Erin Britt essays

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It was a last minute decision, a spur-of-the-moment road trip. My cousin was the guest of honor at a Brown County baby shower, and Mary Claire and I decided to attend. It would be an adventure, a time for the two of us to explore and connect.

We downloaded Neil Gaiman’s “The Graveyard Book” and began our 10-hour trek in the still, early morning darkness. My girl was so excited, so grateful for our time together.

“Thank you, Mom,” she said over and over again. “Thank you.”

We drove into the afternoon, 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 small Kentuckiana towns we were passing.

“I promise that if things continue to get worse, we’ll pull over and find shelter,” I assured my nervous 11-year-old. “Don’t worry, Honey. I’ll take care of you.”

As the warnings grew more insistent, I planned to find a well-populated exit. 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.”

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 rickety gas station and an old parking lot, complete with a red minivan and a police cruiser. 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 sobbed 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.”

“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 shrugged apologetically and nodded my head.

“You’re shaking, Mom,” Mary Claire said, sniffling.

“I am, Honey,” I replied. “I’m a bit scared. But I will take care of you. I promise. We will be okay.”

“The officer told us that if the tornados turn and head this direction, we need to get face down in that ditch,” our red minivan friend Rhonda 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.

All around us, the skies reverberated 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.”

We stretched our legs outside together, my daughter and I, and watched as various funnel clouds reached down toward the earth. The wind picked up, and 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 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 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.”

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.

I nodded, wide-eyed, shaking.

And then we drove.

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 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.

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 sandwich, 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 deeply 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.


About the Author

Erin Britt

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