Today's post is a little different.
I am thankful for many, many things in my life, but I have a very rough relationship with today's date.
A date that will forever be stitched onto my heart and onto my memory - a tight thread in a woven piece that so many others share.
Three years ago, life as I had known it ceased to exist.
For over a month now, I have been debating whether or not to write about what happened. I've written about it before, but I kept going back and forth about whether I should share here or not. But, the events that took place on May 22, 2011 were an unfolding within me that I think needs to be shared.
Because that's what this blog is - common ground, a supportive place, one I hope that inspires healing and brings encouragement regardless of what you've seen, what you've done, what you've experienced.
And I share today in hopes that I will continue to heal and that perhaps, it will continue to bring further clarity and maybe relate to you in some, small yet significant way.
(Thank you to Mike Davis for this photo - I used his camera to take this image of a lower-level classroom at Joplin High School where we both worked at the time. The May 22 tornado touched down at 5:41 p.m. Months after the tornado, faculty and staff were allowed to tour the grounds of the school before its final demolition, and I noticed the time on this clock.)
The following was written exactly one week after an EF5 tornado tore apart the town I was living and working in. Some of you have already read this; many have not, but as with many things in my life, healing begins when I put pencil to paper.
A week ago.
Has it really been a week?
A week ago, I woke up very excited. It was graduation day and I’m always very excited to see the hard work, the determination, and the pride of so many of my students as they walk across that stage to receive their diplomas. This graduation ceremony held even more meaning to me than usual - the graduating class of 2011 was my very first group of freshmen. My first group as a high school teacher; I got to watch them grow, struggle, overcome, and I got to know a group of dynamic and wonderful students like no other.
A week ago I got up early. My husband was out of town and was coming home the next day. I couldn’t wait to see him. It was windy. So windy. Hot and humid, too. I remember thinking that I would probably melt under my robe at graduation. I ate breakfast and checked the weather. Strong chance of storms in the afternoon and evening; some might be severe. Not unusual for this time of year. I hoped it wouldn’t rain out the graduation party of a student that had asked me to celebrate with her and her family. I edited some photos for the Weekly Photo Challenge while eating breakfast, fed the dogs, and then took some more photos until I was satisfied with one of the images. I cleaned a little around the house.
A week ago one of my co-workers called me while I was getting ready for graduation. I was ironing my robe. I thought we were meeting at the high school at 1:30 to ride together to the college where graduation ceremonies would be held. Nope. Got it wrong. Meeting at 1:00. Crap. Glanced at the clock and tried to hurry. I would just drive to the college by myself and meet the other teachers there. Decided not even to bother drying my hair; it was so humid that it wouldn’t matter. Gathered my things, got in the car and headed to MSSU.
A week ago I teasingly gave my co-worker grief about the misunderstanding over the time we were supposed to meet. She was sheepish and we laughed. The waiting area was filling quickly with teachers, administrators, and anxious students. I hugged them. We laughed. A few cried. I took pictures of them and with them. So proud. The ceremony started and I watched them walk across the stage, ready to begin a new chapter in their lives. I leaned over and whispered to the teacher sitting next to me that this was the longest graduation I remembered. We chuckled. We didn’t mind because it meant so many students had graduated.
A week ago, I hurried out of the college to try to beat traffic home. The wind had stilled. Thunderheads were in the west and I could already hear thunder. I wanted to hurry home and change before I headed to my student’s graduation party and then run to the store to buy flowers before heading to her house.
A week ago, I stepped out of my car as I arrived home from the graduation ceremonies and tornado sirens were going off. I wasn’t terribly concerned. Happens all the time in this part of the country. Still, I hurried inside. Let the dogs out. Changed clothes. So hot. So humid. So very still. No wind at all. Sirens were still going off. Checked the clouds to the west. Texted my student that I would probably wait until the storm passed before driving out to her house. Let the dogs back in. Checked the weather online. Tornado down? Where? Texted my husband: Crap. Tornado sirens going off. Kind of worried. He knows I hate storms. Still, wasn’t too concerned. Called a different student that had graduated. Asked her where she was. She was still at the college, headed to Olive Garden to celebrate. Asked her if she knew the sirens were going off. She laughed. “Mrs. Hallmark, I’ve lived here my whole life and do you know how many times those things go off and nothing ever happens? You worry too much.” I laughed sheepishly. Knowing she didn’t have a basement I offered to let her and her family come to my house if they wanted. She laughed again, told me I worried too much, they’d be fine. Got off the phone. Started getting stormier. Hmm. Checked the weather online again. Radar didn’t look good. Maybe I should turn on the television. Put on my wedding rings and a necklace my grandmother gave me just in case.
A week ago I poured a bowl of Cheerios and sat down to eat, thinking I’d go for a run after the storm had passed. Didn’t want to eat supper til after that. Turned on the television. Really starting to storm now. Starting to feel a little worried. Can’t find the damn local news channel. Finally. Spoonful of Cheerios. It takes a moment for my brain to absorb what I'm hearing...the television anchors are beside themselves, screaming, no composure - they are screaming as if they are speaking directly to loved ones. Panic and horror ripe in their voices, I suddenly realized the implication of what they were screaming: “Seek shelter now! We can see the funnel from the tower cam! We can see the tornado on the ground! It is southeast of the station!” I dropped the bowl. Oh, God. My house is southeast of the station. Storming very hard now. The sky changes in an instant. It is black outside and things are flying around. I can’t see much. Run upstairs to grab the flashlight and phone.
A week ago I frantically called my husband and left him a voice message: Tornado! House…scared…I love you! Hands are shaking so bad. Get the animals down in the basement. Terrible outside. Crying. Terrified. Can’t get my hands to stop shaking. Trying to call my parents. Oh, God. Phone rings, Dad answers. Dad! There’s a tornado coming at the house! I’m screaming. I’m crying. I can’t think. I know I should be in the laundry room, but I can’t stop looking out the windows. Dad! Walk me through this! He asks me where I am. Go to the laundry room. Do you have a flashlight? The animals? Okay. What can you hear? A huge sucking sound. Wind. Vicious wind. Things are hitting the house. Dad, I’m so scared. The dogs are calm. Iris keeps trying to lick my face while I cry. My student calls. I switch lines. She is crying, frantic. She and her friend are trying to get to my house. They can’t see anything. It’s so dark. They missed my road. Don’t know where they are. I can hear her panic. I’m panicking too, because I know they can’t make it in time to my house. I’m screaming in the phone: Honey, you can’t make it. Get out of the car! You’ve got to get out of the car and into a ditch! Can you hear me? The phone goes dead. I’m sobbing. Sick with worry. Where is she? Lost the call with Dad. Somehow in the middle of this storm, my fumbled dialing reconnects me to him. I’m shaking so hard my teeth are chattering. Dad is so calm. He asks me what I hear now. Power is out. Noises are dying down. I’m afraid to open the laundry room door for fear of what I’ll see. Dad and Mom are checking the weather reports. Looks like the worst has passed. Tentatively open the door. Thank God. House looks okay. Run upstairs. Relief. Minor wind damage. Debris scattered all over the yard. Oh, thank God. It wasn’t so bad. Right? Lose phone call with Dad. Try to call back. Try to call student. No answer. Finally get through to Mom...
"It’s really bad.”
A week ago I got in my car and tried to find my student. Foolish. Can’t get anywhere. Debris all over the road. Power lines down. Damage. Damage everywhere I look. It’s much cooler now. I’m frantic because I can’t find my student. Turn around and go home. On the phone constantly. Smoke fills the air. Sirens. People walking in the street, stunned. Hospital is damaged. Gas leaks. Fire. Joplin has been heavily damaged. Chaos.
A week ago, my student called me and I’ve never felt such relief in my life. She’s okay, but no car. Trees on car. Her father is on his way. Lose service. Can’t think. No power. Haven’t seen any images yet. Stunned. Shocked. This was supposed to be a day of celebration. Worried. Starting to feel sick. Can’t reach students. Can’t reach friends. Can’t reach co-workers. My husband finally gets through. He is frantic, says the news reports are terrible. I can’t fathom it. He can’t get an early flight out. Adamant that I leave and go to my parents. Take the dogs. Take the cat. Leave. Go to your parents. I feel this would be betrayal, but I know that I would just be in the way of emergency crews. Upset. Can’t think. One of my husband’s co-workers comes to check on me; roads are closing. I-44 is closed. On the phone with Dad trying to work out a route to get home. Feel sick. So sick. How could this happen?
A week ago, I threw some clothes in a bag, gathered my animals and drove three hours away. Felt guilt the entire way. Wanted to stay and help. Couldn’t. Can’t think.
A week ago my parents hugged me in relief. I am numb. Initial reports are horrifying. None of this makes sense. It’s late. The power goes out at their house. We head to bed. It storms later and I wake, terrified, listening for a tornado. Can’t go back to sleep. Power is back on. Go downstairs and check the news, check Facebook. Oh, God. The first picture. The high school. I break down. Can’t sleep the rest of the night. Students are missing. A co-worker’s daughter and her family are missing. Can’t wrap my head around this.
The next day.
News reports fill my day. Phone calls start to slowly trickle in. Some people have been found. Some have not. My heart is broken. We watch NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams. He is in Joplin. I sob when I see the report. So much sadness, so much devastation. An interview with our high school principal; he chokes up and I cry even harder. My husband has made it home and he’s very somber. Things are terrible. I plan to come home the next day.
Tuesday. Volunteer, volunteer, volunteer. Comb through debris. Hug students and friends that have made it through. Numb when I see what’s left of the high school for the first time; it’s not the building, but what it represents that gets to me so much. Heartbreak. Having a hard time keeping emotions in check. My husband takes his chain saw to clear debris. I go to the call center set up by our district to try and locate students. Cannot make my mind accept what I see; nothing makes sense. A refrigerator at a friend’s house has been tossed across what is left of her house, yet the eggs are unbroken. We look for memories. We look for her history. I try not to cry. To another friend’s house; they too have lost everything. Looking for anything to keep. Lives gone. Still can’t find people. Overwhelmed.
The following days: My husband points out that this tragedy has made society very transparent - we have witnessed the absolute best of people and also the absolute worst of people. The love and compassion being shown to this community is unbelievable. So appreciated. Please keep at it - we will need it for so long.
There are more stories to share. Not just mine. But, I needed to reflect on the past week. Reflect on how the tornado, one of the worst in history, missed my house by a mere block and a half. Reflect on how blessed I am. Reflect on why I was able to stay on the phone with my Dad while a tornado was bearing down on people I love and care for. Reflect on the goodness of others. Reflect on how something so simple as misunderstanding a time to meet might have saved my life. Reflect on the fact that this community has had its heart broken, but is resilient.
I’ve realized that I will go crazy if I try to make sense of any of it. Sometimes there are things bigger than us and we’ll never know why.
Thank you all for your love and support for Joplin, Missouri.
You, too, will have your heart broken and face your own "tornado." Life as you know it will fall apart.
It may even be your very undoing.
But, you will make it. You will.
There are moments that still catch me off-guard and I will feel panic rising in my chest. I was standing in the greeting card section of a Target store a few months ago and a child's plastic toy went off, making a noise that my brain somehow interpreted as a tornado siren and I all but bolted out of the store. I had to stand with eyes closed for a few moments, breathing deep, calming, intentional breaths until the panic stopped rising. And then there are moments where it doesn't even feel real - like, No way that could have happened. Nothing that awful is real.
But, it was real. And the pain and the heartache don't just go away as houses are rebuilt or schools constructed. Or because years pass. I think that everyone who goes through something like this resumes some "normalcy" after awhile, but it is always there. It is the makeup of bumpy dirt roads, tangled threads, and knotted ropes that cross and criss-cross our hearts.
It takes effort to heal. And a lot of hard work. And there will be days, years and years down the road that you may have to pick up a needle and sew your heart together again. Because there will be other tornadoes in other places in your life that will rend it wide open.
But, that's what this is about. Sewing. Quilting a beautiful pattern of the good and the bad so that it makes us whole.
So, so, so much love.
*Joplin is still rebuilding. Still. Donations are still needed and still very much appreciated. Please consider donating to one of the following:
Thank you. From the bottom of my heart, thank you.
Sites I Dig
The Road is Home
The Seed & Plate
Sharon Covert Photography
The Define School
The Noisy Plume
Sarah Gee Photography
Fox & Owl Studio
The Stork and The Beanstalk
Mellow Yellow Photography
A Simple Little Journal
What I've Been Reading
The Girls by Emma Cline
A Land More Kind Than Home by Wiley Cash
Dark Places by Gillian Flynn
Never Broken by Jewel
Hold Still by Sally Mann