In college, I went on a date with the son of my mother’s coworker. I couldn’t remember if his name was Jason or Justin, so I spent the entire night maneuvering my way out of saying his name. He... [+]
“It’s 7:45,” Mom replied and appeared in the doorway looking concerned.
Emily jumped up. “I can still make it if you drive me - sorry I overslept, Mom.”
“No, Em, I don’t think school is open today,” said Mom.
“The power is out. The wifi and phones are dead. The neighbors have the same problem. Something is wrong and we’re not sure what.” Mom said. “You may as well sleep in. I’ll wake you later if the power comes back.”
When Emily finally woke, ready to eat, nothing had changed except the position of the sun. In the kitchen, her mother offered cold cereal or sandwiches, explaining that today would be like camping at home in a hurricane – minus the weather problem. No one in the neighborhood had power, phones, or anything that required grid connection. A neighbor had driven to his closed workplace and found that whatever happened had crippled the entire town of Smithville and neighboring towns. One neighbor had news that Philadelphia and New York were affected. It was the longest day for Emily who kept checking her phone for a Snapchat or Instagram post, only to see a dark screen. By late afternoon, Emily’s mom inflicted fresh air in the form of an obligatory brisk walk, ensuring the family was home in time to help Dad prepare a no-cook meal and help Mom locate candles, flashlights and batteries before settling in for a long dark night, quiet but for crickets and Latino music emanating from apartments a block away. Emily’s family went to sleep early anticipating a better day tomorrow. Yet the next day, nothing had changed.
Afternoon family walks were starting to feel routine after a week of aimless days being cut off from the power grid and internet. Emily had met a friend or two who lived in easy walking distance and her family had re-discovered card games at night by candlelight. They had to fudge on rules that no one could quite remember since they had grown accustomed to having answers at their electronic fingertips to resolve rule disputes. Negotiating compromises acceptable to the players was a novel experience for Emily and her brother and a rusty skill for her parents, but they improved a little each night and no blood was shed. The sound of Latino music in the night began to comfort Emily, the same way her father’s snoring always had – a sign that everything is alright.
Each day however, Emily noticed her parents and other adults in the neighborhood growing anxious as news was received that the power loss was more widespread than they thought. No one had been able to go far enough to find evidence of intact grid service. The power company and other services did not seem to be making headway. Groceries and bottled water were growing scarce, the banks remained closed, garbage cans overflowed, and the sky was void of air traffic except birds. From the lack of airplanes, one neighbor surmised the entire country might be affected. Emily overheard the grownups starting to whisper about how they could take care of their community if the situation continued indefinitely. No FEMA or Red Cross trucks were showing up to save them, and the adults were beginning to realize this could be the new normal for a while.
The sound of distressed arguing adults startled Emily awake in the middle of the night and without electricity it was a terrible dark. She heard her parents and the next-door-neighbor arguing about where they could take elderly Mrs. Miller who had fallen in her house and needed emergency care. This seemed an impossibility without phones to call an ambulance and no power at the hospital. The community had always had reliable 911 emergency service but that was no option tonight.
Emily wanted to crawl back in bed and drown out the commotion with her iPod music but that was no option either. Her brother came in her room looking on the verge of tears. They both knew the pain of listening to frustrated upset adults and they wanted to make it stop. Emily could feel her hands tensing and her teeth hurt as she stopped herself from grinding them.
“This is awful!” Ethan said. “We gotta do something, Em! The grownups are freaking out and I can’t stand it.”
Suddenly Emily remembered a scene from Yara’s house when Yara’s grandma was sick and was nursed back to health with homemade remedies from the community garden. Emily asked why they didn’t take Yara’s grandma to the doctor and Yara said they didn’t need to because her mom and neighbor knew what to do from their life in Guatemala. She said many Guatemalans care for their own sick because hospitals are expensive and often too far away. Yara’s mom had added “Yes Yara – and in this country we don’t have money to pay fancy health insurance, so we care for people in our traditional ways.”
“Mom! Dad!” Emily raced down the stairs. “I know who can help Mrs. Miller! Let’s go, Ethan!”
“Wait, what are you doing – it’s dangerous out there, Em!” Mom called to no avail. Emily knew what she needed to do and gave no thought to her safety.
Emily and Ethan bolted into the night, cut across the vacant lot and banged on Yara’s door. They were not afraid because in the past month, Em and Ethan had run this route many times to cure their boredom.
“¿Qué pasa contigo!?” Yara’s father cursed as he opened the door.
Emily and Ethan barged past Mr. Garcia-Perez where Mrs. Garcia-Perez caught Emily. “Emily! What is wrong?”
Emily tugged her toward the door shouting, “Mrs. Miller fell and is badly hurt! She’s old and needs help and there is no 911! She needs YOUR help. Please help her!”
“Let’s go, Mama,” Mr. Garcia-Perez said, pulling on his work pants and handing Mrs. Garcia-Perez a robe.
Emily had never been to a candlelight funeral, but the service for Mrs. Miller had felt especially sacred in candlelight with so many neighbors from the two communities in Smithville gathering together. Mr. Miller expressed his gratitude to the Garcia-Perez family for all they had done to nurture and comfort Mrs. Miller and him since the night of Mrs. Miller’s fall. He expressed wonder that they had never crossed paths living only a block apart until the harrowing night that began Mrs. Miller’s sad decline. He thanked Emily and Ethan for having the courage and wisdom to summon help in the dark of night from these neighbors who had so generously shared their resources which many people had not known existed. Emily’s parents beamed with pride at the recognition their children were so courageous in the face of adults upset and untrusting. Their children had brought neighbors together who had lived as separate communities until now.
Walking home from the service, Emily felt happy and hopeful as she listened to Mom and Mrs. Garcia-Perez plan meals that would use the Garcia-Perez family’s brick oven, Emily’s family’s grill, and food they could share from their pantries and gardens. They talked about preserving food for winter in case the power took longer to restore than imagined. The fathers and other neighbors were planning how Smithville would establish communication and economic systems, prepare for winter, and make other efforts to stretch community resources for as long as necessary. Emily and Ethan and Yara saw people working together who had never spoken to each other in the past, and they knew that life would be okay, grid or no grid.