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It is strange being among those in our culture who are perceived as someone who will never recover. How many times, before my child died at age 22, did I hear someone observe: Losing a child, that’s something you never get over. And how many times after?
It is strange, and yet here we are. Not recovering exactly and not getting over it, but growing new lives out of the wreckage.
This week I’ve been walking my sister’s dog along the border of the East End Lagoon on Galveston Island in south Texas. I am visiting my mother and sister here, in this strange ends-of-the-Earth place where they have lived for 35 years and where I lived from 2007 to 2010 when all our lives went topsy-turvy. My sister and I had both lost beautiful, strong sons in their 20s and alongside our mother, we were nursing our older sister who was dying at home of Alzheimer’s. In one year, the three of us, two daughters and their mother, became those people whose lives would never be the same.
Six months after our sister’s death, in mid-September 2008, Hurricane Ike surged across our little island and left it in tatters. Not much shocked us any more. We became familiar with the foul smell of rotting dry wall and the sight of neighborhood curbs piled high with the ruins of modern households — rusted-out refrigerators, mildewed sofas, moldy carpets, entire wardrobes gone bad.
On the east end of the island, where I walked my sister’s dog every afternoon, what had once been sparkling shallow ponds surrounded by grassy fields became dried flats of mud, crusted over and baked by the extended drought that followed the hurricane. I went to a lecture at the public library one night and heard a biologist describe what this place, a major corridor for migrating birds, must look like from the air to an exhausted songbird seeking shelter after crossing the Gulf of Mexico. Picture a flat, muddy sandbar with only tentative spots of green, trees stripped of their leaves, nowhere to land. It was hard to say, in 2008, how long it would take, if ever, for these bird habitats to be restored to life.
This week, walking along the East End Lagoon, three and a half years after the hurricane, I can smell salvation in the brackish air. Salt cedar, the old invasive species wiped out by the floods, has been replaced by tall, swaying reeds — probably another invasive species but a pretty one nonetheless. Small blue ponds shimmer at sunrise, reflecting clouds flowing seaward overhead. On the edge of the lagoon, great blue herons lift off with their massive wings and land on their spindly legs. Ibis, terns, marsh blackbirds, wood ducks and many species I can’t identify peck at insects on the water’s surface. Overhead, brown pelicans glide in wavering silent V’s.
The dog, a puppy when I first met him, is turning into a mellow old man and demands less and less attention the older he gets. We walk a mile in a straight line and turn around to head for the car. Muffled wind and raucous birdsong fill our ears. Just before we reach the parking lot, a splash of pink overhead, cotton candy birds with raspberry details, roseate spoonbills return to the lagoon, their favorite nesting place.
Across town and back home, my mother waits in the kitchen with the dog’s daily fried egg. Her little white house was laid bare by Hurricane Ike, its lone shade tree lost to the salt water flood. In the spring of 2009, I began replanting the stripped, denuded garden — hibiscus and plumbago, esperanza and oleander, whatever was plentiful, inexpensive, and hearty, exotic plants I could never grow again once I returned to Colorado. Now I walk the yard to see what has prospered and what has failed. In the old aluminum boat I turned into a flowerbed, a waxy jasmine with potently scented, creamy white flowers. Bougainvillea crowds the fences, its thorns like great black claws beneath dancing cascades of purple and fuchsia.
My mother, 84 and shrunken by arthritis and osteoporosis, waters and weeds every day, a new development for a woman who always told her children she had a black thumb and could only kill plants. She proudly shows me her Christmas poinsettia, transplanted from a plastic, foil-covered pot to the yard where it has taken root, its leaves strong and upright.
Like the lagoon, we are changing. We will never be the same.
Kathryn Eastburn is the author of A Sacred Feast: Reflections of Sacred Harp Singing and Dinner on the Ground, and Simon Says: A True Story of Boys, Guns and Murder in the Rocky Mountain West. You can comment and read or listen to this column again at The Big Something at KRCC.org. “The Middle Distance” is published every Friday on The Big Something and airs each Saturday at 1 p.m. right after This American Life.