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Finding Resilience in the Midst of Hurricane Florence


Avis and her brother, Bruce, have seen some hard knocks in their lives. 

At 60, she's his sole caretaker. She's taught school, worked as a receptionist, always worked, or wanted to work.

Since she started caring for her brother, full-time work has seemed hard to find. 

He was born with autism 51 years ago.

They share her little house in Pamlico County, North Carolina, where she now hopes to be called in to substitute teach, and he looks forward to her home cooked meals. 

Their lives revolve around family, friends, and church. She plays the piano for Sunday services and writes articles for the congregation's paper.

A car accident some years ago left her terrified of driving. But in the last six months or so, she's gotten her courage up and driven alone several times, most recently to the school where she just started getting called in again to help out in the after-school program. This is a good thing, as it could ultimately lead to more work as a substitute teacher. Avis is hopeful.

When her cousin called to say that Hurricane Florence meant she needed to evacuate her home, Avis dutifully packed up her brother and herself.

I can imagine her humming a hymn as she put a few things in suitcases for the two of them. I can imagine that she was praying hard as she drove to the community college where she would have to leave her old van, and feeling nervous as she and Bruce boarded the bus that would take them to the high school gymnasium where they would ride out the storm.

Avis stays in the moment. 

Even though she knew her house could be gone by the end of this "storm of a lifetime," Avis got onto the bus and made sure Bruce was okay before she looked around at her fellow travelers. Her gaze caught that of an older white woman. 

Their smiling at each other gave Avis a little peace. When they arrived at the school and introduced themselves to each other, their collective nervousness seemed to calm down a bit. 

Avis learned her new friend's name was Mary. And then she went about getting Bruce settled in. 

Avis has some big faith. 

Avis believes in a higher power who loves her deeply. It is a relationship that gets played out in how she is grateful for being able to do things for and at her church. How grateful she is for little things such as finding a vegetarian recipe Bruce likes. Or being paid to play the piano on Sundays, which is something she loves to do whether she is paid or not. Though being paid sure helps out with expenses.

Once they settled into the gym, the waiting began. To be evacuated to a school gymnasium a couple of days before a storm hits is a good news/bad news situation. The good news is you have a place to stay that should be safe. The bad news is that when the storm ends and it's time to go home, there may not be a home to go home to.

Avis knew she had to put her fears aside. Not only for her own sake, but for Bruce. Bruce laughs when Avis laughs. Bruce gets nervous when his older sister gets nervous. For the sake of Bruce and herself, Avis wanted to stay calm and add to the gratitude and serenity; not compound the stress, fear, and confusion. She prayed for the "courage to change the things she could."

Hours after they'd settled into the gym and eaten a simple dinner, Avis headed to her cot. She'd checked to see that Bruce had taken his meds and was comfortable. As she lay in the strange bed in the strange place with the strange noises, Avis saw Mary approach her.

"Avis, would you like for me to tuck you in?" Mary asked.

Mary, a white woman Avis figured to be in her mid-eighties.
Avis, a black woman who'd recently turned 60.
Two women who'd experienced the Jim Crow south in what Avis hoped were its worst moments.
One woman who likely went to whites-only schools.
One woman who knew the sting of being called names when schools were integrated, and she was forced to go where she didn't always feel welcome. 

In fact, as she lay in her cot, Avis was remembering what it felt like to be a black girl in assemblies in a gym that looked a lot like this one. 

For now, though, Avis and Mary and all the others in the gym were safe and sound and dry.

Avis and Mary held each other's gaze for a few seconds before Avis said, "Yes. I would very much like for you to tuck me in."

This bedtime conversation became a little ritual for the two women over the next four nights where they would sleep a few cots apart from each other in that big gym protecting them from the wind, rain, and thunder. The thunder and lightening would evoke fear; the wind and rain would leave some with the loss of loved ones, pets, property, a way of life.

A couple of weeks after the storm passed, Avis recalled some of what had happened to her, and remembered being grateful that she'd been evacuated. The old van she drove was fine. She'd driven it home to find her house in good shape, for the most part. Aside from needing to make lots of long calls about roof and air conditioning repairs, it looked as though life was getting back to normal.

When asked to focus for a minute though, on the most memorable aspect of those five nights away from home, Avis paused. And then talked about Mary.

"I don't know her last name. I have no idea how to be in touch with her. I just know that it was a comfort to me every night when she asked if she could tuck me in," said Avis.

"I'd like to think it helped her sleep better, too."

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