After the Hurricane
Patricia Barker hugged her bony knees to her chest as she sat on the sidewalk amidst all the rubble. She coughed. A light rain was still falling and her hair dribbled cold water down her hunched back and shoulders.
Oblivious to the rain, Patty sobbed quietly to herself. Rain drops joined her tears and trickled down her cheeks. She kept staring at the demolition site that had been her home. Her sanctuary. It had been the only shelter she had ever owned in her life.
What was the point anymore? How could she rebuild? With no money and no one to help her. And she had no idea how to paint, sew curtains or dig a fresh garden. Too many years living on the streets where the only skills she developed were raw survival skills.
Patty thought about how her ill-fated life had arrived at this wretched day. She cast her mind back past this week’s hurricane, back to when she was nine. That was the first low blow. That was when her father left them. Then she was alone with her drunkard mother, trying to be the head of the family for both of them. Her mother was a sad, hopeless case and just like her father, Patty fled as soon as she could.
She found herself on the streets at fourteen.
She quickly learned that if you weren’t street-smart you wouldn’t survive, so Patty had to toughen up. She remembered forming a loose coalition with other street kids and she sort of got by. Until the drugs, and the pregnancy. They took away her baby and pushed her back out onto the streets the same day.
Twenty years later, Patty was given hope and purpose through the kindness and support of the Salvation Army. Finally, someone believed in her. Someone actually cared. She gained some self-respect and began giving back. She volunteered at the Sallies shelters and reached out to others even less fortunate. This led to paid work and finally to some stability.
Patty became curious about her father. She hadn’t seen him for over thirty years but she was eventually able to track him down, living here in Houston.
She recalled their emotional reunion. It had taken an immense amount of courage to finally knock on his door. Would he recognize her? Would he welcome her or drive her away? When realization dawned, he had broken down and cried. They cried together. He had carried the guilt of leaving her all these years and she had carried a sense of abandonment that needed to be healed. Together, they slowly managed to heal each other.
At her father’s urging, she moved into his cosy little house, right here on this lot. For the first time, she had a home and she loved keeping it clean and pretty. She learned how to cook for them and took care of her dad who was becoming more and more frail as time passed. And then came his devastating diagnosis. It only took another eight months for the cancer to take him.
The day he died he said, “My darlin’ daughter, you have been such a joy to me in my waning years. My greatest regret has always been abandoning you when you were a child. I have nothing to leave you but our home. It was built the year I was born, back in 1934, eighty-one years ago. So, I want you to take good care of her and she’ll take care of you.”
Patty felt a dreadful sense of loss. To ease her loneliness, she went down to the shelter and got a dog to keep her company. Looking back, she recognized that this was one of the best things she had done in her train-wreck of a life. She loved him to bits and Buster loved her back in that devoted, unjudging way that dogs do.
Despite the grief at losing her father, Patty became consoled by the joy of her little house and her faithful little dog.
Until Hurricane Harvey chose to take everything away from her.
She hadn’t seen Buster since the night of the storm when half of their house blew to pieces. She fretted that he had been buried under the mountains of rubble piled everywhere, as far as the eye could see. Could he still be alive? Trapped, starving and frightened? Had he died a horrible death? She agonized over the awful possibilities.
The council authorities had assessed the damaged homes in her street, condemning those that were unsafe and couldn’t be saved. Yesterday, they had sent in the demolition team, who flattened Patty’s ruined house and took away all the bulky construction material. All that was left was a scattered mess. Just trash.
She looked across at Tom and Gary busy working to restore their home. Her neighbors hadn’t been as devastated as Patty, only losing parts of their roof and all of their shed. They were busy today, shifting debris and fallen trees, and there were tradies working on the roof.
Patty caught another sob in her throat. She hadn’t been able to afford insurance and she had no funds to rebuild. She had nothing! Not even her dear little dog.
But what was that? She heard a dog barking in the distance and she imagined it sounded familiar. She stood up and looked around but she refused to feel hope. She steeled herself against further pain. After all, she was used to disappointment.
But there he was!
Bouncing toward her, tail wagging for all he was worth, Buster raced to greet her. Patty scooped him up in her arms and this time she cried out loud. He was bedraggled, with a couple of scrapes on him but he was otherwise alright. Patty had a sandwich in her tote, which she broke apart and fed to her best friend. He wolfed it down and took a drink from a nearby puddle.
Suddenly Patty felt the weight of depression lift, just a little. But it was enough. It was like a rebel shaft of sunshine momentarily piercing the sullen gray clouds. She had to make an effort, she had to tap some inner strength and try to make a home again. For her and Buster. She had to give herself one last shot, to thumb her nose at the hurricane and all the blows that life had repeatedly dealt her.
Patty and Buster moved onto the property and she started sifting through the piles of debris with a renewed sense of purpose. She found a few of her possessions, muddy but still intact, and carefully set them aside.
What was that? She spied a ragged piece of carpet sticking up out of the ground which the foundations had once covered. She started digging around it with a length of battening, but it snapped.
“Hey, Tom?” she called.
“What’s up?” asked her neighbor as he looked over.
“Can I borrow a spade? I’ve found something strange.”
Tom wandered over and one of the tradesmen came with him.
“Here, love,” said the tradie, offering her a spade.
It only took a few moments for Patty to dig into the damp soil and hit something hard.
“What’s that?” asked Tom. He crouched down and helped Patty scratch away some more dirt. They soon revealed something hard and square, partly wrapped in rotting carpet. A rusty metal chest.
“Let’s pull this box out,” said Tom.
Patty and Tom lifted it out and Patty prised open the lid. Inside, she found a large number of gold twenty-dollar coins, with eagles on them.
“Wow! There’s gotta be more than a hundred of those things! What a great find,” said Tom.
Patty was amazed. How fabulous. “What do you think they’re worth?” she asked.
“They’ve gotta be worth at least twenty bucks each and if they are really old, they might be collector’s items and worth more. You should take them to the bank and have them valued.”
The bank manager was speechless. They had counted one hundred and thirty-one gold coins, all in very good condition.
“These are rare Saint Gaudens gold $20 double eagles, minted in 1933. About the time your house was built,” he finally managed. “They are a collector’s dream.”
The manager called in a staff member who was an avid coin collector.
“What do you think, Stephen?” asked the bank manager.
Stephen’s eyes were round. “Ah, these days they go for over eight thousand, maybe eight and a half thousand – each!”
The bank manager did a quick calculation and declared, “So, you have just over a million dollars’ worth here, Miss Barker.”
He looked at her. “What do you plan to do with all that?”
She was thrilled beyond imagining. She recalled her father’s last words and sure enough, the house was taking care of her!
“I-I guess I’ll rebuild my home again. And I’ve always wanted to visit Hawaii. And there are some neighbors that will be needing some help, too.”
The bank manager smiled, and said kindly, “You’re a good woman, Patricia Barker.”