To People Who’ve Lost Everything, It’s a Lot More Than ‘Stuff’
I came through Harvey unscathed, because I moved to Louisiana a year and a half ago. If I hadn't, I'd still be in Beaumont, and my house would be underwater. Most of my family and friends are still in Southeast Texas, either in the Golden Triangle or the Houston area - both of which were the hardest hit by Harvey's floods.
I was lucky; almost everyone I know was not.
Now that the flood waters are slowly receding (with large parts of Southeast Texas still under deep water), the shock of losing everything is starting to set in. When people can finally get back into their homes to find out just how much they've lost, the weight of it all comes crashing down in a way that's almost too much for anyone to bear. Before, it was just pictures on the news or word from a friend who managed to get into the neighborhood. Now, it's real. And it hurts.
Of course, the most important thing after a natural disaster is that you're alive, that your family and friends are alive, and that each of you can pick up the pieces and go on. But everyone already knows that. They don't need you or me or anyone telling them that everything they've lost "is just stuff". They really, really don't.
Look, people know they're fortunate to be alive. They get that. Even so, well-meaning people unaffected by the storm are quick to dismiss their pain through platitudes and meaningless pep talks telling them to be thankful for what they have, rather than dwell on what they've lost.
After all, it's just stuff. Right?
The thing about stuff is that it kind of defines our lives. All the little doodads and thingamajigs we pick up along the way mark milestones and memories every bit as much as they make neat conversation pieces we gripe about having to dust before company comes over. Stuff goes beyond stuff.
Here's an example that's as stupid as it is heartbreaking, for me at least. Growing up, I was very close to my grandmother. As an adult, I remained close to her. I'd always take her a special gift on Valentine's Day before I went out on whatever date I was lucky enough to pull together at the last minute. I always gave her the same present every Christmas, and she'd always misspell my name on the To-and-From each year, which became a running joke. As I entered the workforce, I'd often stop by on my lunch break to visit, and she'd always have a cheap frozen pizza waiting in the freezer for me.
When she died and my extended family emerged from out of town to go through her things and claim this bit of her stuff or that bit, I only wanted one thing - and, like I said, it was stupid.
I wanted that last frozen pizza she still had in her freezer, waiting for my next visit.
So I took it, and I put it in my own freezer. I kept it there for years, making sure it never accidentally got eaten or thrown out. It wasn't something I could put out on a shelf to look at, but it was still a tangible reminder of our relationship that I could see and remember her by every time I grabbed something out of the fridge. It was stupid, and it was just stuff, but dammit - it meant something to me. It was important.
I lost it in a hurricane. I can't remember if it was Rita or Ike, but I do remember that I had to toss out my refrigerator, along with everything in it - including the pizza. The saddest thing is that I didn't even realize it at the time, stunned as I was by the devastation and just picking up the pieces.
It wasn't until later that I realized it was gone, and it crushed me. And it was just a stupid frozen pizza.
Stuff is more than just photo albums and important documents. It's your kid's first stuffed animal that has gone moldy and has to be thrown away. He carried that thing everywhere. They were best friends. Now, it's in the trash pile along with the chair where his mother nursed him as a baby, and the couch where you'd all snuggle up together on movie night.
Stuff is that ugly shirt you'd never wear, but you kept in your closet for years because someone you love gave it to you. It's that pocketknife from your grandfather you've had for decades that washed away in the flood. It's that book that changed your life. It's that goofy wedding portrait you had framed after making your bridal party sign it. It's the last birthday card you got from your friend who died too young.
Stuff is a stupid frozen pizza.
And it's everything.