The year of the Nashville flood was the hardest year of my adult life. The news reported the unrelenting brown waters rising higher and higher through the streets of the city that I loved, the city that had been an extended home for most of my 20’s. I was transfixed by the devastation on a small tv screen, watching helplessly from two states away, alone in a row house in Treme. All of my friends were there and some of my family. I was not there. My heart was there, but it was also here, slowly shattering into tiny fragments as a marriage I once belonged to and believed in fell apart.
The unforgiving water was spreading across the city and engulfing whole neighborhoods. It was destroying beauty and exposing secrets. It was dark and fluid and merciless, taking with it whatever got in the way. The cold of the swirling mass was reaching all the way to New Orleans and into my dreams at night . . . it was calling me home. The weight of what was happening there and here was hidden somewhere inside my gut and I was exhausted all the time. And then, when I couldn’t take it any longer, I quietly packed up my old Buick with a few boxes of memories, too many books, and a small dog. We hit the interstate heading northeast, the early morning sun warming my arm as it rested on the car’s window ledge. Country music was on the radio and I didn’t change it.
When we crossed home-state lines and eventually found our way back to familiar streets, the city was turned inside out. Her business and homes were disassembled into pieces, scattered along roadsides and in ditches. Photographs, items of clothing, much-loved toy animals, all soaked and left abandoned in unfamiliar places. She was weak, laid bare, afraid. Everywhere I went I saw the same look on people’s faces—an empty, glazed over kind of shell shock. What do we do now? they seemed to ask. Whole lives were washed away; entire histories were taken in the driving waters, never to go back to the way they’d once been. I surveyed the damage as a fellow comrade, understanding the loss. The streets were eerily quiet. The city and I were grieving.
Eventually, the haze of summer gave way to fall and the chill of the air drew me indoors, to the solitude of my own company. The usual places of happiness and comfort were closed for repairs and I was content to avoid them. Hours were drained with books, movies, writing, painting, thinking and sleeping. I welcomed the early evenings, darkness descending and enveloping everything in a cocoon of isolated serenity. The death of a marriage is slow, and the last breaths are traumatic; no one really talks about the lingering moments just after.
Over the next few months and because of the generosity of others, I found a place to rest and unravel. The undoing of years of my before-divorce-life needed time, space, and privacy to process. Vacillating between moments of despair and hope, I lived in the tension of both epic failure and uncharted future. Evening walks through once-pristine neighborhoods now became a slow show of cleaning, repairing, rebuilding. Some people couldn’t handle it and left altogether (I didn’t blame them.) Others had faced hardship before and took the destruction in stride, viewing it as an opportunity for new growth. The present parable of transformation wasn’t lost on me. I was soaking it all in, allowing the holy water to wash me and to baptize my brokenness into a new life.
My beloved city of Nashville would eventually emerge triumphant from the flood, but she was much changed. The structure of her old self was still there, familiar curves and colors, and yet her former essence had faded. The soul of “Old Nashville” had drowned. And when I think about that time, there is a faint and lingering sense of sadness, a clear-eyed recognition of what actually happened. More importantly, though, I am deeply grateful. Just as the city had been given the gift of a moment—one to bury her old, crushed self and embrace new, resurrected life—so it was with my own.
More time passed and Spring broke over my neighborhood with a freshness so desperately needed, it was shocking. The little dog and I became familiar with old streets and with new faces. And as we made our way down the road for our daily walks, I could feel my shoulders relax and my hands slightly open. I noticed, for the first time, new bits of yellow and pink dotting the landscape. The seeds of promise were beginning to bloom all around me—along the sidewalks, in the window boxes, and deep in my heart.