While the Christmas miracle I was hoping for did not happen (kitchen isn’t completed, but the cabinets are up!),
the mere fact I have a home makes me luckier than most.
My youngest sister Meredith arrived last week. As usual, this visit included theater, food, yoga, walking and scouting famous faces (“What’s in your wallet, Jerry Stiller?” we said when we saw him on Amsterdam Avenue). But this time we added a new twist.
We took the Long Island
Railroad out to Baldwin, NY where Mark, a volunteer from Nechama, a nonprofit organization that provides disaster response nationwide – and that which I signed us up for – was waiting. We were spending the day helping families whose homes were flooded by hurricane Sandy.
“This is a unique case,” Mark warned, pulling up to a house that had a wall of garbage piled in front. “Like many, this woman’s basement was flooded and everything was ruined.” Then he paused before adding, “And she’s a hoarder with 30 cats and a dog.”
Meredith gave me the fish eye as Mark handed us gas masks and gloves. Stepping inside the weathered front door my eyes grew wide. With all the organizing I’ve done, never had I seen anything like this. Never. Every inch of this filthy home was filled with junk, while in every corner one of the cats watched.
“We need to get rid of everything,” said Bizzy, from Michigan. As Mark, from Boston, and Mitch, from Wisconsin, tore down walls of moldy sheetrock. Meredith and I, after covering the piles of dog poop, carried the garbage up the ruined staircase, through the house and added it to the growing pile outside. Two noxious hours later we were done.
“We might as well eat lunch,” Bizzy said, biting into a ham sandwich. “Until we get our next assignment.” Meredith and I exchanged glances. Lunch?
The next house, a mile away, had much worse damage. The entire first floor had already been gutted. We walked on floor beams a few feet above mud to get around. Six male volunteers, ranging from 24 to 64, ripped up the subfloor, which Meredith and I carried outside and dumped in a pile on the front lawn, a pile that in this neighborhood seemed like the latest lawn accessory. A few hours later I found my baby sister, ankle deep in mud, crowbar in hand, tearing back plywood with the guys.
“If you get hurt, mom will kill me,” I said, snapping her picture.
At the end of the day Mark took us aside. “I know there were other things you could have done with your day and it might seem like all you did was throw away garbage, but know that you made a difference to these families.”
While we waited in front of the house for our ride back to the LIRR, we noticed an abandoned motorboat parked on the street like it was a car. It had washed up from miles away. We walked over and peeked inside. The key was still in the ignition. I pulled it out and in disbelief read the quote on the yellow buoy keychain: “Nothing is impossible unless you have to do it yourself.”
How ironic. And how fitting.