While the rain kept falling in Columbia, where I live, I was in Birmingham, elbow-deep in soil. I was helping a friend with her flower garden, and all weekend, the threat of a downpour proved to be just that: gray skies slumped lazily over my head, and nothing more. The humidity forced me to drink a lot of fruit-flavored beer, and the devastation taking place in my home state seemed far away.
I called my mother who lives near Centerville on a bluff with a glorious view of hills, farmland, and the Duck River. In late winter, eagles come to nest along the sycamore-lined banks. “Is it raining?” I asked. She laughed, but there was anxiety in her voice. It’s dark on the bluff at night, and when the rain falls and wind blows it can be lonesome. My mother’s recovery from recent heart surgery had been slow, and her isolation, once longed for, now unsettled her. “It’s raining,” she said.
I spent all weekend shoveling, planting, and hauling bags of topsoil. I was exhausted when I left for home in early afternoon. Twenty-five miles outside of Huntsville, I hit the rain and crossed over a white-capped Tennessee River. I found myself struggling to remember all the verses to “Ode to Billie Joe,” the Bobbie Gentry song about a boy who jumps off the Tallahatchie bridge. I couldn’t stop thinking about that image of flowers in the muddy water.
Thirteen miles from my exit, the bottom fell out of the sky. The road seemed to disappear; drainage pipes spewed like muddy geysers. My sister called my cell phone in a panic, unable to reach our mother. “What about her cell phone?” I asked. “She’s forgotten how to use it,” she snapped. “I’m heading over.”
My sister studied acting in school. Clearly, her drama days are not over. Our mother has weathered thunderstorms, wind that sent trees falling across the roof of her house, and one memorable ice storm that left her without water and power for three weeks. What was a little rain? Minutes later, my sister called again, choking back tears. Emergency-team volunteers—including a soaking wet, toothless woman in an orange vest—had motioned her to turn back on Highway 50.
I was safely home before my sister called again, planning to make her way to Hickman County through Hohenwald. Mother would be fine, I told her again. She has her dog, a flashlight, and our father’s ashes on the bedside table. The ashes brought my sister around. Nothing bad would happen with our dad’s vigilance, even in his newest incarnation.
They arrived on my doorstop Monday morning: my sister, our mother, her dog, and a tote bag holding Dad’s ashes. From the bluff, the swollen sound of the Duck River was unnerving, they both said, but strangely exhilarating. My friend in Birmingham called to say that I had outdone myself. Her patio had never looked so beautiful.