The other day I took my mother for a drive through the flood-drenched lowlands of Illinois, east of the Mississippi River. It’s been years since I saw that part of the country under water, and the sight was alarming–as well as sobering.
Growing up in Smalltown, U.S.A., made me intensely aware of nature’s power to do damage. My home town has seen its share of tornadoes and earthquakes, and the mighty Mississippi is a half-hour’s drive from my mother’s front door. But people who spend their lives in close proximity to natural disaster tend not to waste a whole lot of time thinking about it. Tornado warnings sent my family clambering downstairs several times each year when I was a boy. After your first few trips to the basement, you start taking your own survival for granted.
Driving down a levee road is a good way to be reminded of what a river can do to you. It’s also a salutary lesson in modesty. Man’s ingenuity has its limits, and nature can swamp them whenever it pleases her to do so. Like everyone else who follows the news, I was shocked to hear of how a tornado destroyed a hospital in Joplin, Missouri–but one-man tornadoes sweep through every hospital in the world every day of the year. Sooner or later the sand is going to run out of your hourglass, and when it does, it won’t matter how smart your doctor is, or how thick the walls of your house are.
I’m not a fatalist, much less a quietist. Cardinal Newman summed up my view of things in The Dream of Gerontius: And, ere afresh the ruin on thee fall,/Use well the interval. The fact that we all live under the aspect of eternity has always struck me not as a reason for passivity but as a goad to action. That said, it was no less instructive that Mrs. T and I had to rush my mother to a hospital in Cape Girardeau for emergency surgery not two days after our visit to the floodlands.
She’s doing reasonably well, as much so as can be expected, and we’re feeling cautiously hopeful today. But sometimes you find yourself driving to the emergency room at ninety miles an hour mere minutes after pouring a cup of coffee that you’ll never get around to drinking–or looking out your window one summer afternoon and seeing fate roaring down the street in the form of a funnel cloud. Tornadoes and sunsets, lest we forget, both come out of the same beautiful, indifferent sky.