“God grant us the serenity to accept the things we cannot change, courage to change the things we can, and the wisdom to know the difference, living one day at a time; enjoying one moment at a time; taking this world as it is and not as we would have it; trusting that You will make all things right if we surrender to Your will; so that we may be reasonably happy in this life and supremely happy with You forever in the next. Amen."
No brothers and sisters, this isn’t an AA meeting, but it’s been 468 days—66 weeks—since this hurricane started, and there’s still no sign of it letting up or moving on. So, in light of this situation we find ourselves in, I thought this prayer by Reinhold Niebuhr would be appropriate for us to meditate on this week. As we weather this storm the best we can, I pray that we may have the wisdom and serenity I just described. Try as we might, we cannot change the fact of this storm, but we can control our response to it. Over this past year I’ve seen you all band together like never before to help each other, and words cannot express how proud I am to be a part of this faith community!
Before I start my sermon today, I’d like to bring some congregational prayer requests to your attention. Please continue to keep the Anderson, Abbott, Conrad, and Williamson families in your prayers today as their homes continue to experience significant water damage this week after the north hill’s erosion. And while I’m thinking about it, I’d like to extend a huge thank you to those of you who helped yesterday with refilling the town’s sandbags…”
The pastor’s voice continues, but I can’t pay attention anymore. I stare out the window and let the downpour become an enveloping white noise. The reverend isn’t boring, his speaking style is dynamic and inflective and carries well over the howling winds and creaking buildings; but the only savior I can think of today is that boat. I found it last month, during a two-hour lull in the storm. I’d snapped the carabiner of my makeshift harness onto one of the town’s crisscrossing guidewires and snuck out on a walk to clear my head. The constant darkness and oppressive weather conditions have torpedoed the collective mental health of the entire community, but recently I’ve been feeling the effects particularly severely. It was there that I’d first seen it, stashed high enough off of the beach to have avoided the worst of the storm’s damaging waves and completely forgotten by the rest of the community. It sits just down the road behind the debris of a collapsed boathouse, facing away from the center of the island towards the beach, its prow pointing ever towards that distant glow that cries out to me at all hours of the day. Tomorrow morning I’m finally going to see that glow for myself.
An elbow presses hard into my side. “Pay attention,” I hear. I turn and make eye contact with my father, who glances at me sternly and points discreetly towards the pulpit.
“This storm’s nothing new, Owen. Can you stop staring outside for just one minute please and live in the present?”
Dutifully, I turn my head towards the pulpit and set my eyes briefly on the reverend before finally raising my gaze to the crucifix just behind him. My focus lies cold and dead at my feet, and Christ’s stoic gaze offers me no indication he’s in the mood to resurrect it. My vision goes blurry and suddenly the boat rushes back into view. My ticket out of this storm. The glow of the storm’s eye floods my thoughts, and I feel the ghostly caress of cool, green grass on my back and neck as I recall the summer days of my childhood spent on the little island at its center. I can’t waste another day daydreaming, though. I need to experience it again myself.
“Up!” I hear my mother whisper, and I realize the rest of the congregation has stood for the concluding prayer and hymn. I stand quickly, catching a disapproving look from my embarrassed father. After the sermon families leave one by one, hitching their harnesses to various guidewires and making the careful trek back to their homes to ride out the rest of the Sabbath in quiet contemplation.
I mentally rehearse my escape over and over again into the late evening. “Your father and I will leave early tomorrow morning to volunteer with the church’s storm relief team, okay?” my mother says.
“Okay.” I reply.
“Are you interested in coming with us?”
I lie, “I don’t think I should, I’ve been feeling exhausted all week and if it’s okay with you I’d like to sleep in tomorrow. I won’t be any help if I’m dead on my feet.”
“Of course, Owen, get as much sleep as you need,” she says. “I know you like your alone-time, but when you’re up to it I’d encourage you to join us sometime. We’ll be helping out on Wednesday as well, and it’ll be good for you to join the rest of the community, you know. It’s important to stay connected to others in times like this.”
“I will, Mom, as soon as I can.”
“Great! I love you! Sleep well!”
Over the past few weeks, I’ve taken advantage of every lull in the storm to move the boat, using rain slicked boards as a makeshift track to push her slowly down the beach, and now all I need to free her is one final push at high tide. No one else knows about my plan. Despite being raised to be more comfortable on a boat than on land, getting to the island will push me to my limits. I can’t risk bringing anyone else out with me. No, tomorrow I will reach the island alone. I will lay under that beautiful willow oak, I will feel the cool, dry grass, sip the refreshing water of the small pond, and I will be at peace.
My watch alarm beeps softly from beneath my pillow, just loudly enough for me to hear. It’s 4:55 am. Just twenty minutes until high tide. I exit my bed quietly, already dressed. I reach for my backpack, already packed. Slowly, carefully, I push open my bedroom window, fighting the wind that seeks to slam it loudly against the side of the house. The cold rain batters my face immediately, with a gust of wind so strong it sucks the air from my lungs. Gasping at the cold, I take a moment to acclimate before climbing out onto the porch roof. The drop to the ground looks a lot further now than it had when I’d planned it, but I’m in no position to give up now. I close my eyes, steel my nerves, and step off the ledge.
I hit the ground hard, bent knees driven up into my gut to knock the wind out of me. I lie there for a minute, assessing the damage but finding nothing hurt or broken. I make my way slowly down to the beach, stopping on the way to check the anemometer. The wind speed reads 75 miles per hour, the lowest windspeed required to sustain a hurricane. Incredibly dangerous weather, but after the 120 miles per hour winds of last month, it feels like a sign from God.
The boat is exactly where I’ve left it. It strains against its tether as the incoming tide begins to loosen the beach’s grip on the boat. I prepare to depart. I turn around to check the propeller and see that it’s only partially buried in sand. Once the boat’s untied it should be free to move.
I jump out of the boat, running a short distance over to the makeshift piling I’ve created to tie the boat to. I claw at the rope, feeling its frayed edges dig beneath my nails as I work it free. Finally, the rope is loose. I grab a mostly intact two-by-four salvaged from the collapsed boathouse and, wading back into the waist-deep water, plunge it into the sand underneath the boat to use as a lever. Throwing my full weight behind the lever, I manage to pry the stern of the boat from the sand before heaving myself out of the water and into the boat. Here goes nothing, I think as I start the motor. The boat roars to life, and phase two of the adventure begins.
The waves are colossal. They dwarf the tiny boat, threatening to capsize me with one wrong move. To head east towards the center of the hurricane without capsizing requires me to point the prow to the northeast, facing the hurricane’s waves head on. With each wave I crest, I leave the shore farther and farther behind. I fight the storm for what feels like days, inching steadily closer to its center. Suddenly, I hear a ping from the front of the boat, and I’m struck in the face by a rusted cleat that’s broken free. I see stars, my head swimming, but I manage to hold onto the wheel as blood gushes from the gash above my eye, mixing with the rain that coats my face. I crouch down behind the wheel, keeping my center of gravity low while I work to regain my footing. Meanwhile, the boat continues fighting the waves as we work towards the distantly looming eyewall. It comes closer and closer, and despite the danger all around me, I feel the surge of adrenaline that comes with my plan’s impending fruition.
I hear the motor stop, and suddenly everything is calm. My entire body begins to tingle with a warm, glowing feeling, as though I’d put on a shirt immediately out of the dryer, and I look up. For the first time in 469 days, I see the sun above me. I feel a warm sea breeze wash over me, and in that moment all I can do is sob, a combination of adrenaline and stress release. I sag back against the gunwale and cry tears of joy, letting go of the despair that has consumed me for the past year and making space for the hope and ecstasy that fully engulfs me in this moment.
I sit there awhile, unwilling to break that blissful silence, sitting in stunned rapture at the sight of blue sky. The boat rocks quietly, offering me a mother’s tender comfort and singing me the lullaby that is the gentle lapping of the waves against her hull. After what feels like hours, I stand up and retake the helm. “Just a little bit farther,” I say, patting the side of the boat. “We’re almost there.”
I steady myself at the wheel and start the engine. The island still lies a mile out and I putter along slowly, too in awe of my surroundings to hurry. It draws closer and closer, and soon enough the silhouette of the willow oak becomes visible to the naked eye. The ghostly caress of the cool grass upon my skin returns, and I am almost completely at peace. Soon I will lie refreshed in that grass beneath the sun dappled tree and be a child again.
Wait, what’s wrong with the tree?
Does it even have leaves?
My heart sinks in my chest. Has it all been too good to be true? What’s become of my little island paradise? I throttle up, speeding towards the island before my fears can overtake and paralyze me.
I drop anchor a safe distance off the beach and wade to shore, but my hopes are dashed upon the rocks. After over a year of no rain or cloud cover, the tree is dead and dry and the grass is scorched and brown, crunching underfoot. I stand there, speechless, feeling the hope drain from inside me once again. There’s no home to be made here. No fun to be had. No rest or relaxation to be found. The island is dead and burnt, without a single sign of life.
I fall to my knees. There’s nothing here. The island is dead. There’s no shelter to be had under the tree, no fruit to be found on the bushes, and the shallow pond is warm and stagnant.
I can’t go back. I won’t go back! I might as well die!
I stare at the gently rocking boat, bobbing happily just offshore, completely oblivious to my despair. Somewhere, back over those waves and beneath those clouds lies home. A bleak and miserable future, with nothing worth living for.
I shout at the boat angrily. “Go home! Sink for all I care. Just leave me here.” The boat—being fully inanimate and mostly fiberglass—does nothing.
I lay on the blisteringly hot beach, feeling the grit of dust, rocks, and hot sand on the back of my neck and ears. Why, God? I pray silently. Is this all some kind of joke? If I’d died in the hurricane at least I could’ve died with hope, with the assurance that I tried my best! You know I can’t take it anymore, why won’t you rescue me from this?
I trace my fingers absently through the sand, leaving a snaking trench that stretches from my thigh to my hip as self-pitying tears well up in my eyes once again. That’s not a rock, I think, as my finger grazes something smooth just beneath the surface of the sand. I sit up and look down at my index finger, beneath which lies a small acorn. As I hold the acorn between my thumb and forefinger, I spot three more acorns that have fallen nearby. They must’ve fallen from the willow oak, I realize. This seed may be dormant now, but I’m holding a young oak in my hand. I clutch the acorn tight to my chest. One day, when the weather is better, it will begin to grow, and this rocky shore can become my little Eden once again. You’ll never get to experience it if you’re dead, says a voice deep inside me. I agree. It’s time to go home.
Pocketing the acorn, I wade back out to the boat and set a course straight back toward the island, bracing myself for the worst the eyewall has to offer. As soon as I hit it the waves slam into the boat, rocking it violently from side to side. I slip and fall to my knees, only barely able to hold the wheel steady. Using the wheel to haul myself up off the deck, I point the prow towards wave after wave, facing walls of water two stories high and riding them up and back down, over and over and over again. I fight the storm for at least an hour, cramped hands fused to the boat’s wheel and throttle. In the distance, a black landmass appears on the horizon. Home! I think with relief.
Just then, with a terrifying crack, a thin fissure appears in the starboard gunwale. I check the damage. It’s cracked down to the waterline. Water begins trickling into the boat, slowly at first, and then with greater speed. I spot a bucket tucked into a side compartment, but there’s no way I can bail while keeping control of the boat. By the time we’re a half mile offshore, the boat rides a half-foot lower in the water. By the time we’re a quarter mile out, one and a half feet lower. Three minutes later, the boat’s only barely above the water.
One hundred yards left.
The boat runs aground on a sandbar ten yards from shore, the force of the impact hurling me into the water. Immediately, its back end begins to sink beneath the water. I surface, chest heaving for air and neck craning to find the boat again. There it is. Prow rising out of the water as the boat slips slowly backwards off of the sandbar, settling down towards the shallow ocean floor. I swim over to it and cling to the side of the boat, weighing my options. Ten yards isn’t an unfathomable swim, but leaving the boat here guarantees its sinking. If I can wedge it to the sandbar, however, she may be salvageable. My feet touch the sandbar and I begin to pull, begging the small craft to work with me as I attempt to keep it partially above water. But it’s no use. I feel my feet sinking into the sandbar as the water rises to my chin, then my lips, then my nose. I take one final breath before going under and committing myself one more time to saving the boat. C’mon! You’ve made it this far! I plead as it settles lower and lower into the murky depths. Finally, I have no choice but to release it. I watch the boat sink to the bottom of the ocean along with any hope I’ve had of ever going back into the eye of the hurricane.
I surface, gasping for breath, my tired lungs screaming at me in indignation. I swim to the sandbar, readying myself for the last push to shore. After taking three deep, measured breaths to calm myself, I begin swimming. The cold water has begun sapping me of my strength, but I flounder and kick to keep my head above water, moving steadily closer to land. After minutes of slow, careful swimming, I finally wash up on the beach.
Pulling myself into a seated position, I am once again aware of just how wet I am. After resting there on the beach for a moment, I stand up and trudge home. As I walk, I pass the barely livable, weatherproofed homes of other embattled families with indominable spirits and nowhere else to go. I walk back inside my empty house. Volunteering must have taken even more time than usual today, I think with some relief. No one will ever need to know that I left. Shedding my waterlogged outer layer at the doorway, I climb the wooden steps wearily towards my room, collapsing onto my bed as a tsunami of exhaustion washes over me. Reaching into my pocket, I feel the smooth, round acorn pinched between my thumb and forefinger. I’m going to volunteer on Wednesday, I promise myself. It’s time to rejoin the community. And as the soft folds of my sheets gently caress my neck and arms, I sleep deeply for the first time in months.