After midnight a week ago Friday my middle son, Brendan, woke me as I slept in my room.
“I have bad news.”
Half-delirious, I thought he did something to the car, hit someone, damaged someone’s property, anything; I wasn’t thinking logically, otherwise knowing had I been fully awake that if it was truly catastrophic, he would not be standing here telling me. But I have learned from parenting three sons that bad news to a 19-year-old is truly bad news.
“The basement is kind of like a lake,” he said.
Together we went down the second floor stairs to the first floor in the power-outted blackness by the light of his opened cell phone. We stood at the top of the stairs to the basement and carefully made our way down one step at a time.
Brendan shone his phone in front of me. As I stood on the second stair where the water began, I could see that this glistening, moving darkness was not in this corner or that, but everywhere. Deep and foul-smelling, the water moved silently until a plastic trash can tipped over or something else on a low surface upended and fell with a splash. It was still raining hard outside, but there was nothing to do until morning. Without power, it was useless to start cleaning it all up.
The next morning after the flood, my brother Paul brought over a case of bleach, flashlights and a roll of garbage bags; my sister Maureen took several garbage bags filled with the once-clean laundry that had been waiting for me to fold, but was now floating in baskets near the washer. My sister Madeleine drove her van to my house and instructed the boys to fill it with the salvageable plastic bins I could store in her garage until the basement was put back together. My sister Mary Pat brought over breakfast and lunch the third day and drove my oldest son, Weldon, back to the airport to catch a bus for Madison, Wisconsin where he was working for the summer. He came home to help when I called him. He worked one day for 12 hours, the next for 18 to clear out what was in the basement. My wrestling mom friends Caryn and Paula sat with me in the laundromat and assisted with the half-dozen loads of out-of-season clothes that were soaked from sitting in thin plastic bags on the floor of the closet. Paula made me bruschetta.
On Monday the flood damage cleaning service I called Saturday morning at 6 a.m. arrived.
Two men sawed my mother’s yellow floral couch in half. It was the one that reminded me so much of her, with its butterfly pattern; the one in her den on Ashland Avenue, the house where she last lived. It had mahogany claw and ball legs, a sturdy back, broad arms and a full shape. It was significantly nicer then the rest of the furniture in my basement, like the sleeper couch with the turquoise and mauve Southwestern print that I bought in 1988 when Weldon was born so guests could sleep on it, since the guest room was now a nursery. Mom’s couch was nicer than the other hand-me downs and flea market finds I camouflaged with slipcovers and pillows hoping to hide their vintage.
The whirrrr of the chain saw, the smell of the wood, damp and fetid, the hustling blur of seven crew workers filling shiny black contractor bags with tiles, paneling, baseboards, carpet: all of it a full-on endorsement that most everything in our basement was contaminated with blackened sewer water. And had to go.
Without expression, the men quickly carried the pieces of my mother’s couch leaking its thick, beige stuffing, coils exposed, to the curb in front of my house. There they heaped them onto a pile that eventually grew to 30 feet wide and 10 feet high before it was hauled away.
“It’s not Mom they sawed in half,” Madeleine reminded me. “It’s just her couch.”
During the torrential rainstorm of more than seven inches of rain in a few hours that resulted in one of the worst floods in Chicago’s history, the west suburban basement of our house filled with a foot of soot-thick sewer water.
A swift flow rushed in from a back basement door, filling every inch of the area where my sons often played video games and their friends slept over. The basement was also Brendan’s bedroom with his bed, dressers and clothes. On the other side of the stairs was the laundry and storage area, plus the treadmill that I vowed to use more often than I did.
Drenched and dripping were hundreds of my newspaper clippings from the 1980s pulled from metal file cabinets; the fake Christmas tree—crammed into a plastic bin turned sideways, its thin opening at the seal quickly filling with water so that inside my favorite burgundy and forest green velvet tree skirt was ruined. Brendan’s box spring and mattress were soaked through, plus the seats of two other couches, Weldon’s twin-sized mattress and box spring from college, three end tables, three bookcases and the built-in wood bar, original to the house constructed in 1934.
Because they were stacked in higher book shelves, saved were 32 photo albums, every framed photo of my parents, my brothers and sisters, plus all the boys’ grade school art projects—including Weldon’s fourth grade laminated menu for his “Holy Cow Hamburger Restaurant.” Saved were the report cards, Sunday school papers and art treasures of all the boys, carefully placed in sturdy bins stacked high off the floor. Saved were the birthday party posters I made for each son, the baby blankets, the toddler sized sweatshirts I handpainted with nursery rhyme figures for each one of the boys. The “Hey, Diddle, Diddle” sweatshirt, size 4T had a cow jumping over a yellow moon. Saved were the comforters for the older two boys’ dorm room and apartment, my favorite books from college—including my annotated yellowed copy of James Joyce’ Ulysses and a copy of Henrik Ibsen plays. Saved was the Rubbermaid bin marked "Colin's Wrestling Stuff."
Sometimes the message the universe sends is not so subtle. My life was being rearranged whether I wanted it to be nor not.
But I saved what was important. Everything else can be replaced.