Seek Shelter Immediately

by Jeremy Griffin

On the Weather Channel app, the storms appeared as an orange and red comet streaking across the Carolinas. They followed in the wake of Hurricane Florence, which had stalled over the East Coast days earlier before being downgraded to a tropical storm. Having left the hotel well before noon, I had assumed we would miss them, but now as I sped down I-74 toward Myrtle Beach, I could already see the curtain of pines bowing in the heady gusts of wind, the clouds taking on the swollen, black character of diseased organs. Less than an hour later, the rains had caught up to us, a mild drizzle at first, then soon a torrent that made it nearly impossible to see the road, even after I’d slowed to a fraction of the speed limit.

“Maybe we should pull over,” Karen suggested, monitoring the app like a fortuneteller with a crystal ball. She almost had shout to be heard over the rain.

“Pull over where?” Virtually every gas station was closed, either because the power was out or, more likely, because the proprietors didn’t think it was safe to open. Sheets of particleboard covered the windows of convenience stores and restaurants, their door handles secured with padlocked chains.

“The side of the road, I don’t know,” she said. “Anywhere. This is crazy.”

“It’s not that bad. I’ve seen worse.”

“I’m not worried about what you’ve seen, I’m worried about making it home.”

“We’ll make it home,” I assured her, though I wasn’t sure I believed it. Like plenty of other men, I fancied myself a savvy problem-solver—imperturbable, cool under pressure. But it was my wife, a science and math teacher, who maintained the integrity of our family, which included the two of us and our infant son Alex, currently babbling to himself in his car seat. Which is to say that for all my macho optimism, I couldn’t blame her for being skeptical, particularly as we came across more and more submerged stretches of road.

It was mid-September, and we’d spent the past five days in a Winston-Salem La Quinta, watching the local news on the wall-mounted TV in the lobby, desperate for updates. Florence had been expected to make landfall as a category 4. In the six years we’d been living in Myrtle Beach, Karen and I had yet to experience anything above a 2. Ordinarily, we might have toughed it out, as we did every year during hurricane season, stocking up on batteries and beer and hunkering down until it passed. We’d watch the trees encircling the modest pond behind our house thrashing in the gusty winds, while ducks lazed on the water, oblivious to the squall. Only, now we had a child to think about, which made that sort of nonchalance seem irresponsible. And so, once the hospitals had started closing, the patients shuttled to facilities further inland, we figured it was in our best interests to evacuate.

At Karen’s request, I pulled into the South Carolina welcome center so we could wait for the rain to slacken. The building was closed, the floor-to-ceiling windows as dark and unwelcoming as a throat, so we remained in the car listening to the storm’s beastly roar. Karen cooed at Alex, who smiled and flailed his stubby arms and legs.

“You think he’s going to be okay?” she asked me.

“He’ll be fine, don’t worry.”

“We’re driving through a tropical storm. I’m going to worry.”

“You know what I mean.”

“I knew we should have stayed an extra day,” she sighed.

“We had to leave sometime.”

She glanced over at me but didn’t say anything. My patronizing wasn’t helping the situation, I knew this. But I felt obligated to play the role of Fearless Father, if only to convince myself that things would turn out fine. The truth was that in the four months since Alex had been born, I’d been nursing a simmering apprehension that something was bound to go wrong. Sickness, accidents, death, any one of these things could have been around the corner. It made something as simple as watching the news feel like an exercise in masochism, all that attention to the countless modes of suffering. And as we sat there wordlessly, the storm raging around us, I was assaulted with images of our car being washed away like a toy dropped in a river, the vehicle coming to rest upside-down in a ravine, EMTs heaving the mangled, lifeless bodies of my family out through the pried-open doors. This, I’d come to understand, is the natural condition of parenthood, to wear your worry like a straitjacket.




On a Friday morning in June, three weeks before Alex’s due date, Karen went to her OBGYN for her weekly blood pressure check. For the past several weeks, she had been suffering from what turned out to be preeclampsia—headaches, fuzzy thinking, elevated BP. The doctor, noting that the latter was especially high that day, sent her to the hospital across the street for routine testing. Karen called me to request a few changes of clothing and her toothbrush. “I doubt it’s anything serious, but I just want to be prepared,” she said.

As it happened, her instinct for preparation was correct. As the doctor on call explained, the only way to remedy the problem was to deliver the baby via C-section. “If we wait, the placenta might not get enough blood,” the woman told us. “Then you’re looking at all kinds of potential problems.”

“What sorts of problems?” Karen asked, her voice taut with concern.

“Like low birth weight or maybe even a premature birth. So, we need to move quick and get you prepped.”

“How soon are we talking?” I said. I was sitting in one of the stiff padded chairs, bouncing my knee.

“Within the hour.”

Ask anyone when they knew they wanted children, and they will likely tell you the exact moment. For me, that moment came on Christmas day 2015. Karen and I, having entertained both our families together for Thanksgiving, had decided to spend the holiday alone to recuperate. It was cozy, stress-free, just as we had hoped, though as the two of us exchanged gifts that morning, I couldn’t escape the feeling that something was out of place. You think Christmas, you think children and toys, and while I had pondered the notion of fatherhood in the past, I had always viewed becoming a parent as a form of capitulation, as tends to be the case with folks who think themselves more worldly than they are. I valued my freedom too much, or so I told myself, even though at that point I was doing little with it—working a job I despised, spending my evenings in front the TV, maybe going out to dinner with my wife on the weekends but otherwise squandering my spare time. Now though, as Karen and I tore into our gifts, the thought of spending the holiday with a child of my own seemed not just comforting but imperative. How had I ever managed to endure Christmas without one?

So now here I was in our birthing suite, slipping on the paper gown and scrub cap delivered to me by an orderly a few minutes after Karen had been carted off to the OR. Once dressed, I sank into my chair and considered how swiftly our fortunes can change. Within the hour. It seemed like the sort of shoddy portrayal of birth I’d seen in countless TV shows, the baby appearing only minutes after the mother has gone into labor. Except, in Karen’s case there would be no labor, but rather a perfunctory surgery that, despite the doctor’s assurances of its safety, made me worried for my wife and unborn son. I had no reason to doubt the competency of the surgical staff, but it’s hard not to cycle through worst-case scenarios when you find yourself alone in a hospital room, dressed as though you’re prepared to operate.

The door to our room was open, and as I sat there waiting to be escorted to the OR, a nurse scurried past outside. She was young, mid-twenties, large in frame with short auburn hair, dressed in blue scrubs that made a swishing noise as she came to rest against the opposite wall. Cradling her head in her hand, she began to cry, soft whimpering sobs that made her body tremble. She had come from one of the other birthing suites down the hall where, moments earlier, the nurses had been summoned. For what, I didn’t know, nor did I want to.

I tried not to look in her direction, but she couldn’t have been more than ten feet from me, which made it difficult to appear oblivious. Moreover, I couldn’t help drawing a connection between this weeping nurse and the impending birth of my child. Irrational though it may have been, I sensed that the moment spoke to the trepidation I had been feeling for the past several months—it was like being confronted by every mistake I was certain to make as a father. Why was she crying, what had she seen? I had never given much credence to omens, but the moment felt too orchestrated to be pure chance.

Then again, given that was less than an hour away from meeting my first child, perhaps I was primed to look for meaning in everyday occurrences. In any case, after a while the woman wiped her eyes with the back of her hand and took a deep breath to compose herself. She must have assumed that our room was empty, because when her gaze finally fell on me she froze, her private moment of pain disrupted. Unsure of how to respond, I smiled and offered a flimsy little wave, which she returned hesitantly before flitting away, out of view.

A couple hours later, after Karen’s stint in the recovery room, she and I were holding our son, all six-and-a-half pounds of him, his birth having posed none of the problems that the crying nurse portended. I decided then that I wasn’t going to tell her about the woman, not right then. What good would it do, other than to invite her into my own sphere of dread? Instead, I stroked Alex’s soft, delicate head and held his tiny hand between my fingertips, and I tried to banish the image of the woman from my mind the way I might try to dispel a nightmare upon waking.




By late afternoon we were in Dillon, SC, having departed the welcome center during a lull in the rain, only to find the interstate flooded a half-mile down the road, forcing us onto the backroads. Karen, using her Waze app, had navigated us around washed-out routes and waterlogged fields, past darkened shops and farmhouses. The only life we’d encountered came in the form of a powerless Holiday Inn where we’d hoped, perhaps foolishly, to secure a room for the night, only to find that even despite the lack of electricity, the place was already full. Exhausted travelers languished in the lobby, exchanging their own tales of peril. By this point Alex was hungry and fussy, so the t-shirted woman behind the counter—who, as she informed us, was only there because she had no way of getting home—allowed Karen to use a supply room off the lobby to nurse him.

Meanwhile, in the parking lot I haggled with a weather crew over gas from one of the four military-style gas canisters strapped to the top of their van. We were down only a quarter of a tank, but who knew when we might come across a working gas station.

However, when I offered one of the men forty dollars—easily three times what that amount of gas would have cost—he just shook his head, checking the many flaps of his tactical windbreaker. “Sorry brother, but we need all we can get.”

So now the rains had returned, fiercer than ever, as we inched down the main drag in Dillon. On any other day, the place might have appeared idyllic, with its quaint shopfronts and colorful awnings, its black streetlamps and tactfully pruned linden trees. Now though, the shopfronts were shuttered, the windows either taped over to prevent breakage or boarded up altogether, the streetlamps dark, all of which lent the scene a post-apocalyptic aura. By this point it was clear we wouldn’t be making it home, too many washed-out roads, too much rain, each droplet like a fist, not to mention the tornado warnings we’d been receiving on our phones for the past hour—SEEK SHELTER IMMEDIATELY they commanded, the directive crudely emphasized by a shrill beeping. In fact, we had spent most of the afternoon doing exactly this, going so far as to discuss the possibility of crouching in a ditch beside the road should the tornado appear. But even the hospital we came across sandwiched indecorously between a KFC and a modest clapboard Catholic church (Karen, claiming to be the better swimmer, had to wade through the waist-deep basin of runoff that had swallowed the road just to reach the ambulance bay) refused to take us in, directing us instead to a middle school down the road, where the Red Cross had established a shelter.

Inside, we were led by a red-vested volunteer down the locker-lined hallway. National Guardsmen in camo uniforms hustled past, carrying armloads of blankets. The three-second sprint from the car to the door had left us completely soaked, and a trail of drippage followed us on the scuffed tile. Karen, exhausted and scared, was weeping; only later would I discover that, during our frantic quest for refuge, she had been researching on her phone whether Alex’s car seat was able to float (it was). I did my best to comfort her, but I too was drained and didn’t have the energy to be convincing. Of the three of us, only Alex appeared in good spirits, mugging whenever someone paused to fawn over him in his carrier, observing his surroundings with the fascination of a tourist in a new country. I wondered if he had any inkling of the hazards we had faced, and if he would have been any better off for it.

In the gym, a hundred or so green army cots had been set up in long rows. Displaced locals lay curled up on them beneath the scratchy blankets. Some of them congregated in the aisles to talk with the wearied dispositions of soldiers returned from combat. Kids chased each other around the room, weaving through the grid of beds. These were the folks who couldn’t afford to flee town, or who had no place else to go. Some of them, perhaps anticipating the annihilation of their homes by the storms, had hauled along TVs, video game systems, stereos, box fans, microwaves, and coffee makers. An elderly woman in a tatty housedress and slippers breathed from an oxygen tank while she watched episodes of Quincy, M.E on DVD.

Once the volunteer had showed us to our twin cots, Karen and I began working through the logistics of where Alex would sleep. There wasn’t enough room on the cots for him to sleep with one of us, and he was certain to roll off should he be sleep alone. Could we put him in his travel bassinet like we had in the hotel? Possibly, but the high bay lights, combined with the clamor of so many people in one space, would likely keep him awake, which would in turn keep everyone else awake.

Fortunately, seeing as how he was the only baby—other than him, the youngest kids in the gym appeared to be four or five—one of the Guardswomen agreed to stash us in an unused guidance counselor’s office. “Believe me, I understand,” she said as she led us to the small room in a bay of administrative offices off the main hall, most of which the Guard personnel had commandeered as sleeping quarters. Short and stoutly built with a tight knot of chicory-colored hair, she had the businesslike demeanor of a teacher tasked with wrangling a group of unruly children. “I’m a mother myself, so I know how it goes. Hope you don’t mind crashing on the floor. No more cots to spare.”

We assured her the floor would be fine and got to work arranging Alex’s lodgings. As we unpacked the sound machine and wipes and Kleenex and lotion and changes of clothes from the diaper bag, the memory of the nurse drifted into my mind, her grief-stricken shuddering, her look of alarm when she spotted me. The intimation of unspeakable tragedy. Given the urgent nature of Alex’s birth, we were lucky that it had been problem-free. Still, the pessimist in me couldn’t shake the notion that whatever misfortune we had avoided would somehow be redirected to my son. It was an absurd thought, the kind of thing Karen might have needled me about had I voiced it to her, but as I coming to realize, there is comfort in subscribing to the absurd. It helps us winnow down our options, insulate ourselves from catastrophe. If there was one thing fatherhood had shown me thus far, it was the limitations of reason.




Perhaps I should have expected the baseline terror that accompanied the birth of my son. After all, I’d witnessed the same sort of reaction from my father countless times when I was a child, although it never registered with me what I was seeing, not until the summer of 1994, when I was thirteen, and he chaperoned my church youth group on a trip to Six Flags over Texas. In an instance of unduly good fortune, my friend Eric and I met two girls, cousins on a family trip. While time has blotted out their names from my memory, I do recall their impassiveness at agreeing to hang out with us—to them we were just another way to kill time, the fact of which had no effect on my delirious glee as we paired off and scampered into the park.

Nothing of any consequence occurred between my partner and me; we bantered about music and television, the sort of common ground topics you default to when there is little else to say, and we exchanged an awkward kiss on the log ride. Nonetheless, I was so lost in my reverie that, by the time the PA announcement went out that the park was closing, Eric and I had missed our group’s meeting time by nearly an hour. We crept back to the park exit, where among the rest of our cohort I spotted my father pacing along a section of fence with his hands on his hips. He had always been quick to anger, and as he manhandled me out of the park like a bar bouncer tossing out a rowdy customer, I braced myself for one of his outbursts. To my surprise, however, he said nothing, which was somehow worse than any haranguing he might have delivered. I was trailing behind him, largely out of fear but also a degree of childish petulance (I had just kissed a girl, after all), which is perhaps what prompted him, as we moved into the parking lot, to wheel around and snatch the ballcap off my head. Grab it as though reclaiming something I had stolen from him.

At the time, the impotency of the gesture struck me as comical: was I supposed to feel threatened, intimidated? It took me years to understand that his fury was only a manifestation of his fear—I’d made him feel powerless, and in that moment his only means of reclaiming that power was take something of mine. He was stealing back his certitude. That’s what our children do, through no fault of their own: they make us realize how defenseless we’ve been all along. The clarity and purpose that parenthood offers are tempered by the latent understanding that at some point the protection we provide will cease to be enough, and what can you do in those instances but feel helpless? “They fuck you up, your mum and dad/ they may not mean to, but they do,” begins Phillip Larkin’s poem “This Be the Verse,” which I had read in grad school and found myself coming back to with increased frequency. If we are indeed guaranteed to fail our children, then all that parenthood amounts to is a concentrated effort to minimize the regularity of those failures.

And the hat? My father held onto it for the remainder of the trip. When he finally returned it to me, it was with the inauspicious air of a jailer returning an inmate’s belongings upon his release.

Now, lying on the hard floor in the dark, curled up on my side—the guidance counselor’s office was too crowded with bookshelves and filing cabinets for Karen and me to stretch out lengthwise—I wondered what he would have said to see the two of us whispering into the night, too wired to sleep, while Alex dozed in his bassinet. We talked about how lucky we were for making it out of the storm and for being gifted our own room for the night. Did we feel guilty for the special treatment? To some extent, yes—certainly there were other people in the shelter who were just as deserving of their own accommodations. But as I was discovering, selfishness, especially in the face of danger, is a prerequisite for parenthood. When it comes to our children, we take whatever we can to maintain our faith in a positive outcome, whether it’s a tattered ballcap or a windowless office in a rural middle school. I suspected that if anyone could understand, it would be my father.




By the next morning, the rains had stopped and the sun had returned, radiant as ever, though large swaths of the area remained underwater. Evacuees, many of whom had continued to arrive well into the night and had been forced to bunk in the grungy hallways once all the cots had been claimed, lined up for the bathrooms, disheveled and unshaven. After a breakfast of crusty turkey bacon and orange slices (the Red Cross had underestimated the number of people it would be accommodating, and so the food was being rationed sparingly—not that I was in any condition to complain), Karen and I loaded Alex into our car and set back out toward the highway, feeling as though we were venturing into a warzone.

The decision to leave the shelter had not come easily. Whether the highway was even open was anybody’s guess. Karen and I had spent part of the night and most of the morning discussing our options. As I’d argued to her after breakfast, once we left the school we’d lose the room. We were outside under the bus pavilion amongst a cluster of other folks who had stepped out for some air, the two of us taking turns holding Alex. She countered by pointing out that we were running dangerously low on diapers, and there was no place open where we could buy more.

This uncertainty was the worst part of the ordeal, not knowing what awaited us, even worse than being trapped in a middle school with a baby and very few supplies. It wasn’t all that dissimilar from the way I’d felt prior to Alex’s birth, like no amount of preparation would ever be enough.

Ultimately, the deciding factor had been the Guardswoman, who moments later had joined us under the pavilion and with whom Karen, in her dealings for the room, had established a rapport. “If it were me, I would chance it,” the woman said when we laid out the situation for her.

“What if there’s no way out of town?” Karen asked.

“Then just come back here. But you don’t want to be stuck here longer than you have to. Some of these folks have been here nearly a week. You have the means to leave, so leave.”

It was true, although having the means to do something doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the right move, hadn’t I learned that from my father? Sometimes there are just no practical options. But then what other choice did we have? Probably best to heed the woman’s advice, if only because we were relieved to defer to someone else’s judgment. And so, soon thereafter, we found ourselves heading back out on South Second Ave, which cut through the center of town. We skirted large basins of water, creeping down the empty avenue as though at any moment we expected the deluge to return. But other than a few cordoned-off sections, the street appeared to be in good condition.

So did Highway 9, even despite the stretches that were still matted in leaves and debris from the overflow. On either side of us, brown runoff pooled up over the edges of the drainage ditches, the floor of the pine forest engulfed, affecting a bayou. A scattering of dead fish lay across the road, left over from the water’s receding a couple of hours earlier.

“So far, so good,” I said as we cruised past partially flooded homes and businesses, elephant trunk-sized limbs that had splintered off trees now littering the shoulder. I was speaking more to myself than to Karen, spurring myself on. The Fearless Father routine again, though this time it felt much less like a defense mechanism. I glanced back at Alex, who had already fallen asleep, his head cocked to the side, his bottom lip hanging open just enough give him the musing air of an adult.

By the time we crossed into Horry County, it had become evident that we would make it home intact. Yet, for some reason I couldn’t bring myself to feel relieved. We had averted disaster, so why wasn’t I elated like my wife? Because I knew that one cleared obstacle only foretells another one, and then one after that, on and on until the day your luck finally runs out. Sooner or later, the world catches up with you. Safety, especially as it pertains to our kids, is just a dream.

But then dreams can be powerful motivators. Quite possibly they are the only motivators. It’s why we bring people into the world in the first place, because we believe that their existence will make it a better place.

And maybe this was why, after a moment, I heard myself say to Karen, “Did I ever tell you about the nurse?”

“What nurse?”

“The one outside the hospital suite when Alex was born.”

“Doesn’t ring a bell.”

At the time, I couldn’t say what compelled me to tell her—after the past few days, it just seemed like something she deserved to know. But as I relayed the story for her, the way the woman’s presence seemed to forecast some great calamity, something in me began to brighten, and I realized how much I’d wanted to divulge it these past several months. It was like scrubbing years of grime off an antique, the smooth brass gleaming once more, bold and full of promise.

“How come you never said anything?” Karen said when I was finished.

“I didn’t want to upset you. There was enough going on.”

She nodded, though I could tell she wanted to say more.

So did I, for that matter. I wanted to explain to her the dread I’d been feeling that I would never be enough for our son. As Larkin goes on to say, “[m]an hands on misery to man”—I needed for her to understand how much my love for Alex terrified me, the unfathomable scope of it, and how that love was inextricably tangled up with my own faults. But I knew there would be time for that later. Years, in fact. One day I would be the father pacing along the fence, alternating between anger and fear as he waits, desperate, for his son to reappear. For now, I was content to sit quietly next to my wife while our boy slept in the backseat, the swampy landscape zipping past outside, as if to remind us that nothing is absolved from drowning.

Jeremy Griffin is the author of the story collections A Last Resort For Desperate People, from SFAU Press, and Oceanography, from Orison Books. His work has appeared in such journals the Alaska Quarterly Review, the Bellevue Literary Review, and Oxford American. He teaches at Simpson College in Iowa.