September 2017. I had thought I was in a unique situation, stranded elsewhere during Harvey, although coming back on the plane full of Houstonians ten days later I realized I was not all that unique. Various reasons had caused this group of people to be away during a natural disaster and we had left behind family or friends or both. Stories abounded, phones with pictures were passed around, there was some laughter, a lot of quiet. Flight attendants were especially attentive, asking as they walked up and down, everyone all right? Everyone all right? One made a speech when we landed: it was their honor to get us home, whether we were coming to help or returning to our lives, it was Southwest’s honor to get us back.
A strange word to use, honor.
The ladies next to me had spent most of the flight talking about their husband and their son, how one had coped badly and one not at all with the tragedy unfolding around them. Neither of them in any danger, both of them mildly inconvenienced, these men, and their women were not admiring.
I didn’t talk with them. I didn’t pull out pictures of grandchildren or friends’ flooded houses or that picture that went viral of that dog carrying away a bag of dog food. None of us were there, I wanted to say. No matter if the husband complained about running out of ice cream or the son worked from home his usual nine hours a day and didn’t call his mother, so what, you weren’t there. You don’t get to talk.
I had a lovely time in Colorado. I saw beautiful things. I met beautiful people who cared for and about me. Every small piece fell into place as the days went by but I got tireder and tireder. I was watching my life go on effortlessly so why then was I exhausted? Maybe because I was watching horror and despair around the clock, it seemed, on the television and the computer and the smart phone. Even when I wasn’t watching, I was watching. My imagination never turned itself off.
Whole Foods. I ate fried rice and watched Denverites sit on their stools and their chairs, some wearing their chic boots, others watching their iPads, food going in, polite conversation going out. I could think of nothing else but drowning.
All these miles away, the hopeful and helpful and heroic folks who went in and did the unimaginable, saved not only their own but everyone else’s own became their own mantra: they went in, they went in, they went in.
And all these days later a plane full of people studied below the swollen bayous and swaths of dirty water and rivers running out of their banks, all from 10,000 feet high up in the air and they talked and they laughed and they grimly said nothing and while they looked at all that water, and thank God, more land than water, the flight attendants kept asking them, is everyone all right?
Is everyone all right?