To People Who’ve Lost Everything, It’s a Lot More Than ‘Stuff’
Here we are again, right back where we started.
I originally wrote this while watching Texas suffer through Hurricane Harvey, then I updated it after Southwest Louisiana was hit by Hurricane Laura. I left it alone after Delta and then again after the ice storm, but driving around town after the May 17 flood and seeing so much stuff lining the sides of our roads again so soon after most of it had finally been hauled away after so long brought this all back to the surface. Seeing friends post photos of everything they've lost again, followed by all the same comments from People Who Are Not Here giving the same tired advice and words of wisdom they always give just brought it all back. So here's my response. Again. Feel free to pass it on to anyone who tells you everything we've lost is just stuff.
It's always the same after a natural disaster. When the devastating winds of a hurricane have finally calmed or the waters from a catastrophic flood have receded, people begin to find out just how much they've lost, and the weight of it all comes crashing down in a way that's almost too much for anyone to bear.
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 us can pick up the pieces and go on. But everyone already knows that. No one needs anyone telling them everything they've lost is just stuff. They really, really don't.
We hear it after every disaster. Every. Single. One.
Look, we know we're fortunate to be alive. We get that. We've been through four devastating weather events in less than a single year. We know.
Even so, well-meaning folks unaffected by whatever calamity is latest on SWLA's ever-growing list of constant torment still feel the need to remind us, and they come off seeming all little too eager to dismiss our pain through platitudes and meaningless pep talks by telling us to be thankful for what we have, rather than dwell on what we'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 I had to toss out my refrigerator, along with everything in it - including the pizza. The saddest thing is 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.