How many of us have recurring nightmares when we’re stressed? Mine’s always about a tidal wave. Right before it hits me, I see the mighty wall of foam-tipped water curl over my small form and then swallow me whole. I feel the dark weight of the wave, the surge as it carries me with it, and how close I’m coming to suffocating. I wake up trembling. That traumatic nighttime brush with death gets me every time. It’s a reminder that I need to fix something—or more accurately, face something head-on that I’m avoiding…some kind of hurricane.
Which is why every September 21st, I wake up remembering Hugo. Twenty-three years ago today, Category 5-level Hurricane Hugo came through town, shocking Charleston with its ferocity—heck, shocking Charlotte. It plowed right through the Carolinas, maintaining its fierceness much further inland than anyone would have predicted.
As a precaution my brand-new husband and the entire local Navy had just been sent out to sea, specifically to save the Navy ships stationed in Charleston. A ship can ride out a hurricane at sea, but leave it at home at a dock, and it’ll be destroyed. Yet even with the Navy on high alert, none of us left behind thought that the hurricane would amount to much. I spent all day cutting giant pieces of plywood with a hand-held circular saw with my sister. We’d pass them to my brother-in-law, who nailed them to the windows of their house on the Market in Charleston, a low-lying area prone to flooding next to the sea. When he was done with their house, he went to prepare his mother’s house on the Battery, which directly faced Charleston harbor and the Atlantic Ocean.
We’d planned on weathering the storm in that mighty house on the Battery—old Southerners believe in protecting their property, especially those family heirlooms, and my brother-in-law was no exception. I felt we were in pretty good shape. That house had been there for generations. Plywood on those first-floor windows—all my sister’s husband could manage to put up before the hurricane hit–would hold back the winds. We’d be scared but okay.
And then my Yankee father called. He and mom lived in Charleston, too, but they were stuck out-of-town in Annapolis, Maryland, on their sailboat. He said to me, “Kieran, if the eye hits the harbor, that tidal wave dream of yours will really happen. A wave as high as 30-feet will sweep over the Battery wall, take down that house, and suck you out to sea. I don’t care what anyone else says, you get your sister out of there and go inland.”
Gulp. Go inland.
I’d never really imagined the tidal wave could really happen! But in that moment, speaking with my dad, I realized my bad dream could actually come true. How did I feel? Well, I was obviously scared. But I also felt that I wasn’t going to just stand there and let a doomsday scenario occur. I had no compunctions about telling my brother-in-law and his very proper mother that we’d be crazy to stay on the Battery and that I was basically going to kidnap my sister (against everyone’s will if I had to) and go inland. I called some old family friends we hadn’t spent any real time with in fifteen years and without blinking an eye, they said come on over and stay. We have pets, I told them. No problem, these hospitable folks said. We’ll have a hurricane party.
Well, the good news is that my brother-in-law and his mother went with us, and we thought we’d be largely out of harm’s way. But Hugo surprised us all. As the tornadoes raged overhead and we heard trees toppling around us, I was terrified. But I did take small comfort in knowing that no wall of water could travel that far inland.
Meanwhile, I later learned that only a few miles away from where I stayed, some Navy wives left behind when their husbands took those ships out to sea had to huddle under their dining room tables with their children—because their roofs had been ripped off their homes. And as for that storm surge, when the eye of Hugo hit the small shrimping village of McClellanville a few miles north of Charleston, a wall of water rushed through the town. Many of the poor people there had taken refuge in the local elementary school, but to avoid drowning, they had to scramble through the roof and climb trees. Some didn’t make it.
So this is a day for reflection for me. I know from today’s paper and the computer models presented that the entire town of Charleston would have been under water if Hugo’s eye had hit ten miles south and come up the harbor and over the Battery wall. The truth is, it took us years to recover from the brush we had with Hugo. But those computer models remind us that it could have been far worse. We might have suffered the way New Orleans did after being nearly destroyed by Katrina. It’s humbling to recognize how precarious are the lives we all lead–not just as individuals but our community life. Our history, our keepsakes–they won’t last. Eventually, they will succumb to the inexorable forces that are time and nature.
So on this day, I always wonder if there are any hurricanes I’m not facing in my own life. Because whether or not I ignore them, they will come–sooner or later. I’d much rather be ready—really ready.
Not fake ready. Fake ready is when you nail up boards on windows and think you can keep out Nature at its peak wrath. Real ready means you see what’s happening, and you put pride aside. You put possessiveness aside. You tell your wants and desires to take a hike. You’re going to protect what you need, no matter how stupid or powerless you look doing it.
I don’t have the tidal wave dream when I recognize—face the fact head-on—that I can only do so much and let the rest go. Nope, when I’m really ready, I see how little I am, I embrace the small power I have, and I let the rest of the universe do its thing.
When I face hard truths, the waters are often calm around me. But when they’re not, I surrender to the wave, just like I do in my recurring nightmare. And there’s something about that nightmare I didn’t mention at the top of this post:
I always, always, come up for air again.
Do you have tidal waves to face in your own life? Hurricanes? Tornadoes? And do you have a recurring nightmare that reminds you to get to work facing them?
Hi, I’m Kieran. My family loves music and anything that makes us laugh out loud. I try to teach my kids that we have to actively choose happiness–and if I accomplish nothing else as a mom but pass that one lesson along to them, then I think I’ve done my job.
My oldest guy, Dragon, was diagnosed in kindergarten with Asperger’s syndrome, and now he’s a junior in college; his sister Indie Girl, who’s younger by 16 months, is a college sophomore; and my youngest, Nighthawk, is in ninth grade. For our family, it’s about managing your weaknesses and wringing everything you can get out of your strengths. And along the way, finding joy.