Yesterday, I drove my eldest to camp and dropped him off. The weather was sunny and hot. The car’s thermometer said it was 30 degrees outside. But as we came closer to our destination, a wall of grey cloud rose up on the horizon. Rain could be seen falling in sheets from a distance, lightning flashing occasionally. Albus took it in good humour—it always storms when he’s at camp. He had to go for cover during a severe tornado warning, several years ago.
We carried his gear to the dining hall along with everyone else who was arriving, and it soon started to thunder and lightning, and rain. After a brief introduction, the kids began gathering into their cabin groups, and the parents were sent on their way. I had brought an umbrella, and walked to the car in heavy rain, feeling chuffed with myself for being so prepared. But the air was cool, and I felt almost chilly in my t-shirt and knee-length leggings. When I started the car, I saw the thermometer now read 17 degrees.
I turned on the radio and found CBC as I left the camp grounds and headed east on the small country road, then south on the slightly larger country highway (Grey County 10) that cuts down to Clifford, through Hanover and Neustadt. But I didn’t get very far. Eleanor Wachtel was engaging three writers in a conversation on George Eliot’s Middlemarch, which kept my mind occupied, even as I watched the ominous shelf of heavy cloud to the west, which seemed to be blowing my way. I accelerated to pass several cars, because I had the impression that I could somehow outrace the storm. I was in a strip of clear sky overhead, no rain, no wind, as I drove down the strip of paved road between vast stretches of fields, punctuated by little clumps of thickly treed areas, a few houses, fences, barns, but mostly fields and trees.
I crossed Highway 21, which goes to Southampton, and Lake Huron. I remember glancing to my right, again, to assess the location of the cloud, still thinking I could outrace it, if only I could get past this slow-moving trailer-home in front of me. Only a few hundred feet out the passenger window, I glimpsed a stream in amongst trees, the whole of the scene stirred into a whirl, as if it were being thrashed by an invisible force. I can see it right now in my mind’s eye: a grey force, rattling the leaves and branches, bending the trees, stirring the water, within a rapidly descending fog. It’s that near to me, I thought. I’ve got less than a minute and it will be here. And then it struck the tiny car full-force, a powerful wind, heavy rain. My windshield wipers couldn’t keep up. I kept driving like an automaton, not sure what else to do, following the trailer-home. We crossed a small bridge that took us between a thick patch of trees planted close to the road, and I could see debris flying, and the car was struck with a branch, the treetops were whirling, and I knew, suddenly, that this was very dangerous weather. But what could I do?
I must stop somewhere with less trees, I thought. The trailer-home pulled into the gravel at the side of the road, and other cars coming from the opposite direction were doing the same, so I pulled over too, coming to stop in an area with a few trees far enough from the road that I didn’t think they could fall on me. I didn’t even notice the power lines overhead. On the radio, making it all the much worse, a siren began sounding, interrupting the voices of the women talking about George Eliot, and an automated voice informed me that the area in which I was driving was under a tornado watch or warning, and that I was being advised to take shelter immediately.
Take shelter? Where? I’m sitting with the car still in drive, my foot on the brake pedal, my body shaking uncontrollably, asking the automated voice where exactly would it advise me to take cover? My new car felt approximately as substantial as a tin can. At moments, the blasts of wind seemed to lift it almost off the ground. I imagined it spinning through the air like a blown piece of trash. I realized that there was no point in keeping the car in drive, and that my muscles must relax in order to stop shaking. I geared into park, and remembered that I had a cellphone.
I began texting Kevin. No response. Here is my series of (completely over-the-top hysterical) texts to him:
I’m in tornado.
Can’t find hazards
Should I leave car and get down in ditch?
How big is storm?please help if you can
The reason I considered abandoning the car and getting down in the ditch was because only a couple of days ago I heard a news report about a massive tornado in western Canada that ravaged an area for hours, and two teens, brothers, recounted how they abandoned the pickup they’d been driving and lay flat in a ditch waiting for the storm to pass—should I do the same? Is this what one does? It came to me that I possessed zero survival knowledge in this situation, and that my instinct was paralysis, essentially: to freeze and fearfully hope for the best. Hope that I wouldn’t be the unfortunate person who finds herself in exactly the wrong place at the wrong time.
But I could find the hazards! I dropped the phone on the passenger seat and opened the glove compartment to find the manual. The car is new enough that I’d not yet had occasion to use the hazards, and couldn’t have found the symbol if my life depended on it—couldn’t even remember, in my state of mind, what the symbol for hazards looked like. In the index I found the page listing: “Page 176,” I said out loud, which curiously made me feel better, and I turned to the page, and read that the hazards are conveniently located near the radio controls.
Ah. That’s it. I pressed the button and felt more in control. I’d forced myself to behave in a calm and rational manner. The storm was not abating, however, so it occurred to me to phone home. My elder daughter answered, and I freaked her out while trying to sound calm, and then Kevin came on the line. He looked up the storm on the radar. Yes, I was right in the heart of it, but it was one long narrow path running north to south, and should be by me soon. He assured me that it was nowhere near camp, which eased my mind enormously. I kept thinking of how I’d left my kid in a camp dining-hall in what was maybe a tornado.
The trailer-home pulled out. I decided to pull out too.
I stopped once more when the wind got heavy again, parked in the shelter of a driving shed with another woman in her vehicle, both of us glancing at each other but what else could we do? Then I resumed driving again. The sky was alight with flickers of lightning, almost constant. I started to think I was imagining them. The storm didn’t seem to vanish, as promised. A utility pole that had snapped in half dangled over the highway on wires. It occurred to me, as I passed it, that I shouldn’t have parked underneath the electrical lines, earlier. I listened to a call-in show on the newly-called federal election, but I was hardly listening. I was in a dream-state, really. My focus on the road, my emotions pressed down deep. I chased the storm all the way home, kilometre after kilometre of tension and rain and wind—at one point tracking west to try to escape it, only to finish in Waterloo, on the homestretch, under a torrent of hail, and thick rain.
As I drove down Bridgeport, minutes from home, the sun came out and shone in my eyes—but it was raining heavily. The contrast was comical. Then it stopped suddenly, suddenly clear. The street ahead was blocked off by emergency vehicles, so I took a detour, and finally, I was in our driveway, home. On our front steps I leaned down and picked up a piece of hail that was quickly melting, as big as a quarter. I was jelly-limbed. Kevin fed me burritos. I couldn’t stand. I couldn’t sit. When I lay down, I couldn’t rest. I felt both drained and wired all at once.
It wasn’t that I thought I was going to die—not really. But it did occur to me that this was a situation in which death would not be a completely unreasonable outcome. “Don’t let anyone publish anything I’ve been working on,” I instructed Kevin over the phone. “It’s not ready. It shouldn’t ever be published.”
“Um, okay,” he said.
I didn’t feel a need to give him last-minute instructions on child-rearing, because he knows what to do and what could I say in a ridiculously cliched phone conversation in the middle of a storm to make a worst-case scenario outcome better? But my publishing legacy—that seemed important to try to control.
Is it sad that I’m in the middle of projects that are incomplete, insufficient, unready? It isn’t that sad. I’ve published some good things, and it would be fine to leave it at that. It also isn’t sad because the potential of the incomplete and unready is good, when a person is around to fulfill it, and here I am, alive and well, sitting with earplugs in, listening to my daughter play and sing a song she’s composed on the ukulele—she’s even printed out the lyrics and chords—and I’m writing something, even if it’s only this. I’m here and I can keep working away at these ideas and projects and can hope, eventually, maybe, to finish something else I’ll be proud of, worth sharing.
When I walked through the door, safely home, I was drained of emotion. I’d spent the last two and a half hours trying to feel nothing at all—or instinctively feeling as little as possible, emotions useless in the situation, because they’d only overwhelm rational action and thought. I felt removed. The sensation was physical—that was why it felt so peculiar, so particular. It was like my eyes and ears couldn’t transmit deeper information to my brain, like there was a fog of rain between my brain and my body. My body was this blurred heavy weight that I was dragging like stone, but it was also me, I could recognize it as me. But this was a me that was blurred, heavy, indistinct. I couldn’t feel myself. And I didn’t care.
And now, let me be a little less melodramatic: passing through the storm was a minor trauma. Had I not been alone, it might not have seemed so dire, in truth.
After devouring the burritos and drinking several enormous glasses of water, I binge-watched Brooklyn Nine-Nine with AppleApple. Later, I played the ukulele in the dark, somehow recalling lyrics and chords to a vast number of Leonard Cohen songs, which made me feel 18 again—exactly 18 years old, when Leonard Cohen songs were my summer soundtrack and longing and love were fresh and his lyrics made perfect and perfectly romantic sense: “I loved you in the morning, your kisses deep and warm, your hair upon the pillow like a sleepy golden storm. Many loved before us, I know that we are not new, in city and in forest, they smiled like me and you. But let’s not talk of love or chains and things we can’t untie, your eyes are soft with sorrow, hey that’s no way to say goodbye.” (Except, I see now, in looking up the lyrics, that I’ve remembered them wrong, and the love or chains line comes in a later verse… but it is a good line, possibly the best in the song, so I’ll leave it as it is, and sing it like that, when I sing it again, in the dark.)