Kentucky Stories of Loss

It stormed last night in Shelbyville. Lightning streaked through the windows of my second floor apartment, keeping me wide awake and in fear. There was no rainfall but I could hear it still. I was never scared of lightning before this. Now anything but clear skies strikes up a dose of bad memories and anxiety.

Sometimes I think that I’ve healed; moved on. But when rain pours or lightning strikes, I’m back home in east Kentucky — underwater.

I collected every book I had ever read for an English class. Gathering Blue, Night, The Lightning Thief. They were like keepsakes to me. They reminded me of my favorite teachers, some who have passed and some who have left the state. When I opened the container my books were kept in, they were drenched in black water. Probably from the ink getting wet. There was one that had been my favorite in middle school; the last book in the Percy Jackson series. I had loved it so much and read it so often that I had put off returning it for years. When I realized I could not save it, I felt guilty that I hadn’t returned it. One day, as I was scrolling through Facebook, I saw that the library the book came from had also been flooded. I wish there was something I could do to replace everyone’s books.

Early on the morning of August 5th, almost a week after the floods, and four days after the Christian Appalachian Project (CAP) put out a call for hands to help with disaster relief, I was driving down the Bert T Combs Mountain Parkway to Martin, Kentucky. I had signed up to drive over from Lexington on those days I could in order to help in clean-up efforts. As I drove through Powell County, there were early morning thunderstorms. Still, when the sun rose everything looked as the mountains always do in summer, green, lush, calm, even. But parkways are made for ease of transit—bridges span the hollers and valleys that aren’t filled in, sides of mountains are cut to level and widen the road. You ride above a landscape, removed from it. From that distance, the world looked fine.

That day our crew worked in Martin; there in Floyd County, on the northern edge of the flooding. Mucking out houses is slow, dirty work, so we stayed with the two we were assigned and didn’t go into Prestonsburg or even Martin proper. The first house was a single-wide on a six-foot tall, cinder block pediment. The only signs of the flood were what could have passed as a layer of dust on the asphalt and the muddy debris already removed from the house. If you looked really close at the door to the bathroom, just inside the backdoor to the home, which we used as our means of ingress and egress, you could see the waterline about two and half feet above the six-foot pediment. If you knew the kinds of yards you were looking at, the absence of early August garden plots, green and full of vegetables, also spoke to the devastation.

Nothing, though, prepared us for the inside. The carpets, sofa, bed, clothes all reeked of sewer. One of the homeowners we worked with, one who had seen his fair share of floods said, “In all my years, the waters have never stunk like this time.” And they were rancid. Wastewater plants, sewer containment systems, and gas lines had failed, and the waters had been a toxic sludge of various wastes.

The young man who lived in the first house we mucked out had an eye swollen shut. He had been washing out his clothes with drinking water, still the clothes had all been submerged and dirtied by the sludge. A day or two before, he had scratched an itch with muck soiled hands and now his eye was infected.

On the second day, we were down on Lonesome Creek. We had to drive through Hindman to get to the houses we were assigned. The glass paned fronts of downtown stores were all boarded up, and those that weren’t were broken and the insides were covered in mud. We mucked out the houses of two 70-year-old women. Their memories, photos of children and grandchildren, hand-stitched quilts, knick-knacks and mementos collected over a life, and libraries of books by Silas House, Thomas Hardy, Thoreau, and others, were all mud-stained, all sitting in their front yards, exposed to the sun and rain.

These women had the security of homes long-ago paid off and, thankfully, their social security checks and Medicare covered their needs. But now, with the memories of their lives spilled across the lawn, with their houses fully gutted, FEMA had told them they weren’t destitute enough. Their governments checks placed them outside the threshold for financial help to rebuild.

Floods have always been a part of the ecosystem, yet climate change and mountaintop removal have exacerbated the flooding. Rain patterns seem to be changing, seem to be getting more intense in shorter amounts of time, and where once there were mountains with trees, roots, spongey, rich loam, there is compacted, barren soil.

Appalachia, despite the work of people like Carl Dewey Perkins, whose statue in downtown Hindman was covered by the flood waters, is still being neglected. The neglect of the people and the infrastructure is part and parcel of the history of extractive economies. During boom-times resource removal matters more than land care and once landscapes are sucked dry, communities are left to fend for themselves. When disaster strikes, they are blamed for what devastation might visit.

One of the homeowners was a young drug user. In fact, he shot up while we were cleaning out the front of his house. Our crew leader, a former engineer who had quit being a television designer in the mid-80s to join CAP, a man who, in an understated manner, described himself as not given to much emotion, had to leave and gather himself as we cleaned out the bedroom. This shell of a house filled with muddied clothes and a soaking sofa was all the young man had. Among the crew there was talk of maybe having given the young man hope. Maybe. Though it seems that whether hope or something more is given, is not on us. We are simply called to help, called to care for fellow human beings.

The other family whose house we mucked out that day was grateful, they said as much. But they were still deep in shock, the kind where you show little to no affect and little to no initiative. It is all too damn exhausting.

Disasters and the response to disasters can be a bit like traveling on a mountain parkway. You don’t see the devastation until you get off the highways made for ease of transit and drive on into town. You don’t know a life until you’re invited into the home, until you sit with someone. Lives and worlds, homes and cities take time to build, years and generations even. Devastation comes in flash. The natural world can quickly move in, begin to sprout again, and cover over the damage. But homes, cultural and civic institutions, livelihoods, take years. We are three weeks out from the floods and, still, there are so many houses that need to be cleaned out, so many families still sifting through the ruins left by the flood, so much work still left to do.

The day we worked down on Troublesome Creek, we were right by the Volunteer Fire Station, the antique fire truck was still pinned beneath the bridge. An Amish group, one who had lived through the flood and cleaned up as much as they could of their own homes, were out feeding lunch to families. They not only fed us and all the work crews from the area, but also the residents as well. They had a generator and were dishing out hot meals in takeaway plates for all who came. They knew that for many who came this lunch was their one meal for the day. They knew that for those of us who had been working in clean-up, the food and conversation was what we needed to energize us for the long afternoon ahead.

When I was fifteen, and figuring out life, my first job was in Appalshop’s Boone Building.
Eight years ago, I met the love of my life there.
Years of “Youth Bored” punk shows, workshops, yard sales, and friendships.
A place many have loved for so long and so much.

–Washed away in a night.

What I Know of Tom

Story AboutMy Neighbor

I don’t know why, but who am I to know such things? He was our kindly next-door neighbor whom we’ve known for four years. The neighbor down the street to whom he bequeathed his wood-boring machine, a man who has spent countless hours with him in his basement workshop, is also in the dark. So is Carol, his wife. He left no note. And there was no real indication that things were amiss.

Sure, he didn’t pick any blueberries from the bush he gave us last fall while we were gone during the height of berry picking season. Nor did he pick any from his, which mysteriously failed to fruit this year. Sure, the Triumph TR6 he’s been rebuilding since we’ve lived here was not ready for the Concours show this summer. And yes, there was the mysterious vertigo from which he suffered. Originally diagnosed as crystals in his ear canals, a recent re-diagnosis discounted that cause but gave no new explanation. And there was the frustration with his internet service. But who knows why a methodical man will do something that seems so impulsive.

We try to find reasons, comb through behavior, frustrations, discover something to explain a desperate act. His dad, who had fled the West Virginia coal camps in the night with his family in tow, also killed himself. But his father’s death came at a much younger age than his.

What I do know of our neighbor Tom is that he was a maker. He painstakingly crafted the pickets of his fence, the gate to his backyard, the stairs that led down from the deck to the carpark. He was a tinkerer who worked on cars, who replaced his own windows and doors, who made cabinetry in his house to fit the space and the object.

What I do know of Tom is that he was kind toward our children and toward us. Knowing our son professed an interest in computers and electronics, he introduced him to Arduino, thinking that he too might find a similar joy in making and programming electronic devices. Knowing our son was interested in cars, he introduced us to Saturday car shows at the feedlot on the northside of town.

These memories seem so small now. Though we’d have cul-de-sac dinners in June, though twice a year he would invite me over to see his car and talk about the progress and the challenges and dream of the first spin down the highway, though we compared notes on lawn maintenance, and though he walked me through the various steps to ensure our blueberry bush took root, there was much more to him, as there is to all of us.

Tom was generous to everyone, those on his street, in his circle of friends, and in his various interest and hobby groups. When a widow a few houses down, wanted to give her MG, purchased brand new in the 80s and with barely any miles, to her son, he helped her move the car from her garage to the trailer. Our woodworking neighbor has many more stories to tell of his largesse and camaraderie. Though these acts of neighborly kindness, attention, and fellowship, seem small, they are the measure of a life, they are the memories shared among those who knew him, who remember him.

There was more, much more going on beneath the surface, but he let no one see. Carol speaks of his high standards, of his being particular. Engineers seem cursed with the blessing of knowing the right way of doing things, seem prone to frustration with self and the world when neither self nor world go according to plan. Could he be curt when faced with the failings of internet companies or builders? Sure. Still, his neighbors remember him as a kind man, generous with his time and tools, open to friends and neighbors, even while suffering from a debilitating, painful vertigo.

What will I will remember of Tom? The handful of Arduinos he, my son, and I worked on together; the joy my son takes in Saturday car shows; how we worked side by side to transplant the blueberry bush and to replace their kitchen window; how he praised his Carol’s cooking; the twinkle in his eyes and how a chuckle was never far from his lips.

Mom's School Lunches

Story AboutRamona Gordon

Today is the first day of school in our county. I can feel the anticipation and nervousness hanging in the air like a fog on this wet August morning. Neighborhood children sporting new shoes and carrying fresh lunchboxes make their way to school, and I can’t help but be transported to my own grade school days.

Growing up in the 60’s and 70’s, we were lucky to live just two blocks from school. My brother, sister, and I were “walkers” as they called us, and we didn’t need lunchboxes because we were allowed to go home for lunch. Even my dad came home to eat, driving from across town. We all looked forward to Mom’s noon-time menu.

We arrived in staggered shifts, and she would have a hot, steaming plate of heaven waiting for each one of us. I remember the large cast-iron skillet filled with freshly fried potatoes, the edges crispy and golden. I loved Mom’s homegrown stewed tomatoes, warm and tangy, ladled over creamy mashed potatoes and served with thick, salty bacon.

During the winter months, we were greeted with bowls of beef and homemade egg noodles, a tradition handed down from Mom’s German roots. Making the noodles was a two-day project, as she and Dad would hand-cut every noodle and then lay them out to dry.

When I was a child, lunches at home didn’t seem like something to be cherished. However, looking back now, I can truly appreciate those hectic but sacred family times. It was a 30-minute retreat in the middle of a busy school day.

It must have been a difficult chore for Mom, barely getting us off to school in the morning before she had to think about what to cook for lunch. She didn’t think feeding us at lunch was anything special, but she was actually giving us a wonderful gift. Those sights, smells and tastes have remained with me all these years.

It comforts me to think of Mom like that, bustling around in our warm and welcoming kitchen. We lost her in January of 2021 when the world was neither.

My Mom — My Broken Heart

Story AboutSydney Terrell

It was a pretty normal Tuesday morning, 12/15/2020 and my mother called me — she said she was having horrible pains, could I come over.

I drove to her nearby house and sure enough she needed to go to the hospital. That entire day was a fiasco and the communication from the hospital was extremely poor. (It is important to note here that on Thursday of the previous week she took a COVID test and Monday received the negative results, she was also again tested in the ER on 12/15 and received negative results.) I did find out that my Mom was going to have emergency surgery that evening. (That whole day was a mess with communication with hospital and consent forms. I was not permitted to stay with her in the ER. I was listed as the person to contact – no contact was made.)

My Mom had the surgery and I was able to visit her the next day. Surgery seemed to go well and she seemed pretty good the next day. I was literally skipping out of the hospital when I left because I was so happy about how well it all went. Due to visiting policies, I was not able to go back to see her until Saturday.

But, on Saturday she just didn’t seem as awake and alert as she was on Wednesday. She said she just didn’t feel good. My sister went on Sunday and called me to say Mom just doesn’t seem like she feels well. I visited on Monday and she was not feeling well at all. We kept telling the hospital staff — they said it was just the hospital stay — it makes you that way.

The next day she was sent home in late afternoon. I stayed with her all day Wednesday 12/23/2020. She did not feel well, was super tired and didn’t have an appetite. By evening she spiked a high fever, high enough that I became concerned and called her surgeon. Her surgery site looked fine so she took more Tylenol and tried to rest.

My poor mother moaned and groaned all night long in misery. Finally in the morning she was so sick I knew we were going to have to go back to the hospital. We thought maybe it was a UTI. I made a few calls to doctors and they said to take her into the ER.

Not long after I dropped her off at the ER I received a call from my sister — she’d tested positive for COVID-19. On January 8, 2021 my mother lost her battle with the nasty virus and passed away.

We are all still devastated, in shock, traumatized, and horribly heartbroken over the loss of our mother.

Never Complained

Story AboutMichael Rodriguez

Michael never worried, about anything. He never complained, and rarely got angry.

After 25 years, he said “You know, I really like my bacon limp.” Shaking my head . . .

We lost him the first year. He was a nurse, his second chosen career. I miss him terribly, every day.

Yellow Roses

Story AboutLaVern Terry

A few years ago, on 9/11, which is, ironically, my birthday, I woke up at college by a phone call from my family. My parents’ home, a single-wide trailer that they’d built on over time, was engulfed in flames. The next day, when I made my way back to them, there was little remaining but burnt pieces of tin that used to be a roof. My mom, who had been up all night, was crying, asking “Why, why?”

It was hard not to notice that the fire had even taken the yard and garden along with my mom’s rose bushes that she’d tended to for years. She loved them. She was always trying to make things beautiful, and see the bright side even when it seemed impractical to do so, and flowers were a part of that.

My mother’s favorite song was “Roses Will Bloom Again.” When I remember, I can hear her singing the lyrics “Roses will bloom again, just wait and see”. Often, she’d sing this as a reminder that things will get better, and it had meaning because despite the fact that we didn’t grow up with a lot of money, she always made sure that we had a stable home where we felt supported and loved.

Recently, I was digging through my archive of old video footage and I found something that surprised me. It was video of my mother, a year before she died, showing me the rose bush at the end of the driveway, the one my sister and I had bought to replace the bushes that had burned up.

The new bush that we’d planted was pink or red – I can’t remember exactly. But oddly enough, when the bush began to flower, the roses were yellow. The color of hope and light and happiness. My mom was amazed. That’s what she’s showing us in the video, her joy that they’d transformed themselves. It seemed to be a sign at the time that things would get better — a little miracle that happened to us after losing so much.

This year we’ve had a cold spring and the roses haven’t bloomed yet on the bush at the end of the driveway. We’ve developed a new tradition of clipping a rose and bringing it to lay atop my mother’s grave. There won’t yet be a fresh yellow bloom to bring for this Mother’s Day, but that’s ok. We’ll return in a month or so, because like the song says, “Roses will bloom again, just wait and see.” My mother was right about that, and so many other things. That’s how I like to remember her: tending to the garden, singing those lyrics, and smiling. I love you, Mom.

Humor Always Had a Place in Our Day

Story AboutMichael Wiemers (1 of 2)

It’s the fall of 1981, and I am a Southern California girl who had just graduated from nursing school. I’d landed my “wish job” working in the Obstetrics Department of a local community hospital. The hospital wasn’t particularly large, so it was easy to know your colleagues on other floors. One day I hear through the scuttlebutt about a 3rd year medical student training there, who was living in a camper truck in the hospital parking lot. So, a few days later this guy, who I didn’t recognize, comes walking by the nurses’ station, and I blurt out, “oh, you’re the guy living in the parking lot.” Immediately I realized I had just had an “open mouth, insert foot” moment.

As the next few weeks passed on, he would conveniently saunter by, and I began to get to know him. As we chatted during the workday, I found him interesting and thought to myself, he could be the most unique person I had ever met. After several weeks, he popped in on me eating lunch in the nurses lounge. Looking very nervous, he asked if I would like to go out with him, and I said yes. Little did I know then, that three years later, we would marry and move to New Mexico to start our life together.

Even in the face of life’s ups and downs, we had a blessed 39 years which ended when Mike went into the hospital in October 2020 for diverticulitis issues. During the first year of the pandemic, he was advised to be evaluated in the E.R., but first he had to have a Covid test. The next day the test came back negative, which was no surprise as we were always careful, trying to avoid the deadly virus. When we arrived at the hospital, due to Covid restrictions, I had to leave him at the concrete barriers at the Emergency Department. How was I to know at that moment that it would be the last time I would ever see him again? After two weeks of being hospitalized, Mike became sicker, and it was not related to his diverticulitis. Eventually, he was diagnosed with pneumonia, and aggressive respiratory therapy treatment began. On my twice a day calls with his nurses, they told me he seemed to be getting worse. He couldn’t hold his oxygen levels, and his shortness of breath was worse. The doctors called to get my permission to place him on a ventilator, as he could no longer advocate for himself.

Five days later on a Saturday night, the phone rang — it’s the hospital. Over the phone I heard that the love of my life had tested positive for Covid. At that moment, it was as if I had been gut-punched, with all the air leaving my body. I was in such shock, I couldn’t find the words to even form a sentence.

And just like that, the talk went from him slowly recovering, to discussing end of life issues. In a heartbeat, my world had been flipped upside down. Apparently, during his time in the hospital, Mike had been exposed and became infected with Covid. Six days later, all hope was gone. Mike’s healthy lungs were now so badly scarred that he would never function without the ventilator. Because of Covid restrictions, there would be no opportunity to sit at his bedside, to hold his hand and say that final goodbye.

Later that day, Mike was gone. He died all alone with his doctor in the room. I had lost my person, my everything, my partner in crime. There is no doubt we loved each other, but also precious was the fact that we still really liked each other, after all those years.

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