People use lots of old sayings around here. My grandmother had a habit of saying, “If you don’t like the weather here in the Midwest, wait a minute ‘cause it’s bound to change.” We found that out the hard way last Spring.
My husband, Jake, had died a few months before it happened. His passing was still too fresh after he was killed in action in the war. I hadn’t fully processed my sorrow yet. Our daughter, Hope, scared and confused with her dad’s absence, was more frightened than me that fateful day in May. I wish I had been able to comfort her more. My child’s well being rested on my shoulders while I was still suffering my own grief.
The storm came in early that afternoon, as bad weather commonly pops up at that time of year. Our house was in a neighborhood with many other rentals, a few other families with small children. Hope played in the yard with a neighbor boy but had to rush inside when the strong winds and sudden rain ended their game. The boy’s mother ran out to hurry him inside, too.
I stood on our porch to momentarily gaze at how dark the western sky had become. A mass of ominous clouds arrived from the western sky, having darkened by the second. Clouds of that nature actually “roll in” as the other old saying goes. Odd horizontal layers constantly morphed their rounded top edges; a tidal force seemingly pushed them forward. A suspicious pang in my stomach made it more urgent to get inside.
Most of the town was at the football field for the high school graduation that day. Even though we didn’t know anyone graduating, I thought of all the soaked caps, gowns, grandparents, and band members there. I felt bad for the students, so excited on their special day, running with their guests and teachers to get out of the downpour. The creepiest part came when everything settled down to an odd stillness, the sky then tinged with yellow – truly the calm before the real storm.
Ours was only relative safety, though, as I was soon to find out. We had no basement to serve as an underground oasis. We crouched in the bathtub, my arms clutched around Hope in a feeble attempt to protect her. Reports estimated straight-line winds at over 100 miles an hour.
The incredible noise, such powerful wind force behind it, was deafening. A seven-foot fence next door was swept away like paper. My last moments were spent in what was a last-ditch effort to open the windows and equalize the inside pressure in case of a tornado. Mom always said it was a good way to keep from picking glass out of your carpet for weeks afterward. At the time, I didn’t realize the futility of my effort. I spent months instead picking up the pieces of our lives.
Our future changed so completely in the blink of an eye. We clung to each other in our porcelain Chrysalis, a flimsy shower curtain to shield us from the elements. The cacophony bore down and Hope shrieked in my ear until I felt temporarily deafened. My grandparents lived through a “twister” on their rural farm and described a freight train crashing into them. I never knew if this metaphor was accurate, as my complete shock and loss of control left me to think a powerful force was punishing the world with its final destruction.
The bathroom walls collapsed into a stacked heap and formed a virtual sheetrock tent over the shower stall protecting us, jagged pieces forcing the wind current over our heads. Pipes below served as tendrils reaching down to keep our hiding place attached to the earth.
We were lucky.
Others didn’t fare so well. The neighborhood was a gap of scoured ground, with trees beheaded to stumps or splintered as jagged rake teeth. Cars lay overturned or topless, roofs ripped away and tossed elsewhere. None of our modest homes was left intact. Most lay in states of disarray, with some reduced to lone chimneys built long ago.
The once sturdy homes were a mix of rubble. Faint crying greeted our exit from the triangle nest nature had forged us. Helplessness sent me to the middle of our vacant street, where I sat cradling my weak, sobbing daughter. Desperate people called loved ones on jammed cell phone circuits while sifting through the wet rubble. Parents frantically yelled their missing children’s names, voices echoing through the abyss. Many folks searched in vain, wailing served as their futile effort’s soundtrack.
Some people were lost forever.
There were so many mournful stories. A grad who never came home from the commencement ceremony. Brave heroes helped strangers at the cost of their own lives. Grandparents died in their wheelchairs. The entire town was devastated.
Old feelings of loss came back – the overwhelming absence of my husband, Hope’s dad, and everyone else missing from her short life. An irrational impulse struck to call my parents who had died years before. I longed to talk to anyone familiar to us and suppressed an urge to contact Jake’s sister who rebuked me after his funeral, claiming I’d squander his life insurance, she being the only deserving “blood” relative. Our marriage disqualified her as beneficiary. Her final words, ‘I hope your life is hell, Grace!’ I think she’s gotten her wish.
All Hope and I ultimately have left is each other. Our neighbor is grief-stricken over losing her son, him being literally ripped from her arms that day. His lifeless little body was in a nearby field with his neck broken. He and Hope had played together less than an hour before. The last time I saw his mom, she had rushed frantically up and down the block screaming for him. We’re so lucky in comparison.
I may not have much, but I do have Hope.
In memory of the lives lost in Joplin, MO on May 22, 2011. -photo via convoyofhope.org
(Originally submitted to a writing contest at indiechicks.com.)