Lessons About Loss From a Mudslide

Jim does Bobcat

Jim does Bobcat

I hate to file my nails and so I turned on the TV to distract myself from the task, watched a surfing competition and got sucked in. I tried to figure out what enabled one surfer to win over another, since it wasn’t entirely obvious to me. The surfers were so graceful, skidding along the top edges of waves, in “full rail carves” I learned they were called, before twisting their boards in complete 180 turns, seemingly oblivious to the powerful force of nature just under their slivers of fiberglass and resin.

I was so focused on the surfers doing their “rail carves” (the commentator seemed to enjoy just saying it in his best “hang 10″ California-boy voice), that I barely noticed the ticker tape line of text along the bottom of the screen. At first I just saw “mudslide” and had to wait for the line to repeat before I learned there had been a massive mudslide in Oso. I didn’t know where that was exactly, but I knew it was in the vicinity of Seattle. “18 people missing.” The surfing competition ended with a handsome Brazilian boy being sprayed with Champagne and cute blonde Australian girl winning on her home turf.

Jim and I headed to Vashon where only a week before, we’d had our own mudslide. A Bobcat was rented and Jim looked cute with his tongue sticking out with the effort of the Bobcat as it made its way through a three-foot high pile of muck that had dumped itself into the middle of the driveway. We bonded with the neighbors, repairing a strained relationship, over shovelfuls of muck. The sun  shone and the whole experience turned into an adventure.

Arriving a week later, subsequent rains washed the remnants of muck from the road, but the rootball of the huge tree that slid down the hill seemed more ominous this time, so close to the wall that kept it from careening down the hill, where it could easily take out my kitchen or the house next door. We carefully compared its position using photographs that I took the week before. “Nope, it hasn’t moved at all,” Jim declared and I breathed a sigh of relief. A disaster averted. How lucky.

Upon our return to Seattle on Sunday night, the news from Oso was far more grave. 14 people confirmed dead, 172 missing. That night in bed, I tossed around thinking about how they only found one or two people alive, how the sounds of possible survivors stopped, how their family members must feel as they waited, filed missing person reports, hoped for air pockets and miracles. I realized how closely I empathized, because I suddenly understood how similar the circumstances of this slide were to the days after 9/11 – The difficulty of rescue, the lack of survivors, traumatized first responders, dogs walking the piles of mud trying to avoid stepping on sharp debris, American flags poked haphazardly into masses of cement-colored ruins.

I suspect Jim will be signing up for a deployment to Oso with his Fire Department (he now has Bobcat experience) and I will be left to churn through these unnamable emotions, old and rusty feeling and to pour obsessively over the sad details. The possibility of Jim helping, has me wondering if I should help too. My experience from those early post-apocalyptic days may be of use to families blundering through their own harrowing days. What would I tell them? Your lives have changed forever; the first two years are the toughest; magical things will happen that you can’t possibly imagine; you won’t believe how much strength you have; a day will come when it won’t hurt anymore; another day will come when some catastrophe will make you remember all over again; the most cathartic thing you can do to heal is help others, in whatever form that might come.

We are constantly reminded of the powerful forces over which we have no control. I suppose the trick is riding the waves for as long as possible, as gracefully as possible before we tumble into the surf.

Photo from Komonews.com

Photo from Komonews.com