On Aug. 18, 2007, around the time Lynn and Sharon Partington tucked their grandson into bed, it started to rain.
Sheets of water pounded the roof and streamed down the Partingtons’ floor-to-ceiling windows. Thunder, like the steps of God, sent recurrent tremors through the darkening countryside.
It seemed all the world was drenched and trembling. But Sharon couldn’t be bothered.
There was little to distinguish this storm, she thought, from the storms that come and go every summer in this part of the country. Sharon expected to wake up the next morning to find her trees and her flowers dripping themselves dry, the sun burning away in its usual place.
But it wouldn’t stop raining.
Just after midnight, Lynn and Sharon got a call from the neighbors. They needed a hand at their house, in the basement. It was filling up with mud and water — and fast.
Lynn shrugged into a raincoat, grabbed a shovel and headed over.
He was halfway there when a bolt of lightning split the sky. It illuminated houses and trees and the highway that runs between the bluffs and the Mississippi River.
Then, up on the bluff, there was a crack.
“I knew exactly what it was,” Lynn said. “I ran for my life.”
It’s been 10 years since the Partingtons and their riverfront dream home were swallowed up by a wave of mud, trees and debris. The mudslide left Lynn and Sharon without a home and, for a while, without a clear sense of purpose — among the families most devastated by a storm that rocked so many.
In the weeks that followed, Lynn and Sharon felt as if they were once again in their 20s, when they started their lives together with nothing but a ‘55 Pontiac and a pile of wedding presents.
They lost almost everything in the mudslide.
Practical things like clothes, furniture and vehicles. Sentimental things like old photos and antique clocks.
Lynn and Sharon had worked most of their lives, on teacher salaries, to build the house they had always wanted — a place reminiscent of a lodge, with a wrap-around deck and a great stone chimney.
Then, in seconds, it was gone.
Discussing the storm recently at their new place — a home that Lynn says will never truly feel like one, despite the family photos and inspirational signs hanging on the walls — Lynn and Sharon couldn’t help but shake their heads and lament their losses.
“We were in our 60s, and we had to start completely over,” Lynn said. “How do you do that?”
“There were so many times I wondered to myself: ‘What was our sin? What did we do? What do we do now?” said Sharon, who describes herself and her husband as loyal Christians. “I wouldn’t say it shook our faith, but there were all these questions.”
Austin, their grandson, remains haunted by the events of that night.
Sleeping in an upstairs bedroom, he was thrust awake by a surge of air that lifted his mattress — and him — and hurled it against a wall. He was 9 years old at the time of the storm, and at 19, he’s still afflicted with nightmares and flashbacks.
“He’s getting better,” Sharon said. “But it will always be with him.”
The Partingtons’ memories from that night are as sharp and clear as their grandson’s.
Just as Lynn remembers the flash of lightning, like daylight, and the sound of the splitting bluff, Sharon remembers standing in the kitchen, watching a mass of mud rush toward her.
“I was looking out the window, and everything was tan,” she said. “You couldn’t see anything — just tan.”
Sharon was launched through the air and into the living room. She landed on a coffee table and must have been knocked out, she said — the passage of time is a little hazy.
She remembers lying there, in the rubble, believing she might have been buried alive. Then, through the debris and the watery darkness, she saw a light.
Climbing what she thought was the staircase — it was actually the railing of that staircase — she reached her grandson’s room. Furniture was smashed. Doors were ripped from their hinges.
“Austin!” she cried. “Austin!”
The boy wasn’t in his room.
“Austin!” she screamed.
Sharon later learned that Lynn had returned to the house, ripped a piece of siding from a wall, and pulled his grandson to safety.
Hearing his wife’s voice, Lynn called Sharon to the same opening. With some tugging, he managed to squeeze her through.
The family was together again. Intact.
But their house wasn’t.
The Partingtons’ smashed and shredded belongings were strewn across the yard. Their roof was resting in the highway. Their great stone chimney was reduced to dust.
Miraculously, the family says, Sharon was the only one with significant injuries — fractured vertebrae and a deep cut on her right forearm. The rest of that night, for her, was a bright blur of ambulance and hospital lights.
But she wasn’t alone.
Austin, the grandson she feared she had lost, spent those gauzy hours curled up next to her.
“We lost all our stuff,” Sharon said at the time, in a story that ran in the Daily News. “But not the stuff that counts.”
The Partingtons received widespread attention in the days after the flood. Their story was chronicled by local news outlets as well as CNN, ABC News and “Good Morning America.”
Lynn and Sharon were inundated with phone calls from family and friends. Letters — some from perfect strangers — also poured in.
There was one, Sharon can remember, from a woman who had survived Hurricane Katrina two years earlier.
“Reading her letter, it was obvious that she didn’t have much,” Sharon said. “She still gave us $100, so we could get by.”
The Partingtons needed all the help they could get.
As was the case with many flood victims, none of the Partingtons’ losses were covered by insurance. Their house was paid off and extensively insured — they even had an add-on for earthquakes, in case the long-dormant fault lines along the Mississippi ever ruptured.
But their policy said nothing about mudslides.
“We’ve gotten that question so many times,” Lynn said. “We didn’t get anything.”
Instead, Lynn and Sharon watched as men shoveled up the rubble that used to be their home, watched as they loaded it onto trucks and carried it away.
For two months, they stayed with their daughter in Onalaska, picking up the pieces of their shattered lives.
Family photo albums were among the few things the slide did spare. Lynn and Sharon collected all of the photos one day and arranged them on their daughter’s driveway, letting the sun dry them out — a soggy collage of happier times.
“What we saved amounts to peanuts,” Lynn said. “None of the dishes matched. Everything was wet, broken, chipped. It was just ... .”
But friends and neighbors came to the aid of the Partingtons, helping the couple in ways big and small.
Lynn’s dentist cleaned his teeth at no charge.
A family friend let Lynn and Sharon drive his car until they could buy their own.
And the Partingtons’ church and community helped raise money for the couple’s empty pockets.
Destroyed home and all, Sharon said, “we had so much to be grateful for.”
In October 2007, two months after the storm, Lynn and Sharon moved into the house where they live today. They filled it with donated furniture, and planted trees and shrubs where there had been only grass.
“There were no birds when we moved here,” Lynn said. “Now, we hear the birds and appreciate just being alive.”
The Partingtons live quiet and normal lives — you wouldn’t know their world was once damaged beyond repair, because they don’t talk much about it.
They spend a lot of time on the Mississippi, boating and fishing and sunbathing.
They entertain their children and grandchildren.
They take vacations to Florida.
As much as she can, Sharon — who takes anxiety medication and gets nervous during thunderstorms — visits cancer patients at Gundersen Lutheran in La Crosse. She sees her life through the proper lens, she said, when she meets people with even harder lots in life.
“No matter what,” she said, “there’s always someone who has it tougher than you do.”
It can be just as easy to lose perspective.
The effects of the storm are all around the Partingtons. Ever-present.
They see its strength in the bend of a floor lamp, in the dents that riddle pots and pans.
Boxes, unopened since the move, sit like cardboard monuments in the basement.
And Sharon carries with her a constant reminder — a fat, white scar that runs down her right forearm.
“When it was healing, I always used to show it to Austin,” she said. “God allows bad things to happen in this world. But He puts the miracle of healing in all of us.”
More and more, Lynn and Sharon think not about everything the slide took — but about everything the slide spared.
They have their photos. And a fleet of hand-carved loons. And a set of glassware that’s been in their family for generations.
And they have their lives.
“We were so lucky to spend 17 years in that house,” Lynn said. “Not many people get to live out their dream.”
It’s a blessing of equal proportion, the Partingtons say, to live through your nightmare.