Last month, I crossed the Atlantic twice. The outbound darkness hardly endures the trip; inevitably a curious passenger will open the shades shortly after midnight Central time to look at the water and wake everyone up by chasing the dawn to Europe. It can’t be helped. Returning, the ocean 40,000 feet below seems to sustain the plane, pulling it home like tide, and there is only one view for the afternoon window gazer. The water orchestrates it all, bringing Londoners to Chicago and wandering Midwesterners home, mixing and matching us in a continental card shuffle that separates and unites lives. It all seems so easy from above, riding tons of fuel and engineering into effortless transit, napping and drinking wine while heading both towards and away from worlds we love. The ocean is the only constant, roiling and fathoming in its changeless way. There is no way to fight this force, well, not since the Concorde was parked.
Since last Thursday, I’ve been engaged in a different battle with waters, only these are brown, shitty floodwaters. There is nothing romantic about a flood, no poems for gazing there with longing, no blue. Flooding here is strangely utilitarian. The Mississippi takes in way too much from rivers and streams to the north. It expands greatly not far from where I live, and, like the proverbially unlucky rabbit in the snake, pushes outwards and eases itself until it’s comfortable and safe in its own skin once more. Leaving nothing behind. Except, of course, mud and crushed things, whether houses or corn stalks or lives.
My role in all of this is a simple one. I’m a public health nurse, and, in flooding like this, there is a great demand for public health nurses to give tetanus vaccinations. Very basic stuff. I’ve now asked hundreds of arms to please roll up their sleeves. The phrase, ”Have you ever had an allergic reaction to a shot?” will speed from my lips in any guise I wish – playfully, hastily, wrapped in a smile – but mostly automatically. We are giving lots of shots, and moving hither and yon near a major levee where I cast an occasional glance just to make sure there is nothing massively wet headed my way. So far the levee is holding. The sandbags and earth movers provide extra fortification to ensure relative safety. It’s a fragile balance, a community exercise in breath-holding until the crest hour passes, a reminder that water can call the shots.