Disaster, Illness and Metamorphosis

By Lucy Barbera

Image 1. Laura and Alexander 1982

The Sunday night before Hurricane Sandy hit New York City, my son, Alexander, always the apple of  her eye, called my sister, Laura, and offered to pick her and her husband, Bobby, up and bring them upstate to our house for safety. She declined our offer and ignored the local mandate for evacuation as well. What was impeding her judgment?

Three high tides, a full moon, and living one block from the ocean put Laura and Bobby directly in the path of the storm surge. Bobby reported later hearing banging on the door. When he opened it, water came rushing in. The last thing he saw before being swept back into the apartment by the chest level water was his car floating by and out to sea.

After the storm, all of my efforts to reach them by phone failed. I waited in vain for them to call and let me know they were okay. I called every shelter and hospital on Staten Island but came up empty handed. Finally, in desperation, I called the local police station. “I’ve not heard from my sister and her husband, (a retired NYC police officer, I added to grab attention) since the storm. I’ve called everywhere and there’s no trace of them.  Can you please help me find them? Would it be possible to send someone to their residence to see if they are alright?”, I plead. “That area has been evacuated and off-limits.  We really don’t have the manpower to go looking for people individually,” he says. “But I’m going to see to this myself and will get back to you.” 

“For one of your own!”, I think, and heave a huge sigh of relief, thanking him profusely.  The phone jolts me awake. “Hello?”  “Hello, this is officer Tumen. You called about your sister and brother in law?”  “Yes”, I say, heart pounding. “I drove out to their place and found them in their car. I guess you can say they’re okay.”, he says. I think you should come down though.  It looks like they could use some help.”  “Oh, thank God! Thank you, officer!”  “Don’t mention it”, he says. “You’re one of the lucky ones. Most of the calls I’ve had to make today have not been with such good news.”  

When I pull off the Verrazano Bridge and onto Father Capodanno Blvd, traffic is bumper to bumper, as the bridge has just been reopened after the storm. The direct approach to Laura’s house is blocked but I manage to find my way there, navigating a maze of detours and one way streets. Robin Road is cluttered with debris but enough has been cleared to make it possible for me to weave around the piles of seaweed, drift wood, and garbage. As I drive up to 102 Robin Road, my heart sinks. Laura’s car is nowhere in sight. At her front door is pile of garbage and drift wood. The stench is unbearable.

(2) 102 Robin Rd. Nov. 1, 2012

Image 2. 102 Robin Rd. Post Hurricane Sandy, November 1, 2012

I turn the door handle and push the front door open. I am hit with a stench worse than the one outside. It smells like raw sewage. “Hello, anybody home?”, I call. Silence. The floor is slimy, so inch along slowly to keep my balance. It looks like a great wave came and pushed everything from one end of the house to the other. I look in every room and then pick my way back out, gasping for air. “Is she a hoarder?”, I wonder, as I look around at all the crates stacked to the ceiling along the walls?

(3) Interior 102 Robin Rd. Nov. 1, 2012

Image 3. Interior of the Apartment After the Storm

(4) Is She a Hoarder (2)

Image 4. Is She a Hoarder?

Emerging from the apartment, I see a pickup truck, across the street. Three guys  are hauling wet boxes out of a house and are stacking them into the pickup.  “Do you know Laura and Bob?”, I ask. “Yeah”, one says. “Do you know where they are?” He points to the corner. “They’re  right there”, he says, “just around that corner.  They’ve been there all week”.  “Thanks very much.”, I say and take off.

When I get to the corner, I see Laura’s silver Honda parked with its motor running. All the windows are rolled up tight.  I wave and as I approach, then realize that both Laura and Bob are fast asleep. She’s at the driver’s wheel and he’s in the passenger seat.

(5) Laura and Bob Sleeping in the Honda Nov. 1, 2012

Image 5. Laura and Bobby Asleep In The Honda

“This is unbelievable,” I think. “What on earth are they trying to do, asphyxiate themselves?” I look closer for any movement to indicate they’re alive. “Their breathing, thank God!” I swing my camera around and snap a couple of shots (who’ll ever believe this if I don’t) then start pounding on the window. Bob normally is 90% deaf and does not hear me, so I go around and knock on my sister’s window.  She wakes and looks at me with a horrified expression on her face, then opens the door. “What are you doing here?”, she demands in an angry voice. “I was so worried about you. I’m so glad to see you’re alive.” This softens her. “Oh, I wondered if anyone cared”, she says sarcastically. I was just saying to Bob, (who is stirring awake now and looking out at me dazed), “Doesn’t anyone care what happens to us? and here you are!”, she says dramatically.

Laura has been in rehab for her broken hip for a week now. She is singing softly. Laura does nothing softly.  Typically, she is loud, raucous, and funny. Now, each day when I go to see her, I’m greeted with: “Drop dead and eat shit!”, hatred beaming from her eyes directly at me. What has happened to Laura?

“Is it just for the moment we live?” And does life belong only to the strong, Alfie?….” Her song trails off. She looks at me without seeing me and then looks away. This would be just the beginning of a ten month odyssey of pain, dementia, fear, despair, courage, and, finally, metamorphosis, all within the context of a health care system fraught with colossal incompetence and greed.

(6)Laura and Lucy August 12, 2013

Image 6. Laura and Me on Her 68th Birthday, August 12, 2013, Two Weeks Before Her Death (Metamorphosis)


This is an excerpt from a longer work in progress.