The Comfort Zone

A parent is, by definition, a port in a storm—even if that storm is a killer hurricane or a dread disease. Here's what one mother does to help her children feel safe

by Heather Harpham
Photograph: From the book The Reluctant Father, by Phillip Toledano

A few hours after sunset on a Monday in 2012, Superstorm Sandy arrived at our house, just north of New York City. Our kids called down the dark stairs, “Can we sleep in your bed?” We live in an 82-year-old wood-frame house that was creaking in ways we’d never heard, a million little wails of protest. All four of us climbed under the -covers—two -middle-aged parents with an eight-year-old boy and a 10-year-old girl sandwiched between us. Now it will be magical, I thought; we’ll tell stories by candlelight. That was around 8 pm. By 8:15 the kids had begun to bicker over whether to use what little battery power remained on the DVD player. Their fight ended, full stop, when the picture window that dominates our bedroom was shattered by a branch that rammed our house, jagged end first, like a javelin.

Broken glass went everywhere. Shards flew into open drawers, forced themselves between couch cushions, dug into the soft potting soil of plants. Large pieces tumbled across the carpet, pushed by the wind. The storm was now inside our house. Hurricane as home invasion.

Both kids screamed as if their lives were in danger. My daughter, who has survived a bone marrow transplant, screamed the loudest and began to shake. More than her brother, she believes in the possibility that she can be killed by external forces outside her parents’ control. Her dad picked her up and carried her out of the bedroom. He came back and got our son. Then both kids cried out, in terror, for the cat. The cat? The cat was way, way down on my list. But to the kids, Mikki was the one they could protect.

The rest of the night was harrowing. We pulled mattresses into a hallway and slept together there, squished, listening to the house shudder and whine and kvetch. Finally, the kids fell asleep. My husband and I held hands over their heads and recited everything that had happened, as if that would help. “And then the window burst,” I said. “It did,” he answered. “And then you carried the kids,” I said. “Yes,” he said. Although I thought sleep was impossible, after a while I drifted off. Brian stayed up listening to Bob Dylan on his iPod, guarding his tribe, soothed by the same voice that has kept him company for 40 years.

In the morning we would realize exactly how lucky we were. Not only to be unscathed by the thousands of pieces of flying glass, but to be in a house that was relatively undamaged. And to be together, all accounted for. Days later, we saw televised images of what real devastation looks like. Real devastation is not a hole in your house but a hole in the space where your house once stood.

 Our lives slowly returned to normal; a company came to pluck glass fragments out of the curtains and to install a new picture window, through which, at dusk, we can once again see the twinkling of houses on the hill below us. Still, there are aftershocks. The cat now hides in the upstairs closet during thunderstorms. A few months ago, our daughter—dreamy, consummate reader—looked up from her book at the breakfast table and asked, “Would you really die to save me from dying?” Her brother, in Beatle-fringe bangs, paused his stream-of-consciousness chatter to make sure he was included. “Yeah, for me and her, would you eat bullets?”

I wasn’t really surprised. Occasionally, our kids like to review the basic tenet of the parent-child contract. Would you rip the door off a burning car to get me out? Trade places with me at the bottom of a 100-foot well filled with rats? Jump off the Chrysler Building if the kidnappers demanded it?

“Probably I would die for you,” I finally said, “especially if you said please.” They rolled their eyes. I know I should take their questions seriously. I should tell them the truth, that I’d do anything, anywhere, to save them. But then I’d also have to admit the corollary truth: that there are a host of things I can’t do. No one can.

From their point of view, the house had been breached and their parents had done little in response. What could we have done? Only hold their hands, huddle in the hall, hum their favorite songs. But to be fair to us, their anxiety predates the storm; it is a reverberation from their earliest years, when my daughter was sick.

First published in the May 2014 issue

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