Hurricane Michael is making its way onto shore while I write this. Michael is 350 miles across, 90 miles in diameter, and very ugly. This is a storm that’s roughly the size of South Dakota, arriving on Floridian soil like an unwanted houseguest.
I am miles away, watching a television while this storm batters Franklin County, Gulf County, and Bay County.
The big TV in the corner of this restaurant is tuned to the Weather Channel. The joint is nearly empty, the lunch rush is over. A few people gather around the screen, arms crossed, eyes unblinking.
We are a varied lot of strangers.
There is a woman with her hand over her mouth, watching TV. Her name is Ellen. Her mother lives in Gulf County, and she can’t get a hold of her.
Gulf County is a war zone right now. The live-coverage proves this. And Ellen is a mess. The TV shows palm trees bending forward, 100-foot waves swallowing boardwalks, flooded highways.
Mexico Beach is devastated. Port Saint Joe is waterlogged. Apalachicola is covered.
Between reports of tribulational destruction, the TV rolls commercials which advertise: Metamucil, Capital One credit cards, chocolate-flavored laxatives, Quaker Oats, and how to get a good deal on a reverse mortgage.
But when the commercials are over, we who gather at the television remain silent while the monster makes landfall.
I recognize the places shown on TV. One reporter is perched only fifteen miles from my front yard. I can sympathize with Ellen, worrying about her mother. In fact, I have been sick about my own mother—who decided to stay behind and weather out the storm.
I texted my mother a few minutes ago.
She texted back: “The wind has gotten bad, we’ve moved to the back room, but we’re okay. I love you.”
Then, I texted my sister—who also stayed behind. She wrote: “I’m scared, please pray for us.”
So while I write this to you, my stomach is in knots. All I can do is watch the reporter on the Weather Channel.
My new friend, Ellen, keeps checking her phone. She sends text messages by the dozen. Her thumbs move a mile a minute. She waits for her phone to vibrate. She hopes her mother will respond.
“If I could only HEAR from her,” Ellen says. “If only I KNEW she was okay.”
“Maybe the cell towers are down,” one man offers.
“You know how these things go,” another says.
“Yeah,” Ellen says.
The TV shows Gulf County getting whooped by Mother Nature and it’s not pretty. Ellen looks like she’s cracking. The poor thing.
“I wish she’d CALL,” says Ellen.
And that’s when it happens.
One woman asks if Ellen wants to pray.
At first, this idea is met with silence. After all, she is a stranger, hailing from a different background. We are all strangers, with our own lives, and at least one of us suffers from severe body odor.
It’s not me—my mother taught me to carry Speed Stick in my glovebox. The offender is the older man seated to my left.
Ellen shrugs. “Pray? Guess I’ll do anything if it’ll help.”
I consider standing to leave, since Ellen’s business is none of mine. But I am unable to leave in time.
Soon, I am roped into joining a circle of people. We are holding hands. Ellen is sniffing her nose. And to tell you the truth, this feels pretty weird.
Nobody says a word at first. Not because we can’t think of anything to say, but because we are strangers.
One man breaks the silence.
“Lord,” he begins. “We pray for Ellen’s mother…”
And while he talks to Heaven, I’m thinking of my Mama’s trailer perched on Black Creek. I am thinking about my sister, her husband, and my niece with the flaxen hair.
I am thinking of my friends, my cousins, and my people on the Gulf Coast. I don’t know how this storm will pan out. Perhaps by the time you read this, it won’t be that bad. Maybe we will all have a good laugh about Hurricane Michael one day. I hope so.
But it doesn’t change the way I feel right now.
When we finish, things are awkward between strangers. We’re not exactly sure how to act now that we’ve committed a spiritual act together.
The TV continues to broadcast pictures of Northwest Florida, suffering from tornado-like winds.
Ellen’s phone makes a noise.
We all hear it vibrate. It’s loud. She answers. She covers her face.
She walks outside. Before she leaves, I hear her say: “Mom? Mom? Oh, Mom, thank God you’re okay.”
That’s exactly who I was going to thank, too.