The first tree succumbed to swirling winds around 3 p.m. on Oct. 29, crashing across my mother’s suburban New Jersey driveway with a heart-stopping “THWACK!” It sent shock waves through the neighborhood, where everyone knew Hurricane Sandy wasn’t due to hit for another three hours.
Everyone but me, that is. By now, I’d grown accustomed to major storms arriving on their own timetables to wreak havoc in my elderly parents’ lives. Up until now, all the eruptions had been medical in nature: Cancer, coma, broken bones — over the last few years, I’d managed to handle each new dark cloud as it rolled in without warning.
I hadn’t known that bad weather was literally bearing down on New Jersey when I’d arranged to spend a long weekend with Mom following her most recent hospitalization. Yet compared to all the other storms, I reassured myself, this was the first one I knew I could handle.
And the last one I ever expected to break me.
Who knows when it happened, exactly. When this stopped being one more patch of bad weather for me to get through and instead, became a part of something much bigger. Most likely it was cumulative — a gradual realization that for more than three years, my personal hurricane season had never really ended.
In the immediate moments after the first tree fell, though, I was simply doing Mom triage. Trying to convince my 86-year-old mother — just a few days removed from oxygen and the rehab facility where she’d been recovering from emergency surgery — to stop worrying and go lie down.
The last thing I wanted was for my concern to become contagious. But I was also in denial. Since my father died 3½ years ago, my mother has continued living in their large home on a quiet cul-de-sac in Westfield, N.J. The upscale commuter community is handsomely situated some 20 minutes outside of New York City — but far from my home in Atlanta and Marin County in northern California, where my older brother lives.
Mom’s not going anywhere. She’s made that clear whenever the conversation has turned — casually at first, more seriously of late — to her moving nearer to one of us. And away from everything she holds dear in New Jersey: My lively network of Irish-Catholic cousins; that big house she’s “finally getting just right”; and her many other interests. “How could I ever leave all my friends, my newspapers (she subscribes to three), my Mets?” she’ll ask rhetorically.
It’s almost as hard imagining either of us moving there. My brother is firmly rooted in California, where he’s a partner in a major law firm and his two children are just starting their young adult lives. I’m single, but “relocating newspaper reporter” isn’t exactly a hot commodity these days. Most of the time I feel lucky that New Jersey’s only about a two-hour plane ride away — until something happens to my mother and then I can’t possibly get there fast enough.
Still, we’ve managed. When Mom was unexpectedly hospitalized in late September, I spent two weeks by her side, then passed the care-taking torch on to my brother and his wife. A day after my sister-in-law got Mom released from the rehab facility and resettled at home, I flew in for the long weekend that Sandy was supposed to hit.
I spent the run-up to the storm scoring batteries and bottled water and feeling smug. The only thing worse than being trapped in a hurricane with my elderly mother, I snickered — being trapped far away from her and worrying down in Atlanta.
2. Sandy brings darkness
A few hours later, I was less sanguine. A second, enormous tree in the backyard had begun swaying like a drunk in the 80 mph winds, taking dead aim at Mom’s bedroom window. Just before 8 p.m., while she dozed downstairs, a transformer on a telephone pole exploded into a spectacular fireball. Everything went black and the furnace, TV and refrigerator all shut off. I sat up well past midnight, monitoring the news on an old Walkman and reading by candlelight.
In the light of day, the street looked like the proverbial war zone. Windows were shattered, uprooted trees and sheared off tops of telephone poles lay scattered everywhere — their wires tangled on the ground or dangling in mid-air.
The fire department was already there, sealing off the cul-de-sac with crime-scene tape:
Every inch of New Jersey has sustained massive damage. Until the power company determines none of these wires are live, it’s too dangerous to let people go on and off the street. Oh, and this is considered a back road. It’ll be at least a week to 10 days before your power’s back on.
While a handful of neighbors devised a way for us all to move our cars outside of what was dubbed “The Perimeter,” I fretted over a more daunting predicament: Frigid November was one day away. Mom was barely out of the hospital. And now she was expected to go indefinitely without light, heat, unspoiled food or working phones?
Not if I could help it.
I’d heard some isolated pockets of New Jersey still had power. Could I beat other storm refugees to snagging a safe, warm hotel room? I got on the phone to try.
For hours, the answer appeared to be “No.” Finally, my brother’s yeoman work in California turned up the number of a hotel that supposedly had power and rooms available.
They did. But only for the next day, and only for one night.
“That’s perfect,” I practically sobbed in relief.
At the hotel, Mom happily fiddled with the thermostat while I collapsed, overwhelmed, on the bed.
“I can’t believe how tired I am,” I groaned.
“I can,” Mom responded. “After all, your whole life has been like a hurricane these past few years.”
3. Early signs of trouble
The Vejnoskas’ Hurricane Season officially arrived in June 2009, although clouds had been gathering for awhile. That March, the family had gathered at a beautiful resort in Mexico for my brother Chris’s wedding. One morning, my mother misjudged a step in the blinding sunshine and fell, fracturing her wrist.
A few months later, I called home and after nattering on to Mom, I casually inquired, “So, where’s Dad?”
There was a long pause before she answered carefully:
“He’s on the floor.”
“He didn’t feel good last night and he’s propped at the foot of the bed and I can’t get him up,” she explained.
I automatically switched into reporter mode. Yes, he was conscious. No, he wouldn’t let her call the rescue squad. Finally, I asked the one question my “we don’t want to be a burden on our children” parents had never wanted to hear before:
“Do you want me to come home, Mom?”
“Um … Y- e-s.”
Dad, 86, slipped into a coma soon after I arrived in New Jersey. During the next 11 days, as he gradually moved between life and death, I learned what it meant to inhabit a caregivers’ two worlds: desperate to be there for my parents, but unable to keep my head out of my responsibilities in Atlanta.
That first year after Dad died, I constantly scanned the horizon for early warning signs of more stormy weather: Was Mom’s slowing gait normal for someone her age or something more serious to worry about? Had she always had such trouble retrieving voice mail, and why did that suddenly bother me so much now?
I was determined: No more hurricanes would be hitting our family’s house without warning.
Until one did.
4. Mom takes a bad fall
“Have you talked to Mom today?”
My frantic phone call found Chris riding from Newark Airport on his way to Mom’s house early one evening about a year after Dad’s death. From our daily conversations, I knew how excited Mom was about his visit. Indeed, I’d tricked myself into believing that was why she hadn’t answered her phone all day whenever I called:
Oh, she’s gone out to buy all of Chris’s favorite foods … Oh, now she’s taking a shower so she’ll look nice when he arrives … Oh, now she’s gone outside to wait for him and she can’t hear the phone ringing in the house …
“I’ll go in,” Chris told me, managing to keep his tone light. “But if I just see her feet sticking out of a room, I’m turning around and leaving.”
It was a joking reference to the earlier “Dad’s on the floor” scenario. And remarkably prescient. Chris walked in and found Mom sitting on the living room floor some nine hours after she’d gone out to get the newspapers and tripped. Unable to stand, she’d scuttled crablike all the way back into the house and heard me leave worried messages on the phone she couldn’t reach up to answer.
Over the next 3½ weeks, as she rehabbed from surgery for a broken hip, I took up temporary residence again in Westfield. Periodically I ran the numbers on my dwindling vacation time at work like a degenerate gambler down to his last few dollars at the track.
I hadn’t known how much I’d be needed: To buy and launder workout clothes for Mom’s twice-daily physical therapy sessions. To help pay her bills. Most important in Mom’s eyes, to summon the loyal retinue of middle-aged workmen she’d relied on since Dad died and who she saw as accomplices in her early-release scheme:
Call him to install the safety bar in the shower the therapists keep insisting I need … Call him about putting more banisters everywhere, which will get me brownie points here.
“Jeez, Mom,” I’d said. “You’re like some wily old con plotting to trick the parole board.”
Truth be told, I was enjoying watching her reclaim her independence. The daughter of a small-town New Jersey police chief, my mother has always been a colorful blend of infectious determination and wry good humor. She was the first girl in her family to attend college and is the only person I know who learned the Mass in Latin and how to tap dance. Eventually, she taught English for 23 years at Westfield High School. My high school.
Being publicly linked with someone who gave “Moby Dick” pop quizzes should’ve scarred me for life. Instead, I drafted off of her popularity. She taught honors English and when some boys wanted to start a heavy metal club, she became their faculty adviser, insisting they run it somewhere between “Roberts Rules of Order” and Quiet Riot lyrics. She never acted like my embarrassing mother in the hallways or appeared mortified when I unexpectedly quit varsity cheerleading because I thought it “dopey.”
Indeed, it can’t have been easy being my mother at times. A tall, stylish redhead who was a cross between Lauren Bacall and Lucille Ball to my adolescent eyes, Mom has always loved clothes. Even now she frequently surprises me with some cute top that goes perfectly with a skirt I’ve forgotten even owning, let alone what color it is. If it’s ever disappointed her that her only daughter lacks the fashion gene and the desire to produce grandchildren, she’s never once shown it.
Given all that, I was the last person in the world to try to dissuade her from living on her own again. Yes, she might sometimes use a walker, but she was still firing on all cylinders mentally. How could we possibly know what all she could do, she sensibly pointed out, until she got back into her familiar house and routines?
By last September, though, Hurricane Season was stretching into a fourth year and I was starting to get frazzled. Mom’s maladies were more serious this time: A tumor in her bladder, plus new diagnoses of anemia and sodium deficiency.
Initially, I was on my own: My brother and his wife were overseas when Mom got sick, and we spent the first week mostly communicating by email. Then Chris called from Turkey and every emotion I hadn’t known I was feeling came tumbling out at once.
“I can’t do this all by myself,” I shrieked, three years of upset and fear packed into a single sentence. “I … need … help!”
I definitely got it.
But then the real hurricane hit.
Somehow, I managed to talk the hotel’s staff into letting us prolong our stay into a second night, then a second week. Still, we couldn’t wait to leave. Each morning, we’d drive over to The Perimeter, and, with Mom leaning heavily on my arm, duck under the crime-scene tape and around downed wires and trees in hopes of seeing her house suddenly ablaze with light. Every afternoon I’d return on my own to nervously pace the neighborhood for signs of power trucks.
Sometimes I’d keep walking the additional mile to visit my cousin, Erin, who seemed awfully happy marooned in her own cold, dark house with her two young daughters and husband. One day I melodramatically complained about my life having “fallen apart.” Erin just smiled.
“You’ll never have this precious time with your mother again,” she reminded me.
I sighed, then smirked:
5. Frayed nerves, short fuses
She was right, of course. As cheesy as it sounds, it’s an honor taking care of my mother. And frequently fun. Mom is hilarious and wise, and we’ve had some of our best conversations while I’ve had her captive in a hospital bed or a hotel room, where she’s managed to solve some pickle in my life in the time it’s taken me to refill the ice bucket. That’s when it really hits me: She needs me now, but I’ll always need her more.
Eight days after Hurricane Sandy had blown into our lives, the power was finally restored. We gleefully switched on lights and watched the thermostat start to climb from 49 degrees before leaving. Yet the next morning, we were hit by a blast of cold air and a burning smell. While I ran around confirming the worst — the furnace was no longer working — Mom began rounding up loyal, middle-aged workmen.
By now, though, it was as if this latest, prolonged crisis had thrust our family into a fierce windstorm of mutual concern and occasional misunderstanding. When my brother said he’d come to New Jersey to relieve me — then seemed to reverse course the next day in a text message suggesting Mom fly out and stay with them — we had a long-distance phone squabble.
He didn’t understand why I’d gotten so freaked out until I confessed I’d thought he was trying to get out of coming.
I didn’t understand why he’d sounded so hurt until he told me that of course he was still coming, he already had a reservation. He’d just thought Mom might enjoy escaping for awhile.
Several mornings later, Mom and I went to a bagel shop. My order came up first and I brought it to the table, then went back to wait for hers. I returned a couple of minutes later to hear her sigh, “Your eggs are cold.”
I slammed down her plate of french toast. “What do you want me to do?” I snapped. “I can’t be everywhere at once!”
I instantly felt horrible. I knew she’d only been trying to apologize — for the eggs, for growing old and for everything else that wasn’t her fault — and I’d thrown it right back in her face.
I tried blaming it on lack of sleep. Mom would drop right off around 9 p.m. most nights, the thermostat permanently lodged at 78 degrees.
I was usually too anxious to sleep and so I’d lie there for hours sweating and listening to storm-tossed callers to sports talk radio on the old Walkman:
I’m calling from Central Jersey and I haven’t seen a power truck all week … I’m calling from my car at a gas station which is supposed to be open in four hours … I WAS calling to say that the Jets should be playing Tebow more, but now I really want to say how I think it’s disgusting if they go ahead and run the New York City Marathon this weekend …
Yet nothing could silence the confused voices in my head:
Where will we go if the hotel makes us leave before the power comes back on? When am I finally going to get fired from my job for pulling all these sudden disappearing acts? Who’ll take care of me when I’m old and don’t have enough Social Security or 401k savings as a result? What kind of a supposedly loving daughter lives so far away from her wonderful old mother, anyway?
Why, the more I tried to do, did I increasingly feel so powerless?
6. Happy to be home
“Your motor’s burned out.”
The workman was talking about the furnace, of course — but as he went on, I couldn’t help thinking he was explaining myself to me.
During the race to restore power, apparently, something had gone wrong with some wiring. We’d have to get the power company back out to fix the problem.
And so, just when it seemed like one crisis had been addressed, another one unexpectedly popped up. So what? The repair crews would just have to keep improvising, keep coming up with possible solutions. Just like our family would be doing for the duration of this latest storm. Just like we’d been doing for more than three years.
Still, there was no denying my motor had burned out, too. And it needed some repair work. Two weeks after I’d arrived for that long weekend — and just hours after a fierce Nor’easter had dumped six inches of snow — I kissed Mom goodbye and headed for the airport where Chris and I essentially crossed paths.
Over the next week, while I picked up my life again in Atlanta, my brother patiently hounded the overextended power company to return to a street they’d already been to, had the furnace fixed, schmoozed the insurance company adjuster, shopped, cooked and got Mom back where she’d always wanted to be all along: Home.
The day after Chris left, I called her on her cell. She still didn’t have “regular” phone service, but otherwise, she reported happily, things were returning to normal there.
Here too, I thought. That familiar panicked feeling I’d had a few minutes earlier when it had taken her so long to pick up the phone was mostly forgotten now that everything sounded so sunny where she was.
ABOUT THE REPORTER
Jill Vejnoska is a features writer for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, where her assignments over the past 20 years have taken her into the worlds of sports, politics, pop culture and more. She’s pulled off the rare tandem of having covered both Hillary Clinton’s first Senate campaign and Olympic synchronized swimming. A native of Westfield, N.J., she lives near Piedmont Park in Atlanta.
HOW WE GOT THE STORY
Hurricane Sandy wrecked lives and damaged homes. For Jill Vejnoska, the storm exposed the personal challenge of caring for an aging parent. When she went to visit her New Jersey home in late October, Jill had no idea that she and her 86-year-old mother would be trapped in the biggest storm of the century. As the days dragged on, an idea occurred to me: Jill should write about the experience. As you read her story, think about the skill and discipline required to capture personal moments so eloquently and so vividly and, in this case, with such love. Our journalists are dedicated to bringing AJC subscribers this kind of great storytelling every week. Tell us your own Personal Journey at email@example.com.
-- Ken Foskett, assistant managing editor
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Next week: A teenager summons her courage to fight bone cancer — and help others.