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For Seniors, Things Weren't Always So 'Normal' After Sandy

A community that's largely comprised of seniors was scrambling to find safety within its borders

The trees that fell were already chopped up and sent away. No more wires were down; indeed, the wind that pushed hard against utility poles, making them dangle as Hurricane Sandy blew though, was never strong enough to pull them completely down.

On Thanksgiving, Manchester was back to its peaceful, bucolic self. The lights were back on in every house. The gas lines at the Wawa and Quick Chek on Route 70 were short and easy.

Everything felt like it was 100 miles, or more, from the ruins that linger farther east, where Sandy pushed the Atlantic Ocean into Ortley Beach, Bay Head, Mantoloking and Seaside Heights, and mangled virtually everything that was peaceful and bucolic there, and for the foreseeable future.

In Manchester, on Thanksgiving, every street was the upside-down vision of Sea Bright, where the luxury-to-middle-class seashore community now more closely resembles an Army encampment, a triage unit for house rehabilitation, these days.

In Manchester, families could scoot out to a store and make a last-minute run for cranberry sauce; in Sea Bright, the stores are nearly all closed and condemned, with red Xs crossed against their windows. Driving to a market to get a can of anything could turn into a trip that's way too long, even if you can find a store in Long Branch, Red Bank or Rumson that's open, and safe from flooding and mold.

Being there, in Manchester, on Thanksgiving, seemed strange and eerie, an almost guilty pleasure. Here we were, sitting down with my father and family, eating a big meal, while so many others are still struggling. In a way, you really wanted to be somewhere else, maybe at a soup kitchen or shelter, delivering blankets to the many who still can't go home, who are starting to feel the chilly effects of winter creeping in.

You wanted to take that turkey, stuff it in a bag and drop it off at a FEMA office, and tell them that it's good for anybody who is looking for something more than yet another MRE supplied by the National Guard.

But dinner also reminded us that, for all its ability to repair itself on the surface, Manchester, and its 40,000 residents, suffered, too.

And this community, with its senior citizen population that rivals in size with any such community in Florida, suffered in ways that were more subtle but, perhaps, no less painful than it was for so many others in the storm-ravaged areas of Monmouth and Ocean counties.

It was no less arduous for many people who, like my 76-year-old father and his wife, are battling the effects of illness and age while recovering from the worst storm of even their lives.

"Nah, I can't remember anything being worse than this," my father said, thinking about the storms of 1962 and 1992, which also plunged communities under water. "Nothing was worse than this."

Dinner reminded me of this, as I watched my father's second wife, whom he married only three years ago, largely confined to a chair as she tries to push herself beyond the deteriorating effects of lymphoma.

When the storm hit, the lights went out at my father's Leisure Knoll house almost immediately, just as the wind howled against the windows and shutters on that Oct 29 night. Other than a brief four-hour period a few nights later, they didn't have the lights, heat, electricity - nothing, for at least a week.

My father's wife was supposed to have her biopsy by then; at the time of the storm, she still didn't know what she had that was giving her so much pain, and forcing her to keep her tired body in a chair all day. Weeks before the storm hit, I visited for a short time and hugged her, startled that I could feel almost every bone in her back, protruding against her skin.

The biopsy would be delayed, and she would be home, with my dad, wrapping every piece of blanket they could find around themselves as the temperatures steadily dropped, day by day. We tried calling, but all they had was my father's cell, and the cell phone signals were even more erratic than the weather.

Months earlier, my father proudly declared that he had gotten rid of the land-line; on Nov. 1, he was sorely regretting it.

I talked to him, briefly, on Nov. 1. He insisted he was fine before the call quickly dropped. For another couple days - with little means to go visit him, as the gas lines ran longer and my gas tank ran nearly empty - we waited and worried more, day by day.

My father later told me that he managed what he could, even though he couldn't do much for his wife, and couldn't even manage to have her move more often from her chair.

At one point, he went to BJ's in Toms River and bought as many non-perishables as he possibly could. When he got there, he could see the flood waters on Route 37 ahead of him, with street signs peeking barely above the waterline. Here was a man who served in the military, lived with the horrific ending of my mother's life nearly 10 years ago, and had lived through many storms, too. For the first time in a long time, he said, he was truly scared.

The few times we did get him on the phone, my wife and I insisted that my father and his ailing wife take refuge with us. My father's brother-in-law was more forceful; he demanded that she come with him, to their house in Northwest Jersey.

Cold, hungry, and no longer comfortable even in her own chair, the one she could barely ever move herself out of, she did.

Days later, the lights went back on, and they both found respite by finding warmth in other places. Still, they were tired and weary. Then came the biopsy and the diagnosis; evolving from exhaustion came pain and worry.

I called my dad and insisted that we cook Thanksgiving dinner, and deliver it to them. My wife and I planned to cook it the day before; we'd bring it in trays, serve it all on disposable plates, clean it all up afterward and then let them be.

"You've done so much for me, and served so many meals for me," I told my dad. "It's time I did something for you."

My father then went into his modest-mode, ever afraid to acknowledge praise.

I grew up in a family where my mother and father fought consistently. My father often took out his anger on others, and his children, largely because he knew that, with my mother, a life-long sufferer of mental illness, he could never win.

Nearly 10 years after her death, he's had to live down a lot of what he lived before. He still carries so much guilt, especially with his children, because he feels that his relationship with my mother prevented him from providing for his children in a way that, he believes, would have been proper.

"What have I done for you?" he told me. "I haven't done anything for you"

"You raised three children, and turned them into decent human beings," I told him. "It's the least I can do."

Billabong November 26, 2012 at 12:06 PM
Tom, you've highlighted your own personal situation with how the storm affected your family but there's also a significant segment of non-seniors in Manchester, Toms River, Bayville, Brick, etc. who work in healthcare facilities who tended to the residents of their facilities during the storm - and they did so while sacrificing the needs of their own families. These healthcare workers that left their families (many with young children) during the storm and resulting blackout to ensure the safety and care of others should be commended. It's just another example of how, by-and-large, the people of NJ have really pulled together to help each other out.
suz November 26, 2012 at 02:08 PM
Great writing...I wish you and your family brighter days ahead.
BD November 26, 2012 at 04:01 PM
Tom -- beautifully written and it brought tears to my eyes to reflect on being a parent myself and having to be the 'present" and "constant" in my own children's lives and how they were denied so much...Tom, your story brings reflection in that we all do "the best we can with what we have"..Thoughts and prayers are with you, your Dad, his wife and your families..
BytheC42 November 26, 2012 at 05:27 PM
Beautiful story! Tell your dad not to feel guilty about cutting off his land line phone. I still have one, but it didn't work for many days after the storm. We were on our cell phones...charging them in our cars. The very best to your step mother. You are all in my prayers. Also, tell your dad, he must have done something right to have raised such a caring son. :)
Jay Gee November 26, 2012 at 06:14 PM
YES, CRIED, CRIED, CRIED. NICE....

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