Magic Sneakers

It’s two years post tornado and one year after I promised myself I was done writing about the tornado. But I’m fickle and I promise not to write about it again! (Unless I do …)

A while back I registered the kids for the Joplin Memorial Fun Run. Molly is four, so I envisioned that Emily (8) and David (10) would run out ahead and Keith and I would walk/slow run with the Mollster. Ha.

I hadn’t told Molly those plans.

She’s trained for the run for weeks. This mostly involved sprinting the loop in my home from kitchen, to family room, to living room, and back – again and again and again. A couple days before the run we bought her new sneakers. They instantly became magic sneakers. You remember the type – the ones that made you run faster than ever before.

She was ready.

And it wasn’t a walk with her parents that she was ready for. That girl ran the whole mile with a huge smile on her little face. It was awesome. (But far from leisurely.)

The race wasn’t just about running though. It was a memorial to the people who lost their lives in the tornado two years ago. There was a sign hanging at the beginning of the race and it had the name of each of those 161.  When my exuberant racers arrived, Molly saw the sign and, assuming it was a list of the racers, asked, “Mommy, where’s my name!? Am I on there?”  If she hadn’t been so excited about racing she may have wondered why it took me a moment before answering her.

“No, baby girl, those are the people who died in the tornado and we’re running today to remember them.”

And then my mind swirled with the rest of the answer …

BUT …

Had the rotation been slightly different …

Had the walls twisted a bit more …

Had the ceiling been blown away over that closet …

Then the names on that list could have included my Molly and Emily and Keith. So close; they were so close.

In the past two years we’ve made the decision not to live in the land of “what if’s” because that can be life freezing and maybe even disrespectful to the people who did lose someone they love.  But the sign with the names (and the t-shirts that read “Running in memory of my Granny”) spoke of those whose loved ones couldn’t get into a safe place, whose ceilings collapsed and whose walls fell.  And I grieve with them for their loss with awareness that the happy ending to my tornado story could make their grief more powerful.

Because their loved ones were so close too – so close to safety, to shelter, to survival.

None of us will forget the storm that hit Joplin on May 22, 2011. My family and I may have decided that the storm doesn’t define us but we would be kidding ourselves to say it hasn’t changed us.

Because when I remember, it reverberates once again through my soul – life is precious, time is fleeting, and the people we love are so vulnerable and so fragile.

When faced with the memory of that day, we will do what we’re left here to do.

We will savor.

We will strap on our magic sneakers and run.

God bless the people whose story ended differently. Hopefully they have found some peace.

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One Year Later in Joplin, Missouri

Almost a year ago, on May 22, 2011 a tornado hit my hometown of Joplin, Missouri.  The year since the storm was filled with joy, sorrow, tragedy, and miracle – sprinkled with refreshing moments of ordinary.  Most of you have heard the story:

On May 22 David turned nine years old.  The day started as a day of celebration. At 5:30 that evening, David, two of his friends, and I were in a movie theater watching pirates duke it out for the fountain of youth.  After the movie, we planned to meet Keith and the girls for pizza.  As we watched, I received a text from one of the boy’s mom saying “Stay put, Amy, the storm is bad and the tornado sirens are going off.”  The movie stopped in the middle of a scene, the lights turned on, and we were all instructed to go sit on the floor underneath the screen.  I called Keith to tell him to stay home with the girls and wait out the storm.  At the time, Keith and the girls were getting shoes on to head out the door and meet us for dinner.  Meanwhile, the theater crowd was laughing, talking, and in good spirits.  This is Missouri; we’re used to sirens and tornado warnings.  We were all sitting on the floor sharing any weather tidbits we could get on our phones.  Someone asked a manager why the movie was still playing in the theater next door.  The manager replied, “That’s not a movie.  That’s the storm.  Maybe a tornado …”

The mood changed.

I couldn’t reach Keith and the girls on the phone.  When the storm finally ended, people started to walk up the stairs to leave the theater as texts and calls began to come in.  It was terrifying to see people check their phones and start running, or crying, or saying “Oh my God …” The first text I received was from David’s friend’s mom.  It said, “Are you okay? Where are you? Tell M I love him.”  The next text was from Keith.  It said, “Our house was hit.” 

Across town, shortly after my initial call to Keith, he watched it turn black outside – he didn’t hear any sirens.  When his ears suddenly popped, Keith grabbed the girls and ran to the closest “safe” place – our closet.  He laid over Emily and Molly on the floor of the closet and listened as a tornado went over our house.  The tornado took our garage, trees, fence, roof, two cars, boat, and bent our walls as he and our little girls huddled together – fragile and exposed.   

That was our tragedy.

Here’s our miracle:  Keith, Emily, and Molly walked out of that closet untouched and unharmed.  In our family room, all the windows blew in, parts of our neighbor’s home came into ours, and the furniture was destroyed.  Our two dogs were kenneled in the only corner of that room without glass and debris.  They were also untouched and unharmed.  Our home, unlike the homes of most of our neighbors, stood.  It was fixable.  My parents came that night and took the kids to their home in Kansas City while Keith and I began the work of sorting through belongings trying to salvage what we could as the rain poured in.  We moved into a rental house.

And life went on.  David started the third grade, Emily the second, and Molly went back to her wonderful preschool program.  Keith continued his work at a manufacturing plant in Joplin.  I began a new job as a hospice social worker.  The kids’ usual flurry of activities continued. And, while all this beautiful ordinary went on, our home was slowly rebuilt.

Seven months after the tornado we moved back home!  Our neighborhood is still empty: the trees are gone, homes are missing, our view is a path of destruction instead of homes and trees, and many of our neighbors have moved away.  However, there is construction and progress every day.  We have new neighbors on our right and old neighbors have returned across the street.  Joplin is rebuilding and healing.  The community is a supportive place for those whose stories were more tragedy than miracle.  In fact, this city feels more like home to us now than it ever has in the five years we’ve lived here. 

Life is good and the ordinary is more beautiful than ever.

Finding Hope

A few months ago, someone planted some bulbs.  

And while the people of Joplin rebuilt homes and lives; the bulbs grew silently under the ground.

Now they’ve bloomed.  While we worked to recreate what was lost, hope grew.

What a wonderful surprise when the word HOPE bloomed through the ground.

I look back on this year of tornadoes and death and loss and I’m in awe of the journeys we all pass through in life.  And I’m filled with hope.  Not just a sentimental word but a powerful call to action:

We can be better. 

Our world can be better. 

Our actions matter. 

We matter. 

During this year, I’ve witnessed the kind of hope that carries us past our experiences and understanding and delivers us to words like faith, joy, growth, and strength. 

Our world is filled with people trapped in a suffocating darkness.  Neighbors grieve behind closed doors.  We hide behind status updates and smiley icons.  I doubt there are any of us who haven’t felt the pull of hopelessness.  It’s powerful. 

Fortunately, hope is brilliantly contagious.  I believe hope is spread through the sharing of our stories.  There is healing strength in recognizing ourselves in another person’s story. 

“Maybe you have to know the darkness before you can appreciate the light.”  — Madeleine L’Engle

Beautiful Ordinary

The wall calendar hanging on the inside of my pantry door is open to May 2011. Today is March 4, 2012 but I’m not taking the calendar down – not yet.

The weekend of May 21-22, 2011 was a busy weekend – slightly stressful. I was throwing a Parisian pool party (yes, you read that correctly) for Emily on Saturday and taking David and his two best buddies to a movie and pizza for his birthday on Sunday.

I was worried about things like decorations, cakes, balloons, party favors, and the timing of the movie. I remember actually thinking:

“If I can just survive this weekend …”

Most of you reading this know that in the middle of David’s birthday party the tornado hit Joplin.

Before the tornado
David and his friends less than an hour before the tornado

I keep that calendar to remind me that I never know when my world is about to change.

I go about my day-to-day and so often feel stuck on the treadmill of work, kids’ activities, bath time, bedtime, cooking, cleaning, shopping, laundry, and on and on and on. I forget. I forget that in a split second something can happen and the very things that cause me stress and distraction and frustration can become the things that I grieve over.

I keep that calendar to remind me of the beauty to be found in the ordinary.

“If I can just survive this weekend,” pops into my head each time I look at that calendar. I can remember wanting to be done with the parties and the birthdays. I wasn’t just going through the motions, I was steamrolling through them. I didn’t completely miss the moments of fun, joy, and delight from that weekend. But, more than anything, I wanted those two days to be behind me.

Then a storm rolled in.

“If I can just survive this weekend,” took on a completely different meaning.

All of a sudden, everything else fell away and I just wanted to hold my babies. I just wanted to get to them and see them alive and breathing. I wanted to kiss their tears and not let go of them. I just wanted to get them to a safe place. And, as the days went on, I just wanted us back together again. I wanted to recapture our feeling of home. I wanted my neighbors and friends to be okay. I just wanted our ordinary back.

There is something so beautiful about the ordinary when it’s viewed after the storm.

So, for now, I’m going to keep that calendar hanging up. It’s a reminder that I don’t know what’s going to happen. I don’t know when my world is going to change. It’s my reason to live boldly and fully. It’s my reason to embrace the beautiful ordinary of my life.

My thoughts and prayers go out to those affected by the tornadoes that rolled through the Midwest recently.

Emotional Ninja Attacks

When the tornado hit we were faced with children to heal and a home to rebuild so there wasn’t time to be immobilized by intense emotions.  Our minds did what they were created to do and our emotions were parceled out in bite-sized doses, some of them being saved for later when the work was done.  The work, for my family, is mostly done.   So, almost nine months after the tornado, I find myself experiencing the emotions of this journey more powerfully than I did in the insane days following May 22, 2011.

These saved emotions don’t come when I flip through pictures of the destruction or read about a person lost.  That would be too easy, too obvious!  Like stealthy, emotional ninjas, they hit when I least expect it with the most unlikely triggers.

The Incredibles is playing, a movie I’ve seen tons of times.  The bad guy is about to shoot down the jet that the super-hero mom is flying and she radios to the control tower, “There are children aboard – say again – there are children aboard this plane!” The line stops me in my tracks like a punch in the gut. 

A restaurant menu features the quote, “Something this sweet never lasts long,” and my eyes fill with tears. 

I go to grab my red sweater only to remember that it blew away.  My stomach does instant flip flops as I look around the closet that sheltered my family.

We drive by a construction site in another town and one of my kids says, “Look, Mom.  They had a tornado here too.” I have to swallow down the instant lump in my throat before I can answer.

What is most surprising to me about these emotional sneak attacks is that I haven’t been able to name the powerful emotion I keep feeling.  Is it sadness?  Loss?  Fear?  What-if’s?  All of the above? 

Then I read the new post on Strolling down the Autobahn, a beautiful blog written by Shannon, a neighbor who used to live down the road.  I saw myself in her story.  She answered my question.  What is this intense emotion I’ve been experiencing so frequently?

It’s gratitude.

It’s a mind-boggling, knee-shaking awareness of how blessed I am.  It’s becoming overwhelmed with the intensity of how much I love them.  How powerfully thankful I am for them and that I married him and that I carried them in my body and that I’ve had them all these years.

And that I still have them today. 

To quote my friend Shannon’s post:

“You see….I got to experience a PROFOUND perspective change….

without anything truly horrifically awful happening to me.

 And I don’t EVER

EVER

EVER

EVER

want to go back to the placid-take-things-for-granted-more-superficial mindset I had before this last season of my life.”

I don’t either.  So bring it on unexpected emotions.  Remind me of what I have.  Remind me as often as needed to get it through my distracted mind.  Because I don’t ever, ever want to forget.

Home

We are home.

Seven months after the Joplin tornado, my little family is at last sleeping under our own roof.  The inside of our rebuilt house is different from before the storm – it’s newer, fresher, and a few days ago felt somewhat unfamiliar.  But we’ve been back home now for three days.  I see glitter on the table that was missed in the post-craft clean up, a doll half-dressed on the couch, Molly dressed like a knight and building a block tower, David’s book on the table with his sister’s Barbie shoe serving as a bookmark, and the fridge door filling up with the girls’ artistic masterpieces.  Oh yes, this is home.

And it feels good. 

You know that feeling after a long day at work when you come home and change into comfy clothes?  Or that moment in between the kids’ bedtime and your bedtime when you sit down and put your feet up?  Or when you fall asleep at night to the sound of rain on the roof?  Or when a snow storm outside is accompanied with a fire in the fireplace and a warm cup of coffee inside?  Or when you reach into your pocket and discover a long forgotten ten-dollar bill?  Or when your loved ones who are on the road finally call to say that they’ve arrived safe and sound?  Being home feels like that.

For me, this journey started with a drive across town right after the tornado finished its rampage.  I weaved around flipped over cars, downed power lines, dazed pedestrians, toppled buildings, and people frantically searching, yelling, running to their loved ones.  But, in that moment, I was focused on one thing. 

I have to get home. 

Not once during that drive did I worry about walls, carpets, or counters.  Not once did I consider clothing, vehicles or electronics.  I thought about Keith.  I thought about Emily.  I thought about Molly.  I thought about them with such a sharp focus that it kept panic at bay.  In those moments right after the tornado, I believed that if I kept picturing them, talking to them in my thoughts that I would find them unharmed.

And, for whatever reason, God covered our home during the storm.  The roof blew away and the walls bent around them.  But the walls held.  Our home held.

For the past seven months, life has gone on.  (Although, hopefully more thoughtfully, observantly, and compassionately.)  But, for Keith and I, even in the midst of work, school, and the craziness of life with three kids we had the same focus I had on my drive the evening of May 22. 

We need to get home.

And we’ve finally made it. 

Today, I will fully appreciate what I have in my life. Today, we’re going to live fully inside these walls.  We don’t know what tomorrow will bring.  But today our life is going to be loud, messy, hilarious, and filled with imperfect love.  Today we are home.

 

The tornado ruined 55% of my birthday

I am beyond excited to have my first guest blogger today.  He is a red-headed dynamite, known for his intelligence, slightly inappropriate sense of humor, and fascination with almost everything (except Math — we’re working on Math).  My guest blogger frequently plays a central role in this blog as he’s my David, first-born, light of my life, love of my heart, and getting sent to bed early because he’s currently driving me crazy.  Today I had David’s parent-teacher conference (more about that later, I assure you).  David’s teacher (angel on earth, currently my most favorite teacher of all time) had the kids write about their summer experiences.  David wrote about the tornado.  To read about this night from David’s perspective took my breath away.  He saw more, was aware of more, and remembers more than I imagined.  Here’s David’s summer, in his words …

David’s Exciting Summer

       This summer was fun, exciting, and unusual.  It was like an action movie with villains that want to throw you in lava.  Except my villain was a tornado! 

First, on my birthday, me and my friends went to watch Pirates of the Caribbean at the movies.  It was fun until about half way through the movie, the movie shut off.  We went into the hall to see what was going on.  The lights were flickering.  We found out there was a scary tornado that hit Joplin.

       By the time we got out of the movie the tornado had moved out of our area.  We hopped in the car and started driving.  We couldn’t communicate by calling or texting.  The only way to communicate was by Facebook.  We were really worried about my dad and sisters at my house.  I was glad the tornado was over.  It ruined 55 percent of my birthday.  I was thinking “Why me?  Why my birthday?”

       As we drove, we saw a lot of people walking with their families.  We knew their car wasn’t running so, they had been hit by the twister too.  We heard sirens of all kinds.  There were ambulances, fire trucks, police everywhere.  We heard a little girl crying and saw one woman who was badly hurt.  Her leg looked really bad; it was bleeding.  I didn’t mention it to my mom because it would make her more upset.  It would remind her of my sisters and dad and how they were doing since we couldn’t reach them.

       I could hear and feel the wind blowing.  There were so many houses that were wrecked.  The roads were blocked.  We were trying to take my friend’s home so their parents wouldn’t be worried, but no luck.  We zig zagged all over town.  It took an hour to get to our house (it usually takes twenty minutes). 

       We finally parked by our neighborhood because we couldn’t get in.  I was surprised by all the houses that were destroyed.  It used to be filled, now it was a lot of nothing.  One house was completely flattened.  Another, there was nothing left but bricks and the porch stairs.  By this time, we had contacted my dad and knew they were okay through Facebook, but we still wanted to see them.  As we were walking, I felt scared and frightened.  There were only three houses that were standing.  They were damaged but could be fixed.  I was worried that the town would be wiped out and people weren’t going to make it.  I knew it would be hard for people to get into Joplin to come help because of all the rubble. 

       When we got to our house, we were relieved that our house was still standing, but it was badly damaged.  My dad and sisters were safe!  Our roof was cracked open.  There was a huge piece of wood that was stuck right through our front wall in the living room.  It caused our house to wobble.  There was glass everywhere; on my bed and floor.  My video game systems were totally wrecked.  My geckos didn’t survive the tornado.  My dogs were okay!  They were safe in their kennel.  They had bits of glass stuck in their fur.  They smelled like wet dog.  It took forever to pull them all out.  We all piled into the car; my mom, dad, two sisters, two friends, two dogs, and I.  We had to drop the dogs off at the kennel and head to our house.  

       Before we could go to the hotel, we had to drop the dogs off at “The Kennel.”  It is a dog sitting place that would take care of them while we were at the hotel.  By the time we got to the hotel, it was dark.  There was still no power.  Because the doors were electronic, we couldn’t close the doors or it would lock us in.  My parents were going to stay there, but for us kids, it was a waiting place.  We communicated through Facebook with my friends’ parents to meet us there after they took care of their homes, because my friends’ homes were damaged.  My mom Facebooked my grandma in Blue Springs, Missouri (3 hours away) to come pick me and my sisters up.  There was no electricity, so we played pranks on my sisters and told scary stories. 

Eventually, my friends’ parents came to pick them up.  They were glad to see them.  I bet that’s the last time my friends’ parents let them come to one of my birthday parties.  It turned out okay because we were safe and we got to go stay with my grandparents.