While we were all in shock after the tragedy in Thousands Oaks, two more California tragedies, the Camp Fire and the Woolsey Fire, flared. And here we are now, our shock even more profound.
Just back from Panama City, Florida and Hurricane Michael’s devastation, I’m a few weeks into grieving another tragic experience for a community, this time my hometown. This time my loved ones.
So I feel like sharing a bit of what I’m reflecting on right now.
These stories are just beginning.
First, as any stories of tragedy fade from front page news, they’re really just beginning. The support that we can and want to give must continue.
It can come in so many ways, from the deeply personal and truly sacrificial—a shoulder to cry on, housing help or work for displaced people—to the simplest quiet acts. Like yes to a small donation in the grocery store. I had lunch with a friend today who said she gives directly to GoFundMe pages to make a fast impact.
Life is so beautiful.
I was struck over and over in Panama City by gorgeous days, while weather-related tragedy unfolded all around us. It was surreal.
And I say that taking the time for all those thoughts and feelings, rather than shutting them down, is an important part of finding our way through devastating experiences. Take real time to think. Time to feel. Everything else that seems so urgent will still be there.
In the process, in the wise words of the Dalai Lama, reflect on your own strength to carry on. On everything your own life is about. Everything you hope for.
The point is to care for yourself toward helping those around you. Your oxygen mask comes first.
Don’t sugarcoat. Do offer hope. And rest.
If you’re connected to anybody directly impacted by these tragedies, do empathize. And do remember to also offer encouragement. To offer hope. Your words may make a difference that you’ll never know.
Trust your instincts as you find ways to help that don’t sugarcoat what is in fact tragic, but that do align with that very human activity of carrying on. It’s what we do. We keep going.
And on dark nights, in dark times, we need rest. We all need rest. There will be days and nights when we’ll get it, days and nights when we won’t. But keep giving yourself permission for it. For that oxygen mask. Nourish yourself toward nourishing others.
As you keep your own little light burning, it can help brighten the way forward for others. For all of us.
I’m in Houston on my way home to L.A., already feeling like I’m back in civilization. Airport WiFi!
But I’m still intensely connected to what will be a long recovery process in Panama City. Because it’s just three weeks since historic Hurricane Michael hit the area hard.
There’s plenty I can check on and text my dad about on the iPhone I drove 100 miles to get him for his birthday. That phone, a communication channel I know I can count on in the midst of this mess, helped me get on the plane home.
Now healing will be very slow for my mom’s hometown, and for my mom. For my dad, too. He has worked himself to the bone.
And not just since Hurricane Michael struck. And not just the month before that, during and after my mom’s scary surgery and scarier complications. But for the past two years, when she was ill but not yet diagnosed. And the extent of her cancer still isn’t clear.
My dad’s health has suffered in the caregiving he’s been doing. Anybody who has been through their own parents’ tough times knows where I am with them now, in heart-wrenching new territory.
Emotion and encouragement
So despite my love for my beautiful life in L.A., I had a tough time leaving Panama City. Finally my dad and I agreed that I had to get in my rental car and go before we both broke down.
This morning it had a flat tire. Under these crazy circumstances, it took three hours and several phone calls to get some help. I wasn’t about to let my dad mess with it.
And now I know firsthand how natural disasters are in the news for a week or two and then fade from view. The truth is, the recovery process in and around Panama City is barely underway. The shock everybody is in is still descending.
I heard dark threads of conversation all over town that I countered with encouragement. The stages of grief are just beginning.
Blossoming in hardship
On the other hand, one inspiring result of all this heartbreak has been my family coming together. And that’s big. Because the fact is, this left coast liberal and those red state Republicans have re-connected in ways we haven’t been capable of in years.
My local brother Ken is kind of my twin on the planet, the big guy version born 364 days later. One day a year on his birthday we’ve always said we’re the same age. He’s former Coast Guard, and about the time I started my own business he started his. These days the ace helicopter mechanic runs his own tractor company while managing his 40-acre homestead.
So it was satisfying to watch him manhandle our parents’ ruined property. The first time, before I got there, he cut them out of a house-high barrier of once magnificent old oaks.
The second time he worked to get tangles of trees and all kinds of debris like siding, roofing, front porch overhead fan parts, and their shattered mailbox to the side of the road. We’ve heard FEMA will take it all from there.
It seemed to me he was doing what he was into from the time he was pint-size, pushing all his great trucks around in the yard. Being his kickass, can-do self in the world.
A day in the life
In the midst of it all, my two brothers and I managed to have some beers and a party-planning conversation last Friday for our dad’s 83rd birthday. We met at a favorite bar of theirs. It had just opened back up, running cash only and standing room only.
Then my brother Michael, a former-Navy security pro on loan from his work overseas, trekked back to the AirBnB townhouse out on the beach that I’d found before I left L.A. His family had to vacate their battered apartment building and are looking hard for housing. Ken headed to his place in nearby Chipley. And I went back to our parents’ home. Most folks have power now.
I had to smile while I was still looking for my rental car and saw Ken already rolling out onto the highway in his 50-foot rig, sporting one of several Caterpillar contraptions he works with. A day in the life.
Then yesterday as he was clearing our parents’ lot, they lost water to the house again. Amazingly, a guy from the Water Department came right out and diagnosed an issue underground. It wasn’t at the street, so it wasn’t his problem.
The next thing I knew, Ken was waist-deep in a hole, gluing something with something Michael had snagged from the hardware store. And our parents had water again.
Michael had already rigged up an antenna that my dad bought years ago. So now my parents can watch some TV. And I fed everybody. That’s been my thing.
Best birthday ever
And we had our dad’s 83rd birthday party. Despite our depressed parents’ protests, it went down. And Dad loved it. Two little girls next door even brought over homemade cookies, an impressive fete given the mess at hand! Mom couldn’t get out of bed to join us, but she said she thinks it was Dad’s best birthday ever.
And a note on the satellite image of Hurricane Michael here:
Just before I left, Ken heard that emergency responders had found one of Mexico Beach’s weather station recorders. They learned it had measured sustained 160 mph winds with gusts of up to 201 mph.
So it’s a good thing this storm moved fast. Otherwise its impact would have been even worse.
Tough stuff and temporary opportunities
Panama City and larger Bay County have had two hospitals for decades. And Hurricane Michael pummeled them both. They’re still closed right now except for emergency services.
So long convoys of troopers and sheriffs roll through town at least once daily, sirens blazing, getting people to hospitals sixty or more miles away. (Do they transport one patient per vehicle? I still don’t quite get it.)
And on my drive to Destin to buy my dad’s phone, I heard urgent requests on the radio for more hospital personnel, and PSAs about emergency nursing certifications. Both things I’ve never in my life heard before.
For now, back to La-La Land
For now, I’m grateful for the part I’ve been able to play for my family in this crisis. And for everything I’m learning about natural disasters.
For instance, I know now that west coast folks need generators to complete earthquake prep. Think about multi-week power outages. Oh, and landlines really will be useless.
For now I’m ready to get back to my own work. And I’ll keep going to Panama City. My parents will need ongoing help prepping for immense changes, like getting their 2-story house repaired and ready to sell.
And is it time for assisted living? Can they agree on what comes next?
It’s no longer a someday situation. One thing they do agree on is that they won’t be moving to La-La Land. Believe me, I’ve tried.
Meanwhile, thank you again and always to everyone who helped us. As my niece Kyla says, “You have done something great.”
We’ll never forget it, as the wild, wonderful journey of life moves on into who knows what strange new country.
That’s the gig we’re all on, right? Never a dull moment.