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The Brightness of Candles

The wind howled and roared. Michael expected the palm trees to snap any moment as the wind drove the tops of the tall trees over until they nearly touched the ground. The rain slashed across the yard, more rain falling faster and harder than Michael had ever seen before. And to think that only a few hours ago, it was a bright, tropical day with just a threat of a few squalls. No one predicted anything like this. To the contrary, a storm like this, neighbors had once told him, would be quite unusual this late in the year.

Michael moved his family here six months ago, when he changed jobs. Until then, they had always lived in the north. There, at this time of year, the talk had been of cold and snow and whether the family would have a white Chanukah. The Chanukah candles always looked so warm and bright in the window against the snowy, cold landscape. Now, the menorah was unpacked, a new box of candles sat ready on the counter, and presents were wrapped and waiting in the closet as the family prepared to celebrate its first Chanukah in a place with palm trees and tropical heat.

Michael wasn’t sure he liked the change. He loved snowstorms, the bigger the better. Now, he found himself standing in shorts and a t-shirt in the middle of December watching his first severe tropical rainstorm. He had never experienced anything like this rain. Noah’s flood must have been like this, Michael thought as he watched the water pool up on his lawn.

The family loved its new home. The children could wear shorts and sandals all year long. No more heavy coats and winter boots. They loved swimming and boating. Every weekend, they would explore the nearby waterways.

The road outside the house was quickly turning into a waterway itself. Michael was getting nervous. He had taped the windows, as the weather forecasters advised last night when they predicted the possibility of a powerful squall line passing through. Michael hoped the big Xs he taped on the windows would be enough.

Michael’s wife Carol and their three children–Amy, a six-month old baby, Lisa, eight, and Steven, 12–were closely following both the radio and the television, waiting for weather advisories. They heard reports of power outages and bridge and road washouts. Suddenly, Steven rushed into the front room where Michael had been watching the storm through the window. “Dad, they’ve upgraded this storm. They’re warning everybody who lives near the river to evacuate right away!” Steven exclaimed. Lisa and Carol, holding the baby, rushed in behind him.

“We’re at least three miles from the river,” Michael replied, but he was concerned. A storm was a lot more serious than a squall line. He tried to think where the family might find a higher, safer place to go, but before he could organize his thoughts a loud crack sent them all rushing to the window. A tree had snapped in the high wind, and a piece was driven like a spear into their neighbor’s garage, smashing through the roof. The wind, catching the ragged edges of the roof, started ripping off pieces and blowing them way like paper.

“Oh no,” cried Carol. As the family watched, the wind quickly ripped the rest of the garage apart. The rain was washing away pieces of the garage and its contents. The street suddenly had become a surging river; the water was rising faster by the second. Michael quietly prayed: dear God, please keep my family safe.

Lisa started to cry. Steven looked afraid. “Will we be all right? Shouldn’t we go someplace?” he asked. Carol cuddled the baby.

“We can’t get through that road. I think we’re in more danger if we leave the house now. We’ll have to sit it out here and trust to God,” said Michael. He tried to sound confident. The lights began to flicker for a moment, and then the house went dark. The TV and radio became silent. He picked up the phone to call the police for instructions or advice or something, but the phone was dead.

The roar of the wind and rain grew louder and louder, almost deafening. By now, high winds were demolishing the neighbor’s house, not the just the garage. Michael also could see other neighbors’ homes being destroyed in the storm. From the window, he saw debris–furniture and broken pieces of houses–floating past his home.

“Water’s coming under the door!” cried Steven. Sure enough, the water was rising over the lawn. Then, a window shattered. Wind started roaring through the house.

Michael quickly herded everybody into the back room. There they kept the life jackets they used when they went boating. “Quick. Put these on right now,” he ordered, handing out the life jackets. With a little fumbling, everyone managed to get a life jacket on. Michael also found some rope. He grabbed it, intending to tie everybody together. Before he could get started, he heard an awful ripping sound.

“Aaaah!” screamed Carol. The wind suddenly ripped a portion of the roof off the house. Water and wind poured through the opening and tore at the rest of the house. Michael grabbed Amy in his arms. Carol tried to hold onto Steven and Lisa. The house seemed to be coming apart around them as the water rose.

Before Michael knew what was happening, he was desperately swimming in the yard or maybe the road, holding the baby. Carol was clinging to a large piece of floating roof, holding onto Lisa for dear life. Steven lost his grip and floated away in the swift current, swimming and bobbing in his orange life jacket. “Mom!” he screamed.

All Michael could think about was hanging onto the baby and keeping her head above water. Somehow, he struggled through the surging water to higher ground. Huddling against a piece of concrete wall, he cradled Amy close to him and prayed and prayed that his family would come through safely.

Carol managed to push Lisa onto the roof that had become their life raft. She pulled herself partially up onto it and hoped she could hold on long enough to be rescued. But she could feel herself slipping as the piece of roof was carried away by the wind-driven water. Then, it stopped with a lurch. Carol saw that it had hit a big snag of fallen trees and debris. She managed to pull herself up onto the roof. “Thank you God,” she muttered, as she and Lisa clung to each other, afraid to move. The wind began to die down, the rain stopped, but night was closing in fast. Carol and Lisa huddled together, scared and wet.

In the fading light, rescue workers found Michael and Amy huddled against the concrete. They brought them to a shelter in a school. Michael was torn between staying with Amy and going out to find his wife and children. “There’s nothing you can do for them tonight. Take care of your baby,” said a volunteer, handing him a dry blanket and a baby bottle.

All night Michael paced the hallway of the emergency shelter while holding Amy tightly in his arms. Morning brought bright sun and clear skies. The rescue crews set out early. Michael played with the baby outside the entrance. He raced to meet every new group of people brought in by the rescue workers. More people were arriving every few minutes. Michael watched desperately. Everyone looked the same, so wet and muddy. Twice he rushed up to someone thinking it was Carol or Lisa or Steven. “Sorry. I thought you were somebody else,” he mumbled each time.

Michael was feeding Amy a bottle when he heard his name. “Michael, Michael is that really you?” shouted Carol.

He spun around. “Daddy!” yelled Lisa as she ran and threw a great hug around him.

“Amy, my precious baby. Michael. You’re all safe. Thank you, God. Thank you. Thank you,” Carol sobbed.

The family hugged and kissed for a moment. Exhausted as she was, Carol was ready to jump for joy. Then she realized. “Where’s Steven?” she asked.

“Out there someplace,” said Michael glumly. The family’s joy and relief evaporated in an instant.

When Steven lost his grip on his mother, he was pulled into the torrent of water. He tried to grab onto things, but everything was wet and slippery or moving too fast in the rushing water. Steven was a strong swimmer and his life jacket made it easy to stay afloat. He tried not to panic. Finally, he grabbed onto a large piece of a tree floating by.

Eventually, the water slowed and Steven saw what looked like solid ground to his right. He pushed off the tree and swam toward it. His arms and legs ached when he finally reached the solid ground. By then it was getting dark. Steven crawled up the small hill. He had no idea where he was. Too exhausted to move any further, he curled himself into a ball and tried to sleep.

In the bright morning sun, Steven stood at the top of the small hill. The water had receded leaving what looked like a lake of mud. Sticking out of the mud were televisions, pieces of furniture, appliances, and other broken stuff, now just junk. Steven had no idea where he was, where to go, or how to get there. Hungry and homesick for his family, Steven sat on the top of the little hill, and that is where the rescue helicopter found him.

The reunion with his family back at the rescue center was joyful. They hugged and kissed and said prayers of thanks. That they were all alive was a miracle, Michael thought.

Michael was eager to get back to their home and inspect the damage, but they couldn’t leave the rescue shelter because bridges and roads for miles around were unsafe or completely washed away. So they waited. Most people at the shelter talked of being home by Christmas. The few Jews there tried to celebrate the start of Chanukah, but nobody even had a menorah. They sang a few Chanukah songs half-heartedly. The children quickly lost interest.

A week later people could leave the shelter. Michael and the family found half the roof had been torn off the house. Mud covered the floor. Things were strewn all over the yard. It hardly seemed like their home at all. They could inspect the house, but they couldn’t sleep there. They started picking through the pieces scattered about.

“Hey, here is the menorah and the box of candles,” Carol called out.

“The presents! Where are our presents?” Lisa demanded, suddenly remembering Chanukah.

“They’re gone, but Chanukah must be over anyway,” snapped Steven.

They were still culling through the debris as darkness fell. Carol called the family into the kitchen. She had cleaned the menorah and filled it with candles. “Tonight is the last night of Chanukah,” she said. They sang the blessings and took turns lighting each candle until all eight were lit. The glow of the brightly burning candles brought the warmth of their loving home to the wet, muddy scene around them.

“There are no presents,” said Lisa sadly.

Carol and Michael gathered up their children in their arms. “God gave me the greatest present I could ever want–all of you, alive and safe. It is the only Chanukah present I’ll ever ask for,” Carol replied.

“You know, this makes me think of the Maccabees so long ago,” Michael said quietly. “They arrived at the Temple in Jerusalem only to find that the Syrians had made it into a mess worse than this. But they found their Ner Tamid–the eternal light–and a little bit of oil and lit it just like we lit our menorah.” The family, gazing at the candles, thought about Chanukah and all the miracles God had performed, then and now. The brightness of the candles, it seemed, could light up the world.