Over the span of a week of late August to early September, tropical depression- turned- Category 4 hurricane, Harvey, slammed the Texas Gulf Coast. If you followed along in the media, you saw pictures of water and debris everywhere. My hometown, Port Arthur, did not escape this fate.
With the heavy rains, Harvey carried a fear to my front door that I haven’t experienced in a long time, one I was sure I was immune to by this point- the fear of death. Having fought and conquered breast cancer just a few years ago, I’ve looked down Death’s throat. Usually I’m unmoved. But Death has a funny way of one upping you.
That Tuesday started off just like the days before it. Lots of rain and flooding. Luckily for us, we live in a good drainage district so the water levels would rise, the rain would stop, and the water would recede before the rain started again. I remember being so confident in this pattern continuing that my nephew and I did our livestream on Facebook that day as the anchors The Weather Channel hadn’t hired. Even our dogs felt light as they ran through the steady drizzle to swim in puddles. It was pretty inconvenient, but it was manageable. Until that night.
The details are foggy at this point, but someone told me one of my twin cousins, Jameslon, had water coming into her apartment. Let me take a moment to explain a “twin cousin.” I have 2 cousins that are the same age as I am. One was born 4 months before me (Jameslon) and one 4 months after me (Jessica). Being so close in age, and being from a tight-knit family, we grew up like sisters. I call them my twins because of the shared age (although let Jessica tell it she’s 10 years younger than us!) and also the close bond we’ve had. As we got older, my bond with Jessica got stronger. Even when I went off for school, I spent a good chunk of time on holiday breaks catching up with her and staying close. The same can’t be said for Jayna (my nickname for Jameslon). We went to the same middle and high school, but we ran in different circles. We never stopped having each other’s back, but the friendship we shared as children dwindled. Only recently did some of our female cousins establish the “Kousin Krew” and I got to spend time with her. It had been years.
When I got the news that she was taking on water I called her. She explained to me what was happening, sounding pretty calm and confident. Jayna is a warrior just like the other women in my family so I had no doubt she would be alright. She told me she’d already contacted someone about a boat rescue. They’d be there in an hour. We hung up so she could save her battery. I went on to call our little cousin who stayed only about a mile down the road from J to make sure she was ok and then I went to watch TV.
An hour and a half later, I called Jayna to see if she’d made it to her mom’s house. She had not. The rescue boat had not come. She was now outside. The water level inside the apartment had reached her waist so she had to get out. She went up to the 2nd floor of the building. All but one neighbor had already evacuated. I politely told her to go into that apartment. She’d tried. The man living there opened the door, looked at her, and slammed the door in her face. It took everything in me not to swim the 6 or 7 miles to her place, punch that dude, and carry my cousin off myself. I had to be helpful though, and that wasn’t helpful. I reassured her we’d get her, then got off the phone to start making calls.
Between the calls, texts, and Facebook messages, my Facebook and Twitter feed were flooded with cries for help. These amongst the constant tornado warnings and flash flood warnings still coming in. I put my phone down and started to sob. The only sob that could outdo this one was the one that visited me when my daddy passed away in ‘08. This was serious. And my cousin… MY cousin….my twin cousin…. my Jayna…. could actually die.
“I just got her back…. I just got her back….”
I heard myself repeating this aloud through the tears and the calls. It didn’t feel fair. After all the years of being apart we were finally back together and now she could be gone forever. It was more than I could take. Then my play cousin texted and said her house was flooding and she was home alone. Then my other twin cousin said that water was approaching the doors on their raised house (do you know how much water it takes for that to happen?) and she and my uncle would have to go up to the garage apartment. Then Aunt Jenn called. My baby cousin, who’d told me she was good, was actually at a house that flooded and they were all stranded on the 2nd floor. And all I could do was keep moving. I just…. kept moving. I kept my hands busy. Everyone else in the house was asleep (they didn’t know what was happening and I didn’t need them to panic anyway). I had to keep going because if I stopped I would have lost it. I almost did anyway.
Around 2 am, I messaged Jayna. I could tell from her texts she was tired… and giving up. It wouldn’t be until 2 days later that I learned how she found someone on the 3rd floor to let her in, but she couldn’t stay there. The rescuers couldn’t see them. She went down and waded through the water, trying to get close to the highway and flag someone down. After what seemed like a lifetime, she went back to the building, but not before the moving water, which was almost past her chest at this point (and she’s about 5'7"), almost took her out. Thankfully she made it back and the neighbor gave her a change of clothes and a granola bar. My Jayna…. fighting against rushing flood waters mixed with sewage in the cold and dark and rain and wind trying to get someone to save her and her neighbor.
The last text she sent to me before she was rescued hours later was “I love you.” And that’s how I knew. That’s how I knew she was getting reading to surrender to Death. We love fiercely in our family, but we rarely say those words. We show you we love you. I can’t remember Jameslon ever uttering those words to me. I don’t doubt for one second that she always has. She drove 4 hours to Austin the day of my bilateral mastectomy only to have to turn around and go back home because she had work. But she was there. I didn’t see her because I was in surgery, but it was the first thing my mom told me when I woke up. Her verbalizing this though meant she wanted to make sure I knew without a shadow of a doubt, because this might be the last time she could say those words. I let her know I loved her too and asked her to try to rest. She didn’t have to fight anymore. Her family would do all the fighting for her.
I don’t remember falling asleep, but I guess I did somewhere around 9 am. I don’t know if I was really asleep or just had passed out from grief and exhaustion. I don’t even remember going to my room. I’d stayed on the living room couch all through the night, watching the storm and waiting for daylight to break so I could see the damage. Around 10 am, I guess, my mom rushed into the room. Aunt Paula had called- Jameslon was rescued. A teacher she works with had a boat and got to them. Not long after the news I found out my other cousins and my friends had all been rescued as well. I couldn’t sleep or eat still, but at least I could breathe a bit.
Water was everywhere. We were flooded in. That Thursday I attempted to go buy dog food for the neighbor’s dog a few blocks away and discovered that just 2 blocks from my house everything was under water. I’d heard helicopters all Thursday morning, but it wasn’t until that afternoon that I found out they were rescue choppers. People were being airlifted from homes. In my neighborhood.
I spent the rest of the day checking on my uncle and taking pictures of the places I could get to. I dropped someone off in the direction of Aunt Paula’s house that evening. The crossroad to get their house looked like the Nile. I still couldn’t get to my cousin.
On Friday, Mumzy and I went to see if we could find a store that was open. We passed by the French market down the street, which was closed, but the street was dry. In fact it was dry all the way up to that cross street from the day before. But we got to that street and it was still a river. I wasn’t stopping though. I HAD to see my cousin. I had to hug her and hug her again. After 15 minutes and a LOT of patience from my mom, I found a place for us to cross. We had to park almost 2 blocks from Aunt Paula’s house because it was still flooded, but we made it. Despite my physical disabilities, I all but ran the entire way to the house. As soon as Lexi opened the door, I saw Jayna sitting at the dining room table. And that’s when my heart started beating again.
I got my twin cousin back, for the 2nd time. And I am never, ever letting her go.
For my twin cousin, Jameslon aka Jayna aka J Know… I love you… Ashy