“How’s Lumberton?” friends and family called or emailed after Matthew blew through on September 28th. “OK, I guess. Everything’s fine here and at the beach,” was my casual and arrogant answer.
Two days later, the Lumberton levee broke and many neighborhoods swam waist high in water. “It was coming in the back and the front, there was no way out. That water was swift too,” our displaced Robeson County homeowner, Charles, described the horror.
He witnessed bits and pieces of his life coming out the front door, as we hurled them into the yard for pickup. Lovely oak floors came out in splinters, as he sat in a white, plastic chair in the driveway. That chair being one of a dozen items he still owned.
Turns out he was my Mom’s mailman. He and another mailman checked on Momma every day as she aged, making it safer for her to stay home, perhaps years longer than she should have. “You and Donald were the hands and feet of Jesus,” I told him, grateful at the prospect of returning the favor yet stunningly sad too.
I sat by him as we sorted soaked photo albums his wife had put together for her family. She lives in a nursing home now but when they met in 5th grade, she was eleven. Those pictures painted their life in memories. He visits her every day except that day his house was under water. Then he took a boat to his best friend, Donald’s house and prayed out loud to the Lord for the waters to calm, to recede.
When I asked who was with him and how they got out, he told me just a fact here, a detail there. “My daughter and my grand. Folks say they was chased by water moccasins and crocodiles but we didn’t see any. We was lucky. But that sure was tough going five days without coffee. And still don’t have clean water. The schools, they just opened Monday, now that was tough on these kids not having a place to go learn, tough on the parents too.”
The photo album melted. There was little to save. One book of newspaper clippings could be salvaged, dried and pressed. Photos of a church homecoming, a middle school basketball team with both Donald and Charles and a baby.
A picture of a young married couple smiled at us, “Want to spread that over this ironing board to dry?” “Should we put this book back in the porch, we wouldn’t want the rain to spoil it.”
“No’m, I’m going to put them in my car and take them to the church,” he said. He knows it will be a long time before he has a home, even if we finish the demolition today it will be a very long time before he has a place to show photos again.
“You know, my wife and I bought our home and it was beautiful. But right after we bought it, she got sick. She was sick and nobody could figure out what was wrong with her. So I had to take her up to the university, and they finally diagnosed her, dementia. After that one of the grandchildren got sick and I had my hands full taking care of the two of them. I was worried, so worried. But one night, sitting on the back porch, I looked up and saw a star. As soon as I studied that star, it got brighter and brighter and I knew that was the Lord telling me not to worry. I decided then I’m not going to worry and I never have and I’m not now.”
Words failed me then too.
There was a lamp, a Ninja turtle, a stuffed bear, an ironing board, a wrought iron bed and a Coltrane poster. He put out rice for the birds but they had abandoned the neighborhood in the aftermath too. A few simple belongings surrounded him while an enormous, rubbish pile grew by the curb.
Neither one of us cried. He had so much to cry about but the force of the loss left him dry. My grief gave way when I drove home much later. The mourning that surrounded us had to go somewhere.
As we sat there, I listened, he talked.
I prayed, calling down the Holy Spirit, the one that was in charge that day when the boat came and delivered them. The one that brought that bright star of hope.
He prayed too, “Heavenly Father God, thank you for these here folks who’ve come to help me.” Even as we sawed sheet rock, pulling and dragging it to the street, he gave thanks. Even as we placed our hands on those soaking photos, throwing them in a gray plastic trash can, he gave thanks. Even then.