In the coverage of the second round of the recent Oklahoma tornadoes, I heard that a mother and baby died when the tornado caught their car. I’ve been overwhelmed by the loss of life, but that one story hit me square in the heart.
In 1995, my children’s babysitter lived in a mobile home. One day in May, my co-workers and I heard that there had been tornadoes sighted several counties to our west. I looked at the sky. Off to the west was that sickly shade of green that precedes a tornado; skies were otherwise clear. I knew that it isn’t safe to be in a car during a tornado, but all I could think about was my babies in a mobile home with no basement and no foundation.
I grabbed the college papers I needed to grade and headed to the sitter’s about a mile away. By the time I got the kids loaded up, the sky was looking stormy. I didn’t know what to do. I lived half an hour to the north. I had three small children in the car—a three-year old in the front seat (yes, this was back in the old days when this was okay) and two five-month-old infants in their baby car seats in the back.
The drive home was always difficult. My three-year-old always wanted to talk about his day and required my attention. One of the twins cried all the way home most days, so I did a lot of driving with one hand while the other arm was stretched into the back seat holding a bottle or pacifier. On this day, all I knew was that I wanted my babies to be safe. And I couldn’t think of a single option that was good. Babysitter’s home=bad. Driving=bad. I decided I needed the illusion of control, so I got in the car and headed toward home.
What followed was easily the most terrifying and prayerful half hour of my entire life. As I drove, the rain became torrential. There were already cars parked beneath all the overpasses, so I kept driving. I figured out a plan. If I had to pull over and head into a ditch, I would grab the baby from behind the driver’s seat and then head to the passenger side of the car to get the other kids. I knew I could have one baby seat handle over each arm and that I could toss the three-year old over my shoulder. I briefly tried to figure out what I would do with all my students’ papers that needed to be graded. (There’s no sense to what pops into a mind during a crisis.)
I drove and drove and drove, all the while praying, “Please, God. I have no idea what I’m doing. If you don’t save us, please, please, please let my babies feel no pain and have no fear. Give it all to me instead.” I knew I needed to concentrate on what I was doing. I realized the kids had all fallen asleep. In all the times I drove that trip with the kids, that was the only time all three of them slept at the same time, freeing me to focus on what I was doing.
Looking out of the windows and up at the churning skies, I saw four tornadoes, and my path was taking me right between them. With no place to pull over, I kept driving. My knuckles and shoulders were tense. I wondered how my husband would recover from losing his wife and three children at once. I worried about him sitting at work, worrying about us in the path of the tornadoes. I thought about what my mom would say when she saw the mess I’d left in our kitchen that morning.
I don’t know why we were spared, but God got us home intact. Just south of the town where we lived, the storms stopped, with only gently falling rain. I pulled into our garage. I sobbed where I sat. I left the kids sleeping in the car while I stepped in the house to call my husband at his office. (This happened in our pre-cell phone days.)
“Honey, we made it. I just wanted you to know we’re safe. We’re okay. I’ve never been so scared in my life.” “Okay,” he said. “Safe from what?” Where he worked, there had been only gentle rain all afternoon. They had no radio or TV on at the office, and this was before the internet, so he had no idea there were tornadoes in the area.
I remember thinking that this just didn’t make sense. I had just been brought safely through a horrible storm and my husband didn’t even know the storm existed. How is it possible for my husband be completely unaware of what was happening to his wife and children? Could he still be my shelter, my safe harbor, in the storm when he didn’t know the storm even existed?
He could hear the fear and confusion in my voice and came home early that day. He took one look at me and put his arms around me. Even though he didn’t experience the storm, he helped me weather the aftermath of it. I shook for hours while he made dinner and helped me get the kids to bed.
I’ve realized that still happens. When I’m having a tough week, my husband can take one look at me and know that I need his shelter. Even when I was at my most selfish as a wife, he was there, to hold me and pick up the slack. As I’ve watched him weather the storms of unemployment over the past several years, I have learned to be his shelter as well. I’ve learned when he is in the greatest need of signs of respect and when he most needs to experience my desire for him.
My husband is my safe harbor, and I am his.