Squelch, I stepped off the new mattress on the floor into water-soaked carpet and ran down the hall to my mom’s room. I had left my 8-year-old son at his dad’s home so I could help my mom through the hurricane that was headed for Houston. “Get up now, Mama, the water’s in the house!” I shook her awake, helped her take off her CPAP mask, and groped through the blankets until I found her oxygen cannula. Her shoes and brace were on the floor by her bed, thankfully still on an island of dry carpet. I quickly laced them before she swung her legs out of bed so that she would not step barefoot into the still water reflecting dawn light at the edges of the room. As I stepped into the bathroom to make sure the path was clear, I saw brown bayou water flowing up into the tub from the drain. The power stayed on; I have no idea how we weren’t electrocuted in the ankle-deep water. We took turns that first night taking catnaps on her bed, until the smell of mold from the carpet got so bad that we couldn’t stay in her bedroom. The next 2 nights, my mom slept in a La-Z-Boy recliner in the living room, rendered permanently reclined by water, and I slept on the love seat with the dog. During the day, perched on the kitchen counter, I alternated between scrolling my cell phone for news of rescue efforts, and burying it in a bag of dry rice; it was so humid that my phone wasn’t holding a charge. But we had food, bottled water, and the tank of liquid oxygen still had pressure. Coast Guard choppers thundered along the flight path over our roof. As the water subsided, I was able to crowdsource a dry route to my home using the Nextdoor app for my zip code and hers. I crammed my mom, the dog, and the essentials into my mom’s Subaru Forester, backed us around my flooded car, and got us the heck out of there.
Entering my neighborhood felt surreal. Traffic lights glowed, and a few cafés were serving food. The next few weeks were a blur. After I sourced an oxygen concentrator – the closest Apria vendor who answered the phone was in Oklahoma - my mom sat on the balcony of my tiny duplex, peeling apart wet family photos and papers. The landlord called. She wanted everything out of the main house in 48 hours to have the sheetrock pulled. I worked with one of the hired caregivers and her family to salvage what we could and stuff it in the garage. We dragged the rest to the curb. Finding a dry rental was like the gold rush. We finally found a place through a friend of a friend, and it was time to pack up everything from the garage and move it again. Imagine the intro scene of the Beverly Hillbillies, with the Clampetts and their belongings in the truck and Granny Moses in her rocker on the top. There were no boxes, packing tape, rope, bleach, or moving trucks to be found. Our ragtag pickup truck caravan crept down the freeway to the new place.
The trauma of losing so much so quickly was too much. Before long, the new rented house was filled with stuff – furniture delivered from Wayfair and hastily assembled on weekends, and odds and ends ordered online. My mom needed a comfortable home, so we made it as best as we could, even though by then she was in the hospital more than she was home.
Less than a year later, she passed away. With family, I sorted through the stuff again. What remained of family photos and heirlooms came home with me, and we boxed the rest into a storage unit. When I was able to deal with it, I learned that estate sale companies can do online auctions from storage units. I rented a second unit for staging and photography, and a month later it was all gone. Except there was still another house full of stuff to clear out. My mom had kept her house where she had enjoyed the best years of her retirement in the Rocky Mountain foothills of Buffalo Creek, Colorado. After she reluctantly returned to Houston because of her health, she maintained it as a vacation home for friends and family, and she would visit when she was able. I had a second estate sale, this time remotely from Houston.
Sorting through my mom’s things bolstered the efforts I had already begun to lighten my life. At the end of my marriage, I needed a fresh start, so I took few of the shared things. I wrote down what I wanted my home to feel like and listed my values. I still mentally refer to that list when I consider bringing things or people into my life. Living lightly allows me to live affordably in an overpriced, walkable neighborhood with a good school for my son and many fantastic parks nearby.
I believe that community and deep relationships are essential, and belongings are transient. In our limited time on this Earth, we need people who care about us, opportunities to show we care for them, more good memories than bad, resilience, and most of all a sense of humor. All of these are sketched into the design of cohousing, and we are building it here in Houston.