A Surge and a Story

Good Friday 

I’m running out of a Tenebrae Service with my friends. We are terrified and laughing nervously at what went on during Chapel.

“I thought that cymbal was going to blow my eardrums out,” one of us says.

“I feel so guilty,” another one says.

The day is warm, rare for Easter weekend in Michigan. We’re wearing flip-flops, jeans, wool sweaters, and no jackets. Lisa, the only one of us that grew up in Michigan, and the only one who has a car, asks if we want to drive to the lake. She says she heard the waves are frozen.

“What do you mean, frozen?”

“They’re just these humps of hills; some of them are mid-crest.”

We drive to Holland and stand on the pier leading up to the lighthouse, and the lake is indeed frozen. It looks like one of those exhibits in a natural history museum; a window into the way things used to be. We get on our knees to get a closer look, to see if anything moves underneath. We see nothing.

“Will it be warmer by Easter?” one of us asks.

“I think so,” Lisa says. “The waves might be softer by then.”

“They’re rock solid now.” That’s Gretchen. She’s kicking a wave with her flip-flop. She’s a California girl, a surfer, dirt biker, and skateboarder. “Bet we could sit on ‘em,” she says. Her blue eyes are sparkling and we know her well enough by now that when her eyes get like that, something crazy is brewing and will not be stopped. 

Gretchen walks onto the water, and the rest of us collectively gasp. Then, we follow her. We can fit on one wave, and for a minute, we sit down. The water seeps into our jeans and we shiver. 

This will not last. There could be a break in the ice at any moment and the wave we are sitting on would swallow us. We would not have a chance.


It is late August in Silver Spring, Maryland. My husband Jesse and I are driving home from church. We’ve moved here recently from South Bend, Indiana because Jesse got a job at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. He specializes in hurricane storm surge. 

Early this week, a tropical wave grew into a tropical depression near the Bahamas and Katrina was born. Jesse created runs and models of what Katrina was capable of as she turned into a Tropical Storm, a cyclone, and then a hurricane. By Friday, she’d found so much strength in the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico, she was labeled a Category 5 hurricane heading for Louisiana.

When we get home, Jesse is quiet while we make lunch, and I throw out suggestions of what we should do with our afternoon. Shall we go to Georgetown? Old Town Alexandria? A bookstore?

“I think I better go to work,” he says. He says something about surges and levees, the Mississippi River, and Lake Pontchartrain as he loads his plate into the dishwasher.

Jesse isn’t in charge of organizing relief once a storm hits. He’s not the one to go to for food or rescue once the surges have done their damage. He is the one who knows what the water is capable of before it hits land. He’s been studying Lake Pontchartrain and the mouth of the Mississippi where it empties into the Gulf of Mexico for years. Most of his graduate schoolwork had to do with this area and trying to prove how vulnerable the levees are. It’s a strange kind of witnessing: knowing what’s going to happen, but not wanting it to be true.

When Jesse came home it was late, and he looked exhausted. He sat at our kitchen table fiddling with his lanyard that held his NOAA badge around his neck. He hated wearing that thing and always took it off and tucked it into his bag before he left work.

I brought him a beer and sat down across the table from him. He dropped the lanyard and it swung for a second. Jesse reached for the beer.

“It’ll hit land in a few hours,” he said, turning the bottle around and around. “It’ll be awful. So many people will not be able to get out. They’re not ready.” He spoke quickly, sliding the bottle from one hand to the other.

“I never wanted to be right,” he pushed the beer away and put his head in his hands.

We sat that way for a while in the late August heat, worrying and waiting to see what the water would do.

Tybee Island

We are staying in a big beach house that faces the Tybee Lighthouse, the Atlantic Ocean, and huge ships that silently sail along the Savannah River, a moving skyline. Jesse’s here for work, and the rest of us—our two daughters, my parents, my brother and his wife—came for a vacation. Jesse takes a few days off, but I wonder how relaxing these days are for him when he is surrounded by the water he’s trying to figure out.

One afternoon, my parents watch the girls so Jesse and I can explore Savannah. I want to see birch moss hanging from a big oak tree. I want to stroll around the town of John Berendt’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. I want to watch the ships coming in. 

To get there, we have to drive on a road that is so close to the water I feel as though I can touch it if I stick my hand out the window. 

“Is this the only road out of here?” I ask Jesse, putting my feet on the dashboard.

“Yes,” he says.

“So if there’s a hurricane,” I begin and turn around in my seat to look at those houses on stilts built into sand.

“There’s no way out,” Jesse says. “This road will be covered in water.”

I put my arm out the window and spread my fingers apart, playing with the wind. I can feel the water’s salty spray on my fingertips. By now, Jesse and I have been married for 10 years. I know when hurricane season is better than I know what’s on sale at Target. I know how the names of the storms are organized and the difference between a tropical depression, a tropical storm, and a hurricane. I know it drives Jesse crazy when words like “Superstorm” are added to existing names. He doesn’t think it’s necessary or right to embellish. It confuses and belittles the facts, the truth. 

That night, I hear what sounds like a seal barking on our front steps. It is our youngest daughter, Harper. She has come down with croup. Jesse throws the covers off and quickly scoops Harper out of her pack-n-play. He takes her to the bathroom, and turns the shower on, and I enter to a room filled with steam. I hold Harper while Jesse calls our doctor back in Maryland. My hand is on her back, her chest to mine and I can feel the rattling inside her.

I am terrified. I know nothing about croup except for the part in Anne of Green Gables when Anne gives a little girl ipecac in the middle of the night and saves her life. The more I re-run that scene in my head, the more afraid I get. What is ipecac? Where can I find it? I think I remember Anne had some in the kitchen. Is it a spice? By the time Jesse is off the phone, I’ve convinced myself Harper has three minutes to live. 

“There’s a pharmacy open back in Savannah,” Jesse says, pulling on jeans and a sweatshirt. “I’ll be back in about 20 minutes.”

It will make Jesse angry if I tell him I don’t think that’s enough time. My ability to not only get lost in a story, but to mold fiction to my own life is not going to help the current situation. Jesse also knows he cannot reassure me when I get like this. Anything he says, I will misinterpret. So he offers a fact as he touches my hand and puts the other on Harper’s head: “The doctor says taking her outside will help. Why don’t you walk with me to the car? You can sit on the porch swing.”

We walk outside together, and I turn Harper around so she can face the lighthouse and the water. We see no ships. We don’t hear the water’s waves. Just Harper’s rattled breathing, slow and heavy, while Jesse pulls away and heads down the only road out of here. 

18th Street Lounge

Jesse and I are standing in the 18th Street Lounge in downtown DC listening to writers from Good Letters share their work. Many of them are writing about Hurricane Sandy, the most recent hurricane that made its way all the way up to New York City.  As they read, the floorboards below Jesse squeak as he shifts his weight, and I can tell he is uncomfortable. A few weeks earlier, after the storm hit, he came home from work and read an article in the New York Times about a mother trapped in her car because of the storm surge. Jesse hadn’t even taken his bag from his shoulder as he read the story. His voice cracked and he leaned against the wall, and I understood why he so badly wants everyone to understand what water’s surges can do. Everyone should know the truth: from the poorest to the richest, to the most powerful to the weakest. Everyone must get the message.

I don’t think Jesse likes it when a story comes from a storm. Maybe he feels responsible, or maybe he thinks it’s too sorrowful to write about something that comes from the wreckage and devastation. I’m not sure, but I understand that listening to these writers tonight is hard for him to bear. I think about holding his hand for the rest of the readings, but I decide against it. I don’t know if he would want me to call attention to how he is feeling.

Noah’s Hand

It is hurricane season again, and I am sitting outside of NOAA, waiting for Jesse to come out of work. It is noon. Jesse’s been furloughed. Today, everyone at NOAA has until noon to shut down their computers, turn off lights, and take any personal belongings with them until the government can open again.

I’m sitting on a cement block that holds a giant hand. It’s Noah’s hand, and I’ve always found comfort in it. I liked that there was a Bible story smack in the middle of people’s everyday lives: right here in front of Starbucks and the Metro rushing into Washington DC. Here he is releasing the birds, their wings barely touching his splayed fingers as they take flight in search of the olive branch. I’ve always thought of Jesse as one of those birds—searching, testing, watching the water, then flying back with what he understands. Not today, though. Until further notice, Jesse is no longer allowed to worry about or hope in water. 

Today, Noah’s hand annoys me, and I start to bully it. “People thought you were crazy,” I mumble, thinking I probably would not have believed him either. “Weren’t you a drunk?” I add for extra punch.

Because it’s the government, like clockwork, employees start walking out of the doors. Several of them are carrying plants: ferns, heartleaf philodendrons, small green things to brighten up their cubicles. 

Jesse comes out soon, his messenger bag slung across his chest—it’s a gift I gave him for his first Father’s Day. He isn’t wearing his badge. I know he’s wrapped the lanyard around the plastic ID and tucked it in the pocket of his bag. I’ve only seen him with his badge that once after work.

“Where’s your plant?” I ask him.

“My plant?”

“Yeah. Everybody’s walking down the street with a plant. Where’s yours?”

“I don’t have a plant,” he says and takes my hand. “They told everyone with office plants to take them home because nobody knows how long this will last.”

We stand at Noah’s hand for a moment, not really sure what to do or where to go next.  I watch all the NOAA employees, their badges bouncing slightly off their shirts, and the leaves on the plants quiver with each step.


It is Thursday, late afternoon and the sky is a murky green. The trees outside our kitchen window have stilled suddenly. Without checking the weather, I think I know a storm is on its way. This morning, I checked NOAA, as I normally do when I hope for a season to change. I hoped to read a temperature of fifty and lots of sunshine. NOAA told me it would be warm, but that the temperature change would bring severe weather as well. Even without NOAA’s assessment, though, I can tell I am standing in the quiet before whatever is going to happen next.

Before the first drops fall, lightening strikes, and it looks as though it’s right behind our garage. The branches on the trees begin to sway and I can hear the rustle of the leaves. I check NOAA and see there are three warnings: severe thunderstorm, flash flood, and tornado. I walk upstairs to where Hadley and Harper are and tell them to sit in the kitchen with me until the storm passes.

My actions are different than when I first became a mother: I would immediately call Jesse and ask him what I should do, where I should go, what was going to happen. Today, I know what to do, but I am still tempted to call Jesse. I want him to tell me everything is going to be okay, that it’s already passed where he is and moving towards the Chesapeake Bay, that it won’t bother us. I pick up my phone to text him. He is supposed to be on the train home, and knowing this, I begin to make up a story: what if his train is struck by lightening? What if the train gets in the way of a flash flood? What if a tree gets knocked over the tracks? What if I don’t see Jesse again?

Twenty years ago, I sat on a frozen wave knowing that at any moment it could break and I would drown. Nothing I could do would save me. Today, I am doing all the right things, and still the water could take over and change my life.

I am reading God for Us during Lent, and in today’s reading, Lauren Winner suggests that God is both a refuge from a storm and the storm itself. I wonder what Jesse would think of this metaphor if I were to ask him about it. I wonder what he thinks about my creating a story from the work he does. When he comes home, I hope to ask him.

Photograph courtesy of www.noaa.gov

Callie Feyen is a middle school English teacher and writer living in the D.C. suburbs. She is a regular contributor for Relief Journal, Coffee+Crumbs, and Makes You Mom, and her work has also been featured on Good Letters and Tweetspeak Poetry. Her first book is forthcoming through TS Poetry Press. Find her at http://www.calliefeyen.com.

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