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Date: SUN 02/02/03
Page: 4
Edition: 2 STAR

What the Storm Left Behind

By Melissa England

On Dec. 23 I check my shopping list and begin gathering my stuff: glasses, a cell phone and a list. I hardly notice that the sky looks weird, like wrong colors chosen from a watercolor kit. Or that the cats are running, meowing the kind of sound that grates on my nerves.

My husband opens the back door, and we step outside. We live in Hilshire Village, the tiniest city in Texas (according to city signs), just north of Interstate 10 and surrounded by west Houston. Our house is on Spring Creek Bayou. On a hill down to the bayou, actually. Five times up and down can suffice as an exercise routine.

From out of nowhere, the wind comes whipping up from the bayou so strong it threatens to suck the screens off the porch. Our wooded back yard, which attracts so much wildlife that it never feels as if it belongs in a city, is now "too" alive. Leaves, papers and small branches are whirling in circles.

The wind adds an audio component that sounds like an impending train, and we plunge back into the house, my husband racing a half-step in front of me. We stand in an interior bathroom and listen to the beating of trees against the house. I listen to my heart beating. And I'm instantly angry.

Had my husband tried to save me just then? Eight years of therapy going over childhood wounds, and I'm still mad about not being saved. A voice in my head says, "Great, you're about to die with your husband in a canary yellow bathroom, and your last thought is about being mad." The voice says shut up. So I do.

I move closer to my husband and think it is a shame to die now. I really like this man, and my life with him has been good. The wind slows, and we move out of the bathroom to look through the study window. A 50-year-old oak in the front yard is dancing in impossible circles, and the view looks different.

"Where is the other tree?" I ask.

I guess men ask women where socks and keys are, and women ask men the bigger stuff.

He doesn't have time to answer. A sound on the side of the house hits like an explosion. The power goes out, and we are back in the bathroom. We aren't talking, just listening to the fury outside that wants to eat the house.

I close my eyes. God, please. I hold onto Drew's hand.

I wonder if we should be in the tub or if it matters. Pictures of horrible storms tumble through my mind. A storm does what it wants. All we can do is wait. And we do.

When the light entering the bathroom changes color again, we venture out.

Romper Room used to feature a game in which nine items were shown to a preschool class as the teacher removed one of them. The question was: What's missing? This is the same game, bigger view. I squint into eerie, almost natural light outside our living room window. In the side yard, a 75-foot oak has been reduced to a jagged cut against the sky, and its fall has crushed everything in its path. Near the bayou a whole tree is on its side, one of the pretty ones that was still so lushly green. My hanging baskets are missing. Airplane plants. Fitting, I suppose. A rain gutter is lying in the debris, along with a screen from a broken window.

"Lucky" is all I can think. We were so very lucky, and then I think beyond our world of two. I can see broken trees everywhere, some lying in yards, some on houses. I think of our neighbors. Were we all lucky?

Another hour passes, and the wind is tamed. Doors open, and people spill into the streets.

Bill's back door and patio are blocked. Drew offers to help. It's a man thing, to own a chain saw, and Drew breaks his out, assuring Bill.

Phone, cable TV and electrical wires have been ripped from our house by falling tree limbs, and I wonder if anyone else has power. The answer comes from people on foot - all the tools they hold are gasoline-powered.

John and his wife had just finished constructing a two-story Victorian home, and he had invited us to walk through when he found us standing outside admiring it. He's got one of those big toothy grins and arms built for heavy labor. A tree fell between his new house and garage, as if placed there. He's lucky, he says.

He asks if we need any help, eyeing our broken trees, and my husband is saying no as I am nodding yes. It's hard to receive help when you've been raised to try to do this life alone, but we need help and John knows it. His chain saw is big and loud, and together they cut away at the broken oak that is tangled in the one that still stands.

More neighbors come.

Mike with his 8-month-old twin daughters is pushing a double stroller down the middle of the street. How frightening a storm can be when you know new lives count on you to keep them safe. Are we OK? We tell him we are.

Our Spring Valley cop is asking, too. Are we OK? Yeah, we're more then OK. He brings news: no injuries, just damage, including the loss of five power poles that went down on Wirt.

Neighbors call on each other, sharing stories of near misses, and I catch myself smiling as the sun goes down and the cold creeps in. We sleep with blankets over socks and jackets. The next morning we're invited to breakfast. We're grateful for hot coffee and fried eggs.

I note that the only thing really not cold is the freezer. Drew and I had started a diet that we were attempting to stick to, but I buy ice cream for any excuse, and seven half-gallons of Blue Bell are staring me in the face. Actually, just the soupy remainder, I discover. I pour the contents into three of the cartons and place them on the patio. My furry friends have always been my most grateful dinner guests, and they lick the containers clean, even though a neighbor has told me they probably go behind a rock and throw up. You can't tell it by their faces. Raccoons look like ice cream agrees with them.

The second night the house feels colder, and we hope our electricity will be hooked up sometime during the night.

I had planned a lobster dinner for Christmas Day, but planning and buying are two different things. My backup meal is compliments of the dead freezer. We eat some ceviche before it grows flesh-eating bacteria, and share what's left with the woods. We are invited to dinner, and we contemplate the feeling of being helpless and receiving the kindnesses offered. We're quiet in the face of goodness, and humbled. In the stillness I remember I didn't finish Christmas shopping. Drew didn't do his last-minute thing, and we look at each other, saying how it will have to be enough.

On Dec. 25 our house is still dark and cold.

Christmas, and a lasagna dinner, are served at my in-laws'. Among the gifts exchanged is an enormous one to me from my daughter. It is a gift so huge in scope I have to be reminded to breathe. The personal storm we have been engaged in for more than 14 years is over, the anger quieted, the hurt healed. She says she's sorry it took so long for her to know how much I have loved her, and suddenly I don't think any yesterdays matter. I'm thrilled to hold her close today.

At 11:29 a.m. on the fourth day, the lights blaze, the heat roars, and I stand in the shower steaming all the windows, feeling my house. People driving by don't know we've been cold for four days or that it took the city a week to remove the debris or that the storm between my daughter and me has finally passed. They just know that the streets wind and the trees reach to touch each other and the signs say Hilshire Village, tiniest city in the state of Texas.