Warmth purrs through the heat registers. These dark mornings while my children still sleep, I hear the sounds usually masked by a busy household: from the back bathroom, the cascade of water as my husband takes his shower; from the kitchen, a slow drip, coming not from the faucet but from a steady Oregon rain on the cantilevered window box above the sink.
“Water, water, everywhere,” my father used to recite, “and not a drop to drink.”
When I was pregnant with my first child, my midwife held a device to my belly so Todd and I could hear the rapid, liquid sound of our baby’s heartbeat. My midwife said quietly, “This is why we love the ocean. In the sound of water, we’re drawn back to the womb. Hear it?”
We heard what we could not see—our child being formed invisibly, cushioned by amniotic fluid. Every human life begins this way. Water surrounds the unborn, magnifies the sound of mother’s heartbeat. Baby sleeps and wakes, kicks and rolls, safe. Secure. Contained. Then one day the waters break and the womb is no longer a shelter.
Our girls were preschoolers when we lived on the edge of the Arabian Desert, in the manmade oasis of Amman, a city built onto hillsides in northwest Jordan. Twice a week, water flowed through city pipes to fill rooftop water tanks and backyard cisterns—enough to last, if we were careful, until the next water day. Along with the rest of the country, we prayed for rain and rejoiced when winter rains filled the country’s reservoirs.
My husband finishes his shower and dresses for work. The day has lightened by the time he opens the front door and remarks in surprise that it’s raining. He grabs his raingear and I hear the deadbolt turn and his car pull out of the driveway. An alarm clock goes off upstairs, a bedroom door opens, the bathroom door shuts. Then, once again, the drip dripping from outside, and I marvel that our home is such a shell that even when the weatherman warns that an inch may fall overnight, my husband can still forget the rain all around us.
My daughters eat breakfast while I stand at the back window looking out over the creek canyon. The neighbor’s yard is beginning to flood, I comment. We’ve had snow, then rain and a warm front, and the creek is rising. My sixth grader tells me some of her classmates wear rubber boots to school and keep them on all day long, drippy and squeaky. When I ask her if she wants to wear galoshes to school, she says no and rushes upstairs to get dressed. I call after her to pack an extra pair of socks.
When I take the girls to school, I will wear my outdoorsman’s coat—waterproof, breathable, all seams sealed with technology to keep me dry.
An hour south, my parents live in a college town framed in by agricultural lands. When winter rains persist, the Willamette overflows and whole farms go underwater. One year the town was completely cut off, highways flooded on all sides. My parents live high on a hill on the outskirts of town, nowhere near the floodplain. They recently had a new steel roof put on their house, guaranteed to last sixty years. High and dry, my father boasts and that roof will outlast me.
My own home is on high ground as well, so watching the creek overflow is more interesting than threatening, though I do wonder how long hundred-year-old Douglas firs can survive with roots submerged. These firs have felt floodwater soften the soil around their toes many times, long and not so long ago.
Every five or six months, my neighbors gather together to make plans for the Big One. The Mormon family on the corner jokes that their basement stockpile of canned goods will be buried in rubble so don’t come knocking. They tell us beans and fruit can be purchased in oversized cans from a Mormon cannery in St. Paul with an expiry date of 2035. You don’t have to be part of the church to make a purchase. We’re instructed to keep a pair of shoes and a hardhat under each bed, in case the earthquake hits at night and we need to step through broken glass to exit the room. One family down the street bought dollar store crowbars, one for each room’s under-bed box, in case the doors need to be pried open after the quake. Despite our jokes and tips and scribbled notes, we are not ready for disaster. The Big One could be hundreds of years off. That hardhat under the bed could outlast me.
Every winter in Amman the rain fell hard for days at a time—nothing like the coastal fogs and misty spring rains back home in Oregon. When rain comes to the desert, there is jubilation. I have seen schoolchildren dancing in the streets, faces lifted to the first rain. I taught my own children—the one who came with us to that foreign land and the two born there—to rejoice along with our Arab brothers and sisters in late fall when rain returned. And yet, that blessed rain quickly became a threat.
My language helper, Thikra, had scheduled a lesson for Wednesday, but that was before the two days of nonstop rain. I would have canceled, except Thikra didn’t have a telephone and neither did we. I hadn’t expected her to trudge through the rivers of rain coursing down every hill, every street in Amman. But here she was, shaking off her coat and scarf and hanging them over a chair, complaining to me in Arabic as she slipped off her sodden shoes.
“I’m so very cold,” Thikra said. She sat near the radiator and I brought her a lap robe and put on hot water for tea. She told me how flooded the streets were downtown and how she’d had to step through a wide stream of muddy water just outside her own front door.
The words of a missionary friend came back to me. “For the poor,” he’d said, “rain is not always a blessing.”
At a recent city council meeting, two factions emerged. The first urged a town-wide disaster-preparedness effort—a playbook, a plan, for when Cascadia subduction zone finally, inevitably, slips. No, the other council members argued, that can wait. Too many are without homes or consistent shelter. Let’s get these people housed and fed and working, and then we’ll build our stockpiles. Nobody budged. The meeting adjourned late: discussion to be resumed at some future time.
My waterproof hat is leaking. It keeps my face and glasses dry as I walk my youngest to her third grade class, but I feel dampness soaking through the band to my forehead. At least, I think I feel wetness. I can’t reach up and check, because I’m carrying a clay diorama and thinking how cozy it will be to go back home on this perfectly pouring day and write a couple hundred words about my third grader shaping clay into figures for a three-dimensional book report and breathing life into them as she tells their story to the class.
The third grade teacher is my friend Ann, and she gets up from her desk to say hello and tell me her poor chickens haven’t been out of the henhouse for two days because it’s so muddy and the rain just doesn’t let up. They’re still laying, though, even in the darkness and cold and wet. I mention that Hess Creek is at its banks and that the lowest point of our neighbor’s yard is now one with the creek. Ann asks me if I’ve heard about the family down in Albany, whose car was swept into a culvert. I turn my face away from the children and answer oh my god, no, I hadn’t heard a thing.
I leave my wet shoes just inside the front door, and I hang my hat on the newel post on one side of the stairway and my raincoat on the other. Rain taps against the window, glosses the cedar deck, clings to the bare aspen branches then falls away like slow tears. I sit down and open my computer to enter the search terms: flood drowning Albany, Oregon
Their car was driving across the Mega Foods parking lot in Albany, heading toward Geary Street through high water when it was swept into Periwinkle Creek and down into the culvert under Queen Avenue. A five-year-old child and his father were pulled from the waters and rushed to the hospital, but the bodies of the mother and toddler weren’t recovered until noon the next day.
We lived in Amman nearly four years. The middle of the desert might be the last place you’d expect flooding, but every year the rains came hard and fast for days at a time—and every year there were stories of some who were swept away.
Rain dumps on the hilly city of Amman, on the surrounding villages, on the mountains, and on the deserts. Flash floods are common, especially in low-lying areas, which collect runoff from the hills. Every year we heard accounts of children drowning in flash floods after stepping into a gulley or splashing in a ditch.
After a violent thunderstorm one year, in the desert valley outside Mufraq, the tents of six Bedouin families were knocked down by the pounding rain and carried away by the flash flood, along with all their belongings, even their goats.
One man escaped by climbing on top of his pickup truck and watching his livestock, his tent, his blankets, everything but his own life surge away—not knowing whether his truck would wash away, too. Alhamdulillah, he would later say, praise be to God. Everything, everything but his life swept away, and he praises God.
I know Mega Foods, though I’ve never shopped there. The building looks like an old tire center. Yellow signs bearing big bubble letters reminiscent of ’70s T-shirt iron ons boast, “Open 24 Hours” and “Food 4 Less.”
And already, after quickly skimming one article, I’m scrambling to distance myself from the tragedy. I’m high on a hill; this would never happen to me. I know better than to drive through deep water. It’s so sad, I think.
A few minutes after closing the article, I can’t even remember their names.
I stare out at the rain for a while and try to recover that sense of protection, of insulation my morning started with—but I can’t. I think about the creek that runs through the park next to my children’s school—the park that doubles as the school’s playground.
In Albany a father is grieving. A mother is gone. One little boy lives, but he is not blessed. For all the years to come that boy will carry his dead baby brother with him, measuring each milestone against what might have been. I return to the article, reading slowly, allowing the scene to form in my mind, forcing myself to hear the players’ names and to say them aloud.
They’d stopped at Mega Foods just a little after dark to get milk for twenty-month-old Aiden. On the way out of the parking lot, Christopher Wilgus realized he was going the wrong direction and began to make a three-point turn when high water pulled the car off the road and into the creek. Chris frantically tried to roll his window down, knowing he had to unbuckle the boys, to help Cathy get out, but the cold muddy water swept him away. “I was just doing summersaults,” Chris later said. “I felt sure I was going to die.”
Five-year-old Maliki and his father were soon pulled from the waters and rushed to the hospital, but Cathy’s and Baby Aiden’s bodies weren’t found until noon the next day—about the time I’d been sitting at home, listening to small sounds, watching the water rise around the trunks of the neighbor’s Doug firs. High and dry, I tell myself. But the words are condemnation, not comfort.
A foggy night, high tide, a ship runs aground. The tide goes out, leaving the ship aslant against the rocky shore: high and dry. But a ship isn’t made to be high and dry any more than a full-term baby is meant to stay in the womb.
Ships are made for the wind and waves, where dangers abound. A newborn is small and helpless, and no matter whether the parents are poor or wealthy, strong or weak, every one of us is born into a world that’s anything but safe.
Baby Aiden was born poor. The news reports don’t say it so baldly, but the assessment is clear. He was born to a teen mother who dropped out of high school. His mother later completed her GED. She wasn’t married. Aiden was hers; Maliki was his.
Chris Wilgus was swept away before he could reach the boys to unbuckle them. Yet Maliki was pulled out of the water and Baby Aiden found downstream—neither one remained trapped in the submerged car. Instead of escaping with her life, Cathy McLaughlin stayed under. She fought the current and cold to twist back and unbuckle the boys—the one who made it and the one who didn’t. Read closely. See what’s buried between the lines. In this story, the poor, uneducated mother gives her life. In this story, Cathy McLaughlin is the savior.
In Jordan, when our second child was just starting to crawl, I heard that a Muslim woman my own age, with preschoolers at home, same as me, had fallen into fast flowing water and disappeared. We prayed for her, but we knew the storms, knew that her story would almost surely end like all the rest. Perhaps the news reports didn’t mention her name—or maybe I simply didn’t bother to remember. Now I find no trace of her in news archives. She was poor. Barely news.
I do remember this: the mother’s body was found a substantial distance from where she’d fallen, washed through storm pipes underground from one neighborhood in Amman clear to another. Did she plunge into the water to save a child? Was she trying to step over flowing water just outside her front door so she could get to work—earn money for bread and milk? We hear only part of every story—the part that fits neatly into our way of seeing the world. We invent our own beatitudes: Blessed are we who have shelter from the storms—a new roof when it’s needed, milk in the fridge, money for groceries. When the waters rise, we don’t have to drive through them because our cupboards are stocked and our children’s bellies are full.
At 2:45 I don my raingear and drive the mile and a half to school, wipers on medium, to pick up the girls. They know nothing about the mother and baby swept away down in Albany, and I don’t tell them. Their school is another kind of womb.
“How was your day, girls?”
They answer fine and good and something about wet socks and the boy who got in trouble for holding his head under the downspout just for fun. Then we’re back home, raincoats draped over the backs of kitchen chairs, homework assessed, snacks distributed. I hear the scratch of pencils, the scrape of a kitchen chair across the floor. The fridge door opens. My child takes a glass from the cupboard.
Outside the rain falls. And the creek is rising.