Flooded out and homeless

[Grief] is everything. It is the fabric of selfhood, and beautifully chaotic

—Max Porter, Grief is the Thing with Feathers, 2014: 104.

On the 4th of January 2017, eleven months after Karl’s death, a new challenge brings me sharply back to accepting my so-called reality. After a short Christmas holiday at the beach with Rose Gardener, I return to Brisbane to Rose’s house in Brisbane’s Vulture Street, my safe haven and my hideaway.

Rose and I both know that the downstairs of her West End house is flood-prone (a drainage issue related to housing density and over-development in that neighbourhood).

But we have relaxed our vigilance.

I have settled in so well into my old neighborhood, and I just love living there.

On the evening of January 4th, I hear the sounds of heavy rain on the verandah roof. I retrieve the cushions from the verandah. Then I hear an ominous gurgle coming from the toilet. Bill, the carpenter, has built up a ledge between the bathroom and the rest of the house, and I am prepared with a sandbag, but they provide no resistance against the flood.

Within seconds, a torrent of water surges up through both drains in the bathroom floor.

I AM flooded out.

In less than a minute, toxic water fills the whole of my accommodation: Category 3: Black Water, the most dangerous form of flooding, as it contains human and animal wastes and can cause serious illness.

I am flooded out.

My mind cannot accept what has happened, desperately trying to make it un-happen. Everything the water touches is declared contaminated: about half of my belongings. Scrapbooks, photograph albums, all my shoes, a hundred books, all my suitcases, rugs, antique timber furniture. I race around in the ankle-deep water, saving what I can, tossing things onto higher surfaces.

I phone someone who phones someone else for help.

I slump in a folding chair on the back lawn, as dozens of men in fluoro jackets swarm over the property, finally leaving at two am. I have cleaned, painted, and partly renovated that property. Now it is poisoned and uninhabitable.

And I am homeless.

Rose’s experience of the flood

Worse, still, Rose is devastated by the flood at her house. Amid my drama, Rose has a diagnosis for breast cancer and requires urgent surgery. She fears that she may never be able to sell her house because it is now officially declared flood-prone. She is forced to engage in weeks of arduous investigations, driving hundreds of miles each day to Brisbane and back to her home, trying to determine the source of the flood (which, it turns out, had nothing to do with her property).

It is a terrible time for both of us.

I am so self-obsessed that I cannot even imagine that anyone else is suffering. 

Later Rose will say simply, “I did the best I could.”

Much later, I will apologize to her for my insensitivity. Rose will forgive me.

Blessedly, our deep friendship survives.

A PTS trigger

The flood is a powerful PTS trigger. Standing in shallow water as the remaining vestiges of my life float away on rising water is an inescapable reminder of standing in the Tweed River beside our car, with Karl trapped inside.

My life is floating away. Again.

I am terrified. Now I feel I have lost my anchor. I have no safe haven, no refuge. I need a place where I can recover from this shock. Further, I desperately need reassurance from APIA, my insurance company, that they will listen to me and allow me to find a safe place to live. (I have found an apartment for rent right across the street, but they refuse to accept it because their policy states that I must move back to my original place of residence.)

Rose and I have the same insurance company (APIA). They are dedicated to pensioners, they say. (It’s in the company’s name.) We wonder, after dozens of infuriating phone calls with them, why they choose to focus on a market they apparently can’t understand. APIA staff tell me that: (a) I am underinsured; (b) I am not eligible for emergency accommodation; (c) I am not eligible for transitional accommodation; and (d) I must move back to my place of residence immediately. 

All of these unreasonable assertions and demands make me crazy. Rose is not far behind. The agents demand that Rose rent her home again to me as soon as the floor is disinfected.

“Forget it. It’s uninhabitable. It’s no longer for rent, not now, not ever” Rose yells back at them.

“You’re not the one to decide that,” asserts the APIA claims adjuster.

It’s lucky that Rose and I are close friends because this madness could destroy a fragile friendship.

The shock of the flood

I do manage to get into emergency housing, and there, in Brisbane City, the shock of the flood slowly begins to register. Then I become very sick. I am terrified my fragile mental health will collapse and I will revert to my post-crash mental state (of PTS). Nothing terrifies me more than returning to that condition.

A blessing in disguise

Then, astonishingly, after I organize insurance adjusters to inspect the property, part of my mind realizes that the flood is a blessing in disguise. It is “vintage Karl.” (Karl never  did anything straightforwardly.)

Within each disaster, I discover a marigold, another unexpected manifestation of grace. I intend to move to Vancouver in less than five months, planning to give away most of my belongings. Now my APIA household contents insurance will reimburse me for the lost items (“new” for “old”). That will pay for my move to Canada.

Thanking Karl for the miracle

When I thank Karl for the blessing of the flood, he exclaims:

I am so relieved. This flood was a test for us! I did some heavy lifting for this to happen — genuinely to help you. It’s excellent that your first response was to see the blessing in what looks like chaos…. I so appreciate that you are finally getting the gist of how I can operate in the world.