Death and High Water – November 2003

It’s only November and we’ve already had a long fall. Spring was wetter than fish. Summer was wetter than that. There were family highlights – our daughter’s high school graduation, summer visit, and first couple weeks of college. Same as all years since her birth, just more so, this was Nicole’s Year.

Then, in September, Isabel came to visit.

The hurricane, having been tracked for days, appeared to be heading in our direction. By the time she slammed into the Carolinas Thursday morning, everybody I know was either preparing or scoffing. Most were doing a little of both.

My wife Peg and I were mainly concerned about wind. There were brittle old trees on our property. By one a.m. we thought Isabel was a dud.

Then the creek rose.

There are hundreds of acres of marsh across the street. We never gave the creek beyond much thought. Now we watched as items on our enclosed front porch began to float. Inside the house, we started moving furniture, electronics, books, and personal items to higher ground. Despite our frantic activity there was a calm, predatory vibe in the air. There were no neighborhood noises. No cars going by, no rustling in the woods.

Twenty minutes later, the lower front section of our house was submerged in calf-deep water the color of rusty seaweed. The sulfurous stench of a wet electrical system was pervasive. We pulled all plug-ins but risked leaving the main power switch on. Our sense of hopelessness would have been overwhelming in a complete darkness.

The water came within an inch of cresting the step-up into our rear addition.  And stopped.

The outboard rescue boat launched in front of our house was every bit of twenty-five feet long. They start it up with that unmistakable blap-blap-blap and then cruised off down the road. A boat. Cruised down my inland street.

We wished for sunrise then wished we hadn’t. We could now see we were surrounded, an island. White caps formed in our back yard. Water lapped at our rear deck and the door sill between our flooded kitchen and so-far so-dry addition. Exhaustion set in. We collapsed knowing we’d done everything we could for the time being.

Our neighborhood never lost power until late Friday morning when a sailboat drifted into overhead wires near Marshy Creek. People cruising speedily past our home in four-wheel drive vehicles created a wake that added insult to injury.

We left around ten a.m. because everybody was saying the tide was due to rise. As if we didn’t have enough water. Peg and I agreed we didn’t want to see any more damage so we waded out with our dogs, some clothes, some food and a bottle of whiskey in a borrowed rowboat. My cousin Mark came back with me for one last look and we left.

After a shower and a bite to eat, my cousin and I took a ride. The pockets of devastation were numbing. Friend’s and neighbor’s homes and businesses were underwater. I felt bad for them, but a lot of me felt bad for me, too.

Around noon I returned and all the water was gone from our house. It never rose into our rear addition. Mark went to get Peg and by the time they got back, the water had receded across the street. Almost back to the creek. Almost like it never happened, but damage said it did.

Weeks of renovation followed. With the help of a contractor I grew up with, plus a lot of other hands – some paid, some not – we tore out and replaced floors, sheet rock and trim. We repaired our electrical, plumbing and  HVAC systems. We counted our blessings. There were a lot of early mornings and little time for fun, but short of cabinets, countertops and appliances, by November we were almost back to normal.

And then we got that four in the morning phone call.

That call is never good. At the very least it’s a nuisance – a wrong number or a vacationing friend having way too much fun. At worst it’s life changing.

Peggy’s niece Tyler was killed a little after midnight on a dark, wooded patch of road about a mile from where we live. Was she going way too fast or driving with less attention than turned out to be necessary? Were there deer? The woods around here are thick with them this time of year. She was alone and there don’t seem to be any witnesses, so who knows? Who cares?  Knowing how what happened won’t bring this young woman back to her loved ones. It would just be fact. And facts aren’t always the whole truth.

Her mother and father’s hearts are broken. Her brother’s lost his oldest friend.  Her beautiful five-year-old daughter’s mommy has been taken from her.

Losing a child isn’t an impossible occurrence. It happens all the time. Somehow parents make arrangements, and somehow they greet mourners, and somehow they bury their child. It is not impossible. But it’s just this side of it.

Twenty five short years. Sometimes that’s all we get.

Telling people about the flood is easy. It’s one of those things people sympathize with, but unless they’ve experienced it themselves, it’s hard to relate. Talking about Tyler is tougher. How can anyone who hasn’t lived through losing a child know what that feels like? That’s what would be impossible.

After Tyler’s funeral services, family and friends gathered at the local American Legion for fellowship and food. I went downstairs for a beer and walked past an old man standing in the hall, near the exit. He was as wrinkled as life but there was a definite glimmer in his watery eyes. I smiled at him and asked, “How’re you doing today, sir?”

Without a hint of irony he smiled back and said, “I got up.”

I felt like I knew what he meant.

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