When I was asked to write a submission for the first anniversary of Hurricane Irma, I considered passing as, in many ways, I’m still processing my losses. But then I read an article on another topic entirely and the writer mentioned “the impermanence of winning.” It immediately struck a chord and I thought yes, this is important. Winning isn’t continuous. You don’t win at something and then life stops. No. It rolls on and whatever you’ve won can be lost or undone but, if you’re very lucky, you can win it again or win something just as good or better.
On Sept. 5, 2017, I had a pretty home. Small and comfortable, it was filled with mementos from my various trips around the world as well as with furniture pieces that had stories to them like the chaise lounge I’d had made in Barbados and the marble-top dresser that had been my father’s. In addition, I had a library of books that was my pride and joy, covering every subject I’ve ever been interested in. Every book was a treasured possession: Some had been mine almost all my life, from the Spanish fairytales my mother used to read to me to the books on Caribbean history and gardening. Every one represented my interests and helped serve as my own research library for the articles and books I, myself, wrote.
Similarly, I knew the provenance of each tree and shrub in my mature garden, from a flamboyant I’d bought as a sapling at a Government House sale to the jacaranda I’d gotten in a seed exchange with a South American. Then Hurricane Irma struck and, eight hours later, I had none of those things.
‘I was alive’
In the days after Irma, I took shelter at the Francis Lettsome Primary School for a couple of days and then spent other nights in the ruin of my house. Without the help of my tenant, I probably would not have gotten through those few days because, even as I sat among the debris of my home, he tried to keep my spirits up and reminded me often that I was alive. At least, I was alive. Truly, I tried to feel grateful, but every now and then I’d catch myself wondering: But who am I without the things that gave my life meaning and pleasure? The things I’d collected over a lifetime, my memories made tangible? Surrounded by the destruction of everything I’d valued and with no idea of what would happen next or from where help would come, it was hard to combat the gloom that nibbled at the edges of my awareness.
Then, at this, the lowest point of my life, two friends took me in, putting me up at their hotel. I will never forget their kindness. A bed, a shower, electricity. I took pleasure in these as well as the company of my friends, but still my thoughts would turn to all I’d lost: not just my possessions, but my sense of security and many of my illusions — illusions about relationships, about community, about safety and security.
A new life
Now it is one year later. I cannot look at a building without thinking “would it survive another Irma?” Every now and then, I think of a particular book or a memento that’s gone. Irma forced some great changes in my life and the lives of many.
For a long time, I felt like a refugee in my own country, but now I am moving forward into a new life. I do not have the possessions that I once felt defined me, nor do I have many of the illusions I had on Sept. 5, 2017. There is a bittersweet freedom in this — even a type of winning, however impermanent.