On Sunday, I found myself wiping a river of blood off a man's face with a clean sock as he lay on the ground. Another victim of Hurricane Sandy.
Except we were in Maryland.
I wasn't supposed to be there. I was supposed to be at 9 a.m. mass in New Jersey, where I like to sing -- loudly, throwing in an occasional harmony, making my kids cringe. After that I was supposed to be eating apple pancakes and drinking coffee (my husband makes the perfect cup of coffee) and reading the Sunday New York Times.
But a week earlier, superstorm Sandy snapped several dozen giant trees in my town like little matchsticks, cutting off power to about 70 percent of residents. Our kind next-door neighbors let us plug our fridge into their generator and power up our electronics. I cooked, I cleaned dishes, I deeply regretted not buying disposable plates and cups. I hung the wash that never made it to the dryer and stoked the fire. I swept the leaves and sticks creeping relentlessly in the door and dismantled the gigantic boughs splayed across my backyard with a large handsaw (my husband on the opposite end).
Like my Irish ancestors before me, I'm fairly stoic in the face of challenges like Sandy. The medieval Irish reportedly carried parts of the "Discourses" by Epictetus into battle. In one passage, the Greek slave-turned-Stoic philosopher is quoted as saying: "Circumstances do not arise to meet our desires or expectations. Events happen as they do. ... Exercise what influence you can, then accept what you actually get and make the most of it."
In that spirit, I encouraged board games; broke up the kids' petty arguments; brought wine to toast friends who invited our kids to play in their warm house and had us over twice for dinner. I maintained my usual work schedule, tapping away at the computer with a skittish hotspot until it was too dark to see. We sat closer and closer to the fire as it got colder and colder, reeking of smoke, taking turns using the dog as a hairy electric blanket. I started sleeping in my clothes.
On Friday, we ran out of firewood. A very large tree was still making a hammock of the power lines, with nary a utility truck in sight, and fistfights were breaking out at gas stations. At that point, I chucked Stoicism and invoked an old Celtic adage: Is fearr rith maith ná drochsheasamh -- or, "he who runs away lives to fight another day."
I asked my company's travel services folks if they could locate a hotel room. Nothing available in the entire state, except a scary motel near the Lincoln Tunnel where rentals by the hour are especially popular. Then my cousin in Maryland emailed and suggested we come visit for a few days.
My husband stood in line for six hours to get gas. We threw clothes and perishable food into the trunk and took off, passing mile after mile of gas lines and utility trucks as we headed south. I nearly wept for joy when we hit the aptly named Clara Barton Service Area -- the last on the Turnpike before Delaware -- where we stopped to eat. Not a fast food person, I was delighted to discover Burger King had introduced veggie burgers. (Not sure if there were any real veggies involved, but I had returned to accept-what-you-actually-get mode.)
Comfortably settled into my cousin's generous accommodations, on Sunday I suggested an early morning walk in Rock Creek Park. On the drive back, my husband stopped to let two joggers cross at an intersection. After they had passed, he continued to wait; he noticed a bicyclist in his rearview mirror flying downhill like a bat out of hell, and figured it was safer to let him pass before he resumed driving.
Then we heard a ghastly thump.
The bicyclist had seen us waiting at the intersection, but looked up at the stoplight ahead to figure out if he could speed through it before it changed to red. In that moment of calculation, he clipped the rear of our Kia Optima and flew over the handlebars.
So there I was, with a pair of my husband's clean socks that had fallen out of his suitcase and into our trunk, wiping the blood that spilled from cuts on the cyclist's nose, chin and his forehead. Otherwise, the guy seemed OK -- even apologized for hitting us and thanked us for not driving away. (What, did he think we were New Yorkers?) Two police cars, a fire engine and an ambulance later (they don't mess around in Maryland), the EMTs secured his neck and head to a board as a precaution, and carried him off in a stretcher.
And if not for Superstorm Sandy, we would never have been in his path. Like us, he became an inadvertent casualty of uncontrollable circumstances. (Although it's never a bad idea to obey the speed limit, even on a bike.)
Early Tuesday morning, circumstances arose to meet our desires -- my neighbor emailed that power had returned. We made the most of it and drove home.
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