Taking to Higher Ground, by Sybil McLain-Topel
At lunch we sit by the window, my mother and I, and we watch the rain. Drips tumble over full gutters and land on the outside of the pane. Each drop distinct. You can take them, one at a time and watch a drop’s slow journey down the slick pane, as it lurches, pauses, stops to rest, then starts up again, a long slide down the pane, on the outside.
A dreary spring day, but we just know this rain will be good for the flowers. Spring is everywhere, thick green grass, leafy full trees. The sky is dull, grey-blue. The air is thick, thick like heavy paint an artist flecks over the lush spring grass. Water coats dogwood leaves, rain splats down on wet grey asphalt.
We agree it might get worse. So, we leave the impressionist paintings and the museum restaurant and head homeward.
We drive separate cars to our separate homes in south Nashville, just two miles apart. My mother, Mollie, chooses a south side approach, closer to her house. I choose a different route, sure that I am right, that this way leads to higher ground.
The water in the field to my left as I drive down Edmondson Pike rises. But I’m certain the Ellington Ag Center shortcut’s the best way. There’s a steep road there that winds up a hill, winds its way around the old brick mansion, spits you out on the other side, just down the block from my home which has had erosion issues in the backyard but sits in the middle of a hill and would never flood.
I just need to make it safely to higher ground. I’m close.
Instead of a field of weeds and scrub brush to my left, I see a brown expanse of water, so wide it looks like some crazed film-maker has airlifted the ugly Mississippi River from Memphis four hours away and dropped it into Nashville. The flat-land part of the road that leads up the hill is covered in water, fast water. Rain and earth tumble past, white wave crests look like the Ocoee River rapids in East Tennessee. It’s as if all the water in the state is checking in to Nashville, a convention none of us wants to host.
Two blocks later to my right, up a hill, I see an ambulance in a ditch. A hundred yards ahead, there’s no road at all, just the edge of a new pond. Down a side street to the left, there’s another pond where the road should be. An SUV floats in the center near a white car that looks like a channel marker anchored in a lake. People stand at the edges. Where are the people that were in the cars?
I can’t think through the topography fast enough. This road leads to a bigger one on higher ground. I think. At the edge of the water, a few cars turn right into a parking lot and I follow. We leave the water behind to slap at other people’s tires. We inch our way up the slight incline, one at a time, like so many raindrops trying to reverse time and roll backwards, up the window pane, up, up to higher ground.
I make it home. Mother and I talk by cell. We’re fine, so far. It’s late Saturday afternoon, May 1, 2010.
Outside, through the rain and the dense grey-blue air, what light there is slides away and leaves fear. Twilight’s over. Now we can’t see the rain. We can’t see the drops. We can smell wet earth everywhere. We can smell fear. We can’t see the green leafy trees that are tired of the rain. We can’t see the ground, the saturated ground that is tired of the water. We can’t see the river from helicopters. We can’t see tributaries or neighborhood creeks that we didn’t know existed that run behind our houses, only now they are running through our driveways, our basements and our front yards.
On Sunday, experts predict the Cumberland River will crest soon, before further flooding. The mayor is calm. Emergency officials are in charge. People who need rescuing are rescued.
It rains, drop after drop after drop, all day Sunday – more than 15 inches in less than 36 hours. Everything breaks loose on the river, creeks and rivers and the saturated ground itself grows water.
After it stops raining, we take inventory. Reporters chatter. People assess.
But some of us don’t talk. I don’t talk because a bright ‘For Sale’ sign lives in the mud in my front yard, where it’s been for a year. One friend who lives on the river, where some houses are condemned and razed, doesn’t talk because she has flood insurance. She rebuilds. I don’t post on Facebook I need help. So many more people need more help than I do. I feel like an assault victim, but I don’t tell.
I arrive home from work every day. The white mask goes over my nose and mouth. I pull on a hazmat suit that doesn’t keep me clean, get down on my hands and knees and crawl through a small square into the muddy hole. The terrain under this land-locked house in Tennessee looks like the rank underside of a dock on the Atlantic Ocean after high tide.
I pretend I don’t see black mold right in front of me in the flashlight beam. I pull wet, smelly gray insulation off every surface. Neighbors don’t help. Neighbors don’t ask what’s in 16 black trash bags on my curb.
I do the right things, one by one. I pay until it hurts, then I pay some more for repairs, drains and pipes. I pay the realtor all of his commission 11 months later, after the price drops three times.
I did the right thing to fix the house for new owners.
I’m on the 8th floor now and when it rains, I sleep.