane, but by a metaphorical Sandy.  Or a Lothar.  They will get the test results back from their doctor. They’ll answer a phone call at an odd hour. They’ll see a strange, unapproachable look in their spouse’s eyes.  They might be driving or sitting or running or singing in the shower and with no warning, a storm will descend that will rip out all the precious plantings they have cared for so tenderly, counted on so faithfully. That is the forever moment, the instant that divides their life into Before and After.

What does one do with all this? What do we do with one another’s losses? How does another’s desolation impact my life? Who owns a tragedy? Whose loss is it anyway? What will assuming some small part in another’s tragedy bring to me, anyway? Will it weigh me down, drive me to unfiltered paranoia, eat up my private pile of joy?  How do I reconcile the fact that I walked that Aftermath Sunday morning in December 1999 to church in heels – right past, by the way, the neighborhood château where our Luc would be born five months later – that I minced in a skirt around toppled trunks, that I climbed side saddle over enormous root balls, that I escaped the scathe and the scythe while someone else, a victim because of a few chance centimeters, did not? And how does my living evidence this knowledge, that it is often scant centimeters – not worthiness nor predestination nor entitlement nor good fortune nor anyone’s inalienable right – that separates those flattened by tragedy from those who walk over or around or beside it?

**

“Compassion hurts. When you feel connected to everything, you also feel responsible for everything. And you cannot turn away. Your destiny is bound with the destinies of others. You must either learn to carry the Universe or be crushed by it. You must grow strong enough to love the world, yet empty enough to sit down at the same table with its worst horrors.” –Andrew Boyd

© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

4 thoughts on “La Tempête de 1999

  1. Oh, Melissa. I can barely breathe after reading this.

    You’ve captured it–the great predicament of human life. As Einstein puts it, the grand “optical delusion” of our consciousness.

    And this:

    “And how does my living evidence this knowledge, that it is often scant centimeters – not worthiness nor predestination nor entitlement nor good fortune nor anyone’s inalienable right – that separates those flattened by tragedy from those who walk over or around or beside it?”

    This is the question I will be pondering all day. For the rest of my days, in fact, I hope.

    • Dear Sharlee,

      Thank you for coming here and responding. Since you are one of the most intuitively compassionate people I know (I’m sorry to embarrass you in a public thread, but here goes), it doesn’t surprise me that this post would speak to you, and that you would absorb it as a call to even greater compassion. We could all take a lesson from you, my marvelous friend. oxoxo–M.

      • Dear Melissa, you’ve again put into words thoughts that have been weighing on my mind. Sometimes it seems necessary for survival to shove difficult things that happen to a place far away. Your thoughts and those of Andrew Boyd have helped to bring me back from there. Thank you, dear friend.

  2. Dear Geri, I’m relieved to find you here. You are sitting in the heart of the hurricane, and so you’ve also been in the heart of my prayers. We all need reminders to live outside of our own skin, at least I certainly do. Always with love to you—M.

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