I told myself it would be better than I imagined.
The drive from Atlanta took 14 hours, the last six of which between Tampa and Fort Myers. That’s a long time to worry. Long time to hope. I had heard from a friend who survived the storm in my neighborhood that there had been flooding, but I didn’t understand the extent. I told myself that much of my cottage could be saved. Of course not the carpets. Not the couch. Not the mattresses. But certainly most of my furniture. And definitely the pieces that were precious to me.
But as we got closer and there was news about the state of my neighborhood near downtown Fort Myers, I started crossing things off the list. My books were probably beyond salvage, or the desk I used to write on, or the pretty peacock-shaped bedside table next to my bed.
And yet I didn’t understand the full extent.
Even as I pulled into my driveway and saw the watermark circling my house as high as my shoulders, I didn’t understand. I got out of the car and walked to my front door, shaking. I pulled open the door and entered. It wasn’t until I stood in my little historic bungalow—the first house I ever owned, a house that’s mine alone, a house filled with my taste and treasures—that I understood.
None of it could be saved.
The house was still there. That was a blessing. But inside everything was ruined. Not just the books and carpets and furniture, the peacock-shaped bedside table and the desk by the window, but the walls, the floors, the kitchen. All.
Over the next two days we frantically ripped out wet drywall and insulation. We wiped mud and river water off the floors. We put everything I owned in my front yard. Then there was nothing to do but wait. Wait for power to be restored. Wait for the wooden frames in the walls to dry. Wait and see if the original wooden floors can be saved.
During this long wait I began to take stock. Not just what was in my garden—the ruined photos, the warped furniture, the broken pottery shards—but what was in my heart. Here’s what I learned.
Use the good stuff
It came to me as I stood there with a sodden incense box in hand. It was the good kind of incense, bought from Remedies Parlor near downtown Fort Myers. It had been expensive. It smelled beautiful, luxurious and cool, like Remedies itself. The box originally contained 20 incense sticks and in the last two years I had burned two of them. I was, had I rationalized, saving her for the right moment.
And there they were, a wet paste in my hand.
Here’s the truth: the right moment will never come. In other words, the right moment is now. Use the good dishes. Wear the special perfume. Burn the expensive incense. There are no guarantees for the future.
The fabric of community is all around us
In the first chaotic days after returning to Fort Myers, I discovered the strength and depth of the community that surrounded me. Friends sent text messages asking if they could help.
“Yes,” I said. “But it’s shit work.”
It was shit work. Terrible, hot, dirty work. They answered, each of them: “On the way.”
In less than 24 hours I had a generator, borrowed from photographer friend Brian Tietz, chugging on my porch. At my house, a friend cut drywall while another ripped out the kitchen cabinets. Strangers appeared. A woman named Angel helped me pile my books in a damp mound by the side of the road. Another group of women offered to clean my shed.
“It’s gross in there,” I warned her.
They shrugged. “We’ve seen worse.”
A woman and her son took all the furniture to a safe place near my house. The hot sun beat down on them as they worked for hours.
I didn’t stop crying. If I allowed the pain, I wouldn’t be able to do the work I needed to do. Instead, I was grateful to these people who came from Naples, from San Carlos, from Lehigh, and from North Fort Myers. Even in the midst of the disaster, the Southwest Florida community held together beautifully.
Don’t take anything for Granted
As I worked to save my own home, I thought of Fort Myers Beach. I grew up on the beach. Its tide pools and sea oats and shorebirds formed the backdrop to my childhood. No matter where in the world I ventured, I always came home to Bonita Bill’s, to Times Square, to my mother’s house in the middle of the island. The beach had weathered countless storms—unnamed summer storms that raged the tides, hurricanes like Charley and Irma that dumped sand in driveways and flaked siding.
I stood in my yard and remembered the last day I was at the beach. It was an early afternoon in August. The sky was a deep, cloudless blue. The beach daisies in my mother’s garden were in full bloom from the summer rain, their yellow petals contrasting with the green leaves. A pair of monarch butterflies fluttered across the driveway, past the gumbo-limbo trees and milkweed.
My mother’s neighbors, Bobbi and Jerry, called from next door. I waved hello. Bobbi’s orchids were blooming. Jerry had just put on a new deck. Renters drove into the cottage on the other side, a house that used to belong to my grandmother. I still remember the smell of the heart pine paneling on the walls. I had been in and out of the houses in this area all my life. Half-timbered houses, stilt houses, most from the 1950s. These homes had made it through Hurricane Donna in 1960. Rain, sun and salty air had lashed them for decades. They had survived and survived and survived. I never thought, not once, that in less than a month it would all be gone.