It was a last minute decision, a spur-of-the-moment road trip. My cousin, Brandi — unexpectedly expecting her second son, thirteen years after the first — was the guest of honor at a Brown County baby shower thrown by our cousin, April. All my aunts, cousins (save a few), and cousins’ kids were scheduled to be there. Mary Claire and I decided to go. It would be an adventure, a time for the two of us to explore and connect.
We downloaded Neil Gaiman’s “The Graveyard Book” from Audible.com and began our 10-hour trek on Friday morning at 5:30 AM. It was still dark. She was so excited, she was brought periodically to tears.
“Thank you, Mom,” she said over and over again. “Thank you.”
She misses Indiana, my girl. She was going to spend Friday night with her dear friend, Alyson; Saturday night with her cousin, Amber. She assured me she was up for the 20 hours of driving that would take place over the next three days.
And so we drove, periodically switching from Neil Gaiman to Kelly Clarkson to Lady Gaga. We listened and we sang and we talked and she napped. We stopped for lunch, stopped for gas, stopped for peanut butter M&Ms and Powerball tickets.
As we approached Louisville, our radio station was interrupted every couple of minutes with weather warnings. There were tornados in the area, large hail had been sighted, dangerous winds and “debris balls” were in our path.
With every series of warning beeps and mechanical voice updates that came over the radio, Mary Claire became increasingly agitated.
“I’m scared, Mom,” she admitted. “What should we do?”
The skies were still bright and sunny, but we could see some darkening in the distance. We’d experienced no rain, no weather up to this point. But the radio announcers insisted that danger was imminent, that we needed to take cover. I scrambled to figure out what county I was in, which counties we were approaching, which small Kentuckiana towns we were surrounded by.
“I promise that if things continue to get worse, we’ll pull over and find shelter,” I assured her. “Don’t worry, Honey. I’ll take care of you.”
As the warnings grew more insistent, I planned to find an exit and shelter before we crossed the Louisville bridge. Always a bit wary of bridges in general, I didn’t want to be blowing around on this one. But I was too late. In no time, we were on the bridge, and I gripped the steering wheel tightly as the Tahoe swayed in the rising winds.
We crossed over into Indiana, and I searched for a well-populated exit. I wanted to see buildings, restaurants, gas stations, a place where we could find shelter and companionship to weather the storm. But the exits were empty and unoccupied. I kept driving.
The skies to the north grew darker, more ominous. I felt a palpable presence in the Tahoe as Mary Claire began to cry quietly. “Exit now,” I heard in my head. “Now. Don’t wait. Exit now.”
Normally, I don’t listen to the voices in my head. There are typically far too many of them, all vying for my undivided attention. But I looked at my daughter’s frightened, tear-stained face and took the next exit. The Mercedes I’d been jockeying with for the past hour or so continued on 65N.
There was nothing at this particular exit but a large, abandoned parking lot and a small, rickety gas station. In the parking lot sat a police cruiser and a red minivan. I drove next to the minivan and rolled my window down.
“Do you know what’s happening?” I asked the blonde woman in the passenger seat.
“It’s not good,” she said, shaking her head from side to side. “We’ve been getting updates from this officer, and the damage keeps growing. A small town — I think he said Marysville — was just flattened. It’s heading this direction.”
Mary Claire continued to sob in the passenger’s seat.
“Should we take shelter in the gas station?” I asked.
The woman shook her head. “The officer said to stay right here. He’s going to keep us informed. He’ll tell us when and where we need to go.”
I looked at the officer with his binoculars as he pointed toward the darkening sky. Another man stood with him, looking off into the distance.
“That’s my husband,” the woman said. “He’ll keep us posted. Stay here with us.”
“Okay,” I said, putting all my faith and trust into the hands of these strangers. “I’m Katrina, by the way.”
“Katrina?” she asked. “Like the hurricane?”
I smiled and nodded my head.
“I’m not quite sure whether that’s a good omen,” she laughed. “I’m Rhonda. We’re from Eau Claire. Just returning from Florida. We were at the Daytona 500 and sat right behind the explosion. Did you see it?”
I nodded. “I’m not sure that’s a good omen,” I teased. “From explosions to tornados? You seem to be summoning disasters.”
Our patch of concrete was still periodically touched by tenacious rays of sunlight. Not a drop of rain had fallen. We both got out of our vehicles and began to snap pictures of the storm clouds. Mary Claire joined us. She was wrapped in a blanket and leaned into me for support.
“You’re shaking, Mom,” she said.
“I am, Honey,” I replied. “I’m a bit scared. But I will take care of you. I promise. We will be okay.”
“Is your daughter nervous?” Rhonda asked as Mary Claire walked back to the car.
“Very much so,” I admitted.
“The officer told us that if the tornados turn and head this direction, we need to get face down in that ditch,” she explained, pointing to a muddy, wet mess behind us. “You’ll want to lie on top of your daughter with a blanket over your heads.”
“Okay,” I said, nodding.
My hands were shaking so much, I could barely focus the camera. All around us, the skies filled with the sounds of tornado and emergency vehicle sirens. Police car after ambulance after fire truck raced by us on the interstate. And still, there was no rain.
“Stay here,” Rhonda instructed. “We’re going to get some gas. We’ll be right back. If the winds pick up, get in your car and put your blankets over your heads. The officer said one of his colleagues just had his cruiser windows blown out about seven miles up the road.”
As the red mini-van drove off, Mary Claire re-joined me on the concrete.
“Where’d they go?” she asked nervously.
I explained what our Wisconsin friends were doing, relayed the information they’d received from the officer.
“If we need to get in the ditch, we’ll get wet and muddy, Honey,” I said. “But we’ll be safe. Okay?”
We stood together, my daughter and I, and watched as various funnel clouds reached down toward the earth. The wind picked up, and my hair whipped my face.
“I love how your hair is two different colors,” Mary Claire said. “It’s light on top and dark underneath. It’s very cool.”
I snorted and made a mental note to schedule an appointment with my hair dresser when we returned to Mississippi.
And then the rain came.
Big, fat droplets fell slowly. Then, all at once, the skies opened up. We raced back to the car for shelter. In no time, the sky was eclipsed with darkness. What once held a semblance of peace and security turned foreboding. The rain pounded the Tahoe. Rhonda and her husband pulled back up beside us and motioned for me to roll my window down.
“Hot chocolate for your daughter!” she yelled as she handed me a styrofoam cup. The rain pelted our faces, soaked me to the bone in the few seconds my window was down.
And Mary Claire sat silently in the passenger seat, hands wrapped around the gift from the strangers we’d met just five short minutes ago.
The Tahoe began rocking ominously.
“Mom, I can’t even see the front of the car!” Mary Claire cried nervously as the weather bore down on us.
“I know, Honey. Here’s what I need you to do. Put your drink in the cup holder. Get down on your knees and lay your head on the seat. Put your pillow over your head, then I’m going to cover you with your blanket.”
And I did. I covered both of our heads and we looked at each other in the darkness. We held hands as the Tahoe groaned under the weight of the wind and rain. I watched my daughter and knew that the promise I made to her was insubstantial. I could not save her. I could not protect her. There were forces at work with power far greater than I could possibly imagine. All I could do was love her and pray and set my intention to survive.
There have been two times in my life when I felt fairly certain I was staring death in the face. Not one of those “almost drove off the road” or “nearly got sideswiped” instantaneous kinds of experiences, but the slow, steady, intentional march of a force beyond my control. The calculated, time-to-think-about-my-demise, surreal grip of impending doom.
This was the second.
As our car rocked, and we held each other’s hands tightly, and the noise around us became other-worldly, I thought — I’m never going to see my boys again. This is it. This is it.
And then — as quickly as it had begun — it was over.
There was an insistent knock on the driver’s side window. I opened the door and saw our friend Rhonda’s rain-streaked face.
“You okay?” she asked.
“Okay, our officer friend says to follow him. We need to move NOW. There’s another set of storms brewing over Louisville, and we need to heard north. Follow us.”
I shouted my phone number to her as we followed the police officer toward Henryville, IN. For the next 90 minutes, we inched our way through the aftermath.
Ten short miles up I-65 was complete and total devastation. Trees were uprooted, cars overturned, billboards flattened, highway signs twisted. There was glass all over the interstate, and people walked around in a daze — hair wet, clothes disheveled. The Mercedes that had been driving beside us sat under the overpass, windows blown out, driver nowhere in sight.
I looked at the clock on the Tahoe. We’d sat on our concrete pad for ten minutes. Ten miles down the road, lives were irrevocably changed. Had we not pulled over, we would have driven straight into it. I marveled at the mystery of it, the unlikeliness. If our journey had been a movie, there would have been two different camera crews following the converging trajectories. The first would have covered our eight hours on the road from Starkville. The food stops, the gas stops, the decision not to pull over for a fountain Diet Coke, every single insignificant move that kept us on course to drive straight into the belly of this beast. The other would have followed the storm pattern as it rumbled and roiled and made its way across the barren Indiana land. And those two trajectory lines would have grown closer and closer together until they formed their inevitable meeting point in Henryville.
But something made me stop. Just in time. The fear in Mary Claire’s eyes? The voice of an angel? A bit of both?
There are events in this universe that we cannot explain, that we cannot control. Airplanes fall from the sky, waves of salt pull coastal cities underwater, drivers fall asleep and cross the median, babies are born with hearts and lungs that don’t work, cancer eats away at our vulnerable insides.
And on the other side, pink and white blossoms — without fail — herald the coming of spring, unborn babies get the hiccups within their mama’s undulating bellies, strangers offer you the comfort of a warm drink, true friends greet you — wet, disheveled, and still shaking like a leaf — with a glass of red and a killer egg sammich, a big-hearted aunt — whose house was already filled to overflowing with guests — offers you a pillow and a laugh and a hug and her unconditional love.
Things beyond our control, out of our reach, always working on their own clock, within their own system, unaccountable to no one.
And here’s what I know I can control. How many times I kiss my husband; how often I open my own doors and extend my own hands to those in need; how much I love my children, my family, my friends; how willing I am to forgive and forget; how much of life I choose to live.
I embrace this glorious, wild ride with its dangerous winds and its blinding rain. Because in choosing that, I also get the pink and white blooms, the warm and reassuring hand of a friend, the trust in my daughter’s eyes, the promise of miracles to come.
And a helping hand. Always a helping hand. Two, in fact — one for receiving, and one for giving.