Preliminary notes on a disaster

It’s Sunday night. We’ve been without power two days. The cat is over-nigh at the emergency vet after a bout of stress cystis nearly killed him. We’re sitting at the kitchen table lit by a single camp lantern. Its LED is an intense white light but it mostly just casts shadows. We’re trying to play a board game to keep our minds off of the destruction. We choose games about building things, growing things. We couldn’t handle something driven by more explicit conflict but a lot of our traditional faves are out of the question – the lantern isn’t enough light to read the cards by.

The tedium is one of the things stories about disasters never touch on. You are living in a condition of the other shoe having dropped. The storm has passed but the clean-up is all still ahead and you have to sit in your fear: what if the lights never come back on? What if you run out of water? It’s possible you could go buy water. But there are line-ups at the doors of every open grocery far worse than those from the early days of COVID. Water is a hot commodity. You need to balance the ticking clock of a draining reserve against the opportunity cost of standing in the rain for an hour just to discover the people ahead of you cleared out the shelves.

The reduction of the world to one lamp and a few dim candles changes your subjectivity. Before the storm evenings were free time. We would read or play games or watch a show but we would do so comfortable that whatever we wanted to do we could. Now you stay near the lamp or you sit in a darkened room. We begin following each other around the house – our schedules slowly click into a kind of simpatico brought about by the constraint of available light.

It’s Friday night. The platonic dark and stormy night. I’m watching a horror movie on my couch alone after my family has gone to bed. I figure it might be my last chance for a while (and I’m right). The rain is pressing against the window on our north wall so hard that the glass is bowing. I’m a bit afraid to go to bed because of the old walnut tree next to the house. If it fell it would fall directly on my room. The power stays on long enough for me to finish my movie and the stress of the storm coupled with the anxiety of a tense film has left me tired enough to sleep. I lie in bed listening to the noise outside. Eventually the lights die but I don’t notice because I’ve already turned everything off. I will get my confirmation in the morning when my toilet stops flushing.

It’s Tuesday morning and I’m driving to work. We heard a rumour that the lights were back on at our office building downtown and maybe even internet? It’s worth the fuel to come in from the countryside. And anyway, there’s water to be had in town. When we arrive we discover the lights are on but the internet is out. Work has become another warming center – albeit one locked behind a key card. After a half hour of fiddling I manage to jury-rig the internet to work and get to doing my job but the attempt to restore normalcy breaks me open and tears begin to flow. I keep myself off camera for calls all day, claiming I’m conserving limited bandwidth but it’s because I don’t want my colleagues to see me cry. I don’t even really know why I’m crying now. The cat is back from the hospital. He’s alive but he’s rough and hiding a lot. We still don’t have water at home but our house survived the storm unscathed so at least we’re warm and dry.

So many people aren’t that lucky.

It’s Saturday afternoon. The storm that had been screaming outside all day has finally begun to subside – drifting off to expend its fury on Newfoundland where it will wash the town of Port aux Basques into the sea. We emerge from the house and examine the damage. Our greenhouse is miraculously undamaged but our solar panels are gone. We walk around some more and find them face down in the field next to the struts they stood on. We don’t know if they’re insured or not. In a few hours we will discover that our cat is sick but there are four trees down across our driveway and the wind and rain are still too high for me to safely cut us out with me being a green novice with the chainsaw. We decide to wait until the morning and reassess. By morning the cat is nearly dead but a neighbour, unaware that we were even home, brings his chainsaw and clears the path to the road. We cling desperately to the belief he just saved a life.

Time loses meaning in all this. We still have clocks but they’re not relevant. We do daylight things in daylight; we do night-time things in the dark. Most of our activity is geared just to keeping us going and alive.

But not all of us survive.

It’s Wednesday afternoon. A beautiful day. My cat dies in my arms. The vet kept him overnight, made sure he was able to pee on his own. The vet loves the cat; he’s so friendly and playful. Just a perfect little kitty. They were almost sorry to see him go but he seemed to have recovered and we wanted our friend, our family member, home. But things quickly start going wrong. He doesn’t want to touch his new food. He doesn’t drink. He fights against his medicine. He spends his last days hiding under my daughter’s bed or sleeping next to her at night. Wednesday he seems lethargic and drowsy. We hope it’s a side effect of the medicine and he’s still peeing – but he seems to be incontinent. We call the vet and they give us monitoring instructions. My wife takes a vacation day to look after him. There’s electricity at work again so we’re both supposed to be back. I go in. She calls me in the midst of a meeting telling me that we need to get the cat back to the vet quickly and I rush home – hindered by a vast traffic jam caused by the needs of road crews cutting trees out of power lines along the highway. The vet tells us he’s blocked again. His electrolytes are out of balance again. We’re back to square one. They can do everything they did before all over again but they aren’t observing the crystals they’d associate with stress cystis in his samples and the truth is they don’t know why his bladder and kidneys are shutting down. They cannot promise even the most heroic efforts would let him recover. They don’t say it but we are thinking it: the storm has killed my cat; it’s just taking a while to finish the job.

He dies in my arms knowing he was always loved. He’s only one year old. I don’t sleep well that night. I keep waking to the sound of feet scampering in the attic but they stop as soon as I’m awake and alert. I don’t know whether these liminal footsteps are an animal or if they’re just the remnants of dreams of a missing friend. I’m too tired to look.

Depictions of disaster in popular art are neat and tidy. They focus on the moment of crisis – the sharp fear of devastation and the bright excitement of survival. But the truth is that this is not the true nature of the disaster. Time breaks down around you. There’s a heavy grief that occupies you for lost friends, lost possessions and the shared pain of a community struggling to reconstruct itself amidst the ruins of the event. Bataille’s inner experience captures the fragmented nature of thought at the edge of what a person can tolerate. Sentences break down. Time sense becomes confused as the pain of the past, the doldrum of the present and the blank grey fear of the future all crowd together. I was in a meeting when I got the call from the vet to have that talk. All I could manage to get out for the longest time were fragments: “I just…” “I can’t.” Eventually I managed to force out, “I have to go,” but still I lingered to the end of the call – as much as I couldn’t stand to be in the present moment I also couldn’t stand the idea of moving toward that awful future I could anticipate ahead of me.

The truth was that in the anticipation of that moment I was already there, in that future time, living through it. There is still a future for us. Those of us who remain. And there are still routines that need to be served. Work needs to be done. Livestock needs feeding. We have another cat and a dog who we love and who can’t understand why their third companion is gone and won’t come back. There still isn’t electricity at home. There’s still no running water. So I’m sitting in my office: my actual office that I normally never go to since I work from home most every day, trying to work and lose myself in routines but it’s not enough and my sense of time remains unmoored. I’m still living in Friday night watching the storm push in my windows. I’m still living in Saturday afternoon, surveying the destruction of my farm. I’m still living in Wednesday afternoon, in a comfortable but impersonal room watching my cat die between my tears.

Disasters shatter time. So many things are broken: landscapes, properties, lives but, in the aftermath, it’s the breaking of chronology that cuts to the soul. You are pulled in a thousand temporal directions – unable to grieve properly because you’re still at the start, anticipating the terror to come an at the middle, struggling to understand and at the end, trying to pick up the pieces all at once.