— Robert Brault
Writer & Poet (b. Feb. 10, 1938)
When five waves of devastating storms plummeted Bradley County into a dark and nightmarish abyss, many in our community had already begun making plans for Mother’s Day.
In the hearts of some, it is among the most precious of special occasions.
I lost my mom several years back to cancer, a merciless disease whose siege on human life will one day end thanks in part to the good work of good people whose untiring loyalties to difference makers like the local Relay for Life this weekend remained undaunted even in the wake of the murderous tornadoes that ravaged our families 11 days ago.
Time will be this community’s sincerest thank you to those whose labors of love untangled the web of sorrow left behind by those wretched storms.
One day last week as our friends, neighbors and loved ones regrouped in the aftermath of the unprecedented destruction, my thoughts took me to another time and a distant place. Mother’s Day was nearing so it reminded me of my own.
It was January 1990, the heart of a cold winter in the mid-state town of Columbia, a small community 3 1/2 hours to our west. Its size and values were similar to our own. Its residents worked hard, enjoyed weekend fellowship and watched over one another. It was home to my parents who had relocated a few years earlier. They were retired and had moved to be closer to my older brother and his family.
My frail father, whose health had spiraled from the combined ills of emphysema, chronic leukemia and heart disease, was in the final year of his life.
My mother, his wife of more than 40 years, served not only as his long-time confidante and companion, but as beloved caregiver.
Their unsuspecting plight in this harsh mid-winter opened my eyes to the unstoppable force of nature’s fury, especially in the face of an unrelenting anger.
Already a wet season whose ground saturation had worsened from melting snow, the pounding rains came again.
The unending downpours traveled slowly north in waves of cold fronts from the Gulf, one after another. Reservoirs rose. Rivers swelled. Forested levees could no longer restrain the record depths.
No amount of sandbags, earth or embankments could hold back the rage of the Duck River.
She released her flow and submerged all that lay in the dark water’s path — roads, parks, businesses and neighborhoods. The Duck’s perimeter took on ghastly shades of a great brown ocean. Scoreboards that once lined the outfields of low-lying community ball parks peered eerily from their slumbers. Tops of basketball goals were the lone remaining tale of blacktop pickup games. Brush debris and derelict litter clung to the drowning trunks of towering trees. High chain-link fences snaked along buried roadsides, only their uppermost rails now visible from the unfathomable floodwaters.
Just the houses resting on higher ground were spared.
My parent’s home was not among them.
Half-a-mile from the nearest river’s edge, it fell victim to nature’s frightening assault. The rising depths didn’t stop until they had engulfed the small brick structure with four feet of floodwater, mud and ruin. My brother, his friends and volunteers had evacuated our elderly parents earlier that freezing night. Much of the furniture they loaded into a moving van. Some they had hoisted atop cinder block pedestals, hoping these could survive the water’s inevitable rise.
I drove to Columbia two days later to assist in the recovery.
The high waters had finally receded. On this sunny and unusually warm Saturday morning we reentered the house through the stained and swelled front door. My father had fallen ill and remained at my brother’s house. My mother insisted that she come with us on the first walk-through of her abandoned home.
Tears bemoaned her heartbreak as we sloshed across muddied carpet and littered floors while noting the haunting brown water line that mocked our every step from the once vibrant and inviting walls that over the years had served as backdrop to wedding anniversaries, festive Thanksgivings and family Christmases.
“We’ll fix it,” I told my mother, wrapping an arm around her drooped shoulders. “We’ll make it even better.”
And we did.
It took time and required the full family’s effort.
But we repaired the damage and moved our parents back into their new home a few weeks later.
Floods are not tornadoes. But storms are storms. And disaster is nothing more than a test of human resilience.
Bradley County understands this better than anyone.
Like a flooded house, we’ll fix our community.
Like a mother’s love, we’ll embrace it forever.
This is Mother’s Day.
Be with her.
And let no storm set you apart.