The Middle Distance 6.15.12: A Long Time Coming

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Photo by Sean Cayton

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.

 

5 Responses to The Middle Distance, 6/15/12: A Long Time Coming

  1. Rose Enyeart says:

    Thanks as always for the thoughtful and meaningful remembrances. Somehow we go on and learn to live with the hole in our hearts and psyche.

  2. anne lennox says:

    Thank you, Catherine.
    Annie

  3. Nancy Wilsted says:

    That was lovely, Kathryn, and if I’m ever a dog, I hope I get assigned to your mom.

  4. Huey says:

    “[Bougainvillea] thorns like great black claws…” That sends me cascading off memory cliff back to my own school days in Cleveland. Every morning Kroger’s grocery would freshly stock these great bear claw pastries & we’d snatch a few before cutting all of our classes. Then we’d spend lazy hours watching soaps n’ game shows in our detached single-family homes. I wouldn’t take a minute of that television back. It was later revealed to me that those lazy, churish days were caused by hookworm anemia or “anclyostomiasis”.

  5. hannahfriend says:

    You have been through some serious heartbreak. Still you show your resilience. To change is to live.

News

AP
May 3, 2016 | NPR · A college student accused China’s largest search engine, Baidu, of misleading him to a fraudulent cancer treatment. He died in April.
 

NPR
May 3, 2016 | NPR · “From the beginning I’ve said that I would continue on as long as there was a viable path to victory,” Cruz told supporters. “Tonight I’m sorry to say it appears that path has been foreclosed.”
 

May 3, 2016 | CPR · How is it that the nation’s fourteenth richest state ranks forty-second in how much it spends per student in schools? It all comes down to Colorado’s Taxpayers Bill of Rights, or TABOR.
 

Arts & Life

May 3, 2016 | NPR · NPR’s Robert Siegel talks with author Devin Leonard whose new book, Neither Snow Nor Rain, celebrates the history of the U.S. Postal Service.
 

May 3, 2016 | NPR · The Broadway hit musical, Hamilton, is up for 16 Tony Award nominations, and that’s sure to boost its already high profits. In April, the musical’s producers struck a deal to share some of its profits with original cast members. NPR’s Audie Cornish talks to Michael Paulson, a reporter for The New York Times, about what this means for the industry.
 

Getty Images
May 3, 2016 | FA · The Nightly Show host discusses his controversial performance at Saturday’s event. He tells Fresh Air that his use of the N-word was an artistic decision.
 

Music

Adam Kissick for NPR
May 3, 2016 | NPR · After nearly 30 years, Moreno’s beloved band just put out its eighth album. “I wanna believe that we haven’t changed,” he says, “but that everybody else has just sort of caught up.”
 

Courtesy of the artist
May 3, 2016 | NPR · Rising country artist Rob Baird weaves together three songs from his new LP into a classic American story of defiance, reflection and redemption.
 

Mountain Stage
May 3, 2016 | NPR · The indie-rock band known for its chamber-pop flourishes visits West Virginia with new songs in tow.
 

Get the KRCC iPhone App

The Writer's Almanac

Radiolab