On the day that hurricane Maria whipped toward Puerto Rico, my husband took our daughters outside to wait for the school bus. It was a breezy and pleasant autumn morning, and my 5-year-old pulled up her hoodie and turned her rosy cheeks toward the wind, sweetly asking, “Daddy, is this the hurricane that is going to take Mima away?”
Mima is what I call my grandmother, her great grandmother. I winced and assured her that no, that would not happen, and went back inside. I sat in front of the television all day, nervously tossing the remote control between my hands, watching images of swirling dark red and orange bands over the island of my birth.
I managed to get a single phone call in to Mima as the storm began to hit, and heard only panic in her voice as she screamed, the winds already too loud for her to hear me. My elderly grandmother said her goodbyes, “just in case.” Having lost her signal, I began texting my godmother, living in another city, as the eye approached her home. She answered with messages saying, “This is too strong, it will take the whole house,” and “I think the doors may go, pray for us!” before she, too, fell silent. My phone quiet, a heaviness settled in.
Aware of an infrastructure unable to handle the punishment and cognizant of the way the island has already been thrashed by an economic crisis and a decades-long exodus, I thought of the concrete- and steel-framed homes of my family. I took solace in that anchoring. But I remembered the small wooden structures of those less fortunate, with zinc roofs and brightly painted walls, the humble homes that look at once ethereal and vulnerable, perched on hilltops and oceanside bluffs all over the island. A kind of numbness set in, as I closed my eyes and remembered narrow streets lined by lush trees, places so familiar I could map them with my fingertips. I imagined the ocean forcing its way in, claiming whatever stood in its way.
For the next few days I, like many Puerto Ricans on the mainland United States, watched and waited. I sat on the front porch with my phone and laptop in hand, frozen by worry, short tempered and distant. I felt useless and far away. It is always difficult to feel you are of two places, never fully belonging to one or the other, but this was a distinct and peculiar desperation, an exercise in futility.
Days later, messages came: The family is fine, but Puerto Rico “is no longer the place you remember; the island is destroyed.”
I grieved a loss that unfolded gradually, with each image of devastation. A whole landscape of memories ceased to exist as before. I searched for landmarks in pictures, sought loved ones in calls to nowhere. I stared at images of people in waist-deep water trying to salvage food, waiting for help to materialize, and sat immobile. My mind kept returning to a night time satellite image of Puerto Rico post-hurricane, its outline barely noticeable — an invisible island, rarely invoked beyond tourism and debt.
As my daughters hovered by my laptop or strained to listen in on a call, I realized that in my despair and desire to shield them, I was isolating them — pushing them away at a time when they had the most to learn about community, family and solidarity. They felt my need to understand and do something too, and I wasn’t acknowledging that by retreating into relief efforts alone, or by refusing to let them see me cry.
My kids, ages 8 and 5, have been to Puerto Rico many times, but had no concept of what a hurricane is capable of. I had a Caribbean childhood, with the glory of its languid days as well as the constant sensation of being on the precipice, of knowing that nature takes as it gives. I had tracked hurricanes by hand as a kid, on little maps using latitude and longitude. I developed a sense of “mi gente,” (my people), of being of a place and a culture at a young age, a cadence of the tongue and sense of familiarity my children had only glimpsed over the years.
When my 8-year-old shyly asked me, “Can kids like me help Puerto Rico too?” I replied that they certainly could, and we talked about ways anyone can fundraise and tell people about what is happening, and how we can send desperately sought supplies. I explained what a humanitarian disaster is, how lack of clean drinking water affects a community, and why I’m so worried that my cousin’s wife may not receive the insulin she needs to live.
I showed my daughter pictures of places in Puerto Rico she recognized from happy trips and what they looked like now, stripped of roofs and greenery, as people cleared streets with their bare hands. I asked her if she would like to help kids just like her find a new normal, and what she thinks might be needed to do that. I realized I wasn’t only giving my daughter agency, I was helping her connect with a side of herself and her extended family that she had been reaching out for, even if she couldn’t quite articulate it. I was giving her access to a part of myself, of herself.
I have since tried to integrate my daughters, particularly my eldest, into the daily coordination of contacts and aid efforts. I let her witness the quiet dignity of people coming together as best they can, amid a physical and political edifice that has shattered. I have allowed her to be more aware of the news than ever before, so that she may know that far from an island of ingrates and lazy people, she carries with her legacies of a complicated place, a commonwealth devoid of wealth that has long faced the head winds of history, a place full of American citizens who are often not recognized as such, a society split between islanders and the diaspora, a people wedged by languages and oceans but united by a proud solidarity and willingness to come to one another’s aid.
Now, when I call my grandparents and am periodically able to get through, I let my girls listen to my grandfather, a U.S. combat veteran, try to sing on the phone post stroke. I let them listen to my bedridden grandmother, struggling in the relentless heat without electricity or a generator, reciting the rosary before the signal cuts out. We plan ways to be of service the next time we are on the island, and discuss how our local Connecticut elementary school’s fundraiser for hurricane relief is going.
When my eyes are red, I don’t tell the kids I was washing my face anymore. I say that mama cried today, but tomorrow might be better. And I tell them, “Puerto Rico se levanta.” Puerto Rico will pick itself up.
Lara N. Dotson Renta is a freelance writer, scholar, and yogi. She is developing a narrative nonfiction memoir that traces the history of Puerto Rico through family narratives. She tweets.