TRIGGER WARNING–To any outside readers who have lived through a natural disaster like a tornado, please know that the following letter to my daughter may contain triggers.
If you want to talk about it, you can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Even if you can’t read what’s below, I’m here to listen to you.
Dear Lily June,
Yesterday was the fifth year anniversary of the tornado I survived, part of a 2011 Super Outbreak that devastated Alabama and Mississippi (amongst other areas of the country) and desiccated the hearts of its residents. Somehow, like the storm once did itself, the date sneaks up on me every year. Sometimes, I feel off, unsteady and shaky all day without knowing why, and then I see someone post something on Facebook, or someone makes an offhand comment, or we’re hit with a torrential downpour of a spring storm (as we have been here in Indiana for the past two days) or they start tearing down the trees where I currently live, leaving nothing behind but stumps. Tree stumps are my worst trigger.
I have written about this before. But for years I couldn’t write about it. I couldn’t write about anything. So you’ll have to forgive your mother for retelling old tales. If you’ve never lived through a natural disaster, you’ll never understand what it is to have to live through it. I pray that you never understand, Lily, but here’s a secret. If you do live through a natural disaster? You’ll still never fully understand what you’ve been through, and your mind will force you to relive it once a year, hoping that this time you can sift through the rubble of memory and piece some lesson to yourself back together from it.
The following is this year’s attempt for your mother to try to understand it. I hope, if nothing else, it provides you with some understanding about me.
To understand, you have to imagine spring. You have to imagine lushness everywhere, the buds bursting into blooms and leaves. You have to imagine you live in a town called the Druid City simply because of how lined its streets and landscapes are with thick, old beautiful trunks exploding into green.
You have to imagine skies bluer than an ocean in your dreams. You have to imagine birds dotting that blue, specks of black winging through, chirping. You have to imagine a day like any other, a slight warm breeze on your cheek but otherwise, nothing stirring. The day, as most days here, moves slowly and mostly still.
You have to imagine sturdy stone and vinyl siding homes with concrete basements lining your outer neighborhood. You have to imagine you live in something a little less sturdy, a duplex at the end of a cul-de-sac with no basement. It is quiet, shady because of the way the trees seem to shield it from the usually oppressive Southern sun. There’s an enormous oak in your front yard that drops its seeds and leaves onto your car. Despite how dry the ground usually is, you love looking out your window and up into its branches, seeing its life everywhere surrounding.
You have to imagine living down the road from a busy four-lane street called 15th, one bustling with brick businesses, large windows of glass looking out into the traffic. You have to imagine cars filled with people, driving to get this fast food item, that desired product, this desperately needed prescription at one of the pharmacies. Their cars are steel cases meant to protect their bodies, and the people scurry about, fearless and invulnerable, gathering things, things, things.
Pepper in some changing degrees–the stifling, sweat-dripping summer or the sweater-weather winter–and you pretty much have the picture of what it was to live in Tuscaloosa everyday prior to April 27, 2011 for me.
That day began like a cliche, a rerun of the previous others. Sure, there were television forecasters predicting rain, maybe a storm, maybe a series of storm cells that might generate funnel-producing winds. If you lived there, you’d have heard it all before. It would’ve been the background music to your life, the patriot song they play at the day’s broadcasting end, the chirping of the birds, the crooning of Lynyrd Skynyrd by beer-guzzling freshmen, the shouted prayers of “Roll Tide” for divine intervention on the football field in the sleepy college town you lived for years in.
You’d have looked into the sky for proof, and maybe you’d think, in your crazy carpetbagger professor mind, that maybe, just maybe, you heard less birds. But how would you measure it empirically to be sure? Was there a quantitative ratio of birdsong to safety? Maybe you’d notice it start to drizzle, and you’d think, damn sensationalistic Weather Channel. Maybe, as the hours got closer to the time the storm would hit, you’d notice the light pouring in from your front window was a bit sickeningly sweet, a tinge too green where it should been the blue you were used to. Even then, maybe you wouldn’t believe.
Maybe, in fact, you wouldn’t believe a thing until you heard on the newscast that you “should already be in your safe place,” and even then, maybe you’d laugh at yourself as you packed the cat into the carrier and put her in the bathtub. Maybe you’d remember the times you’d rushed down to the all brick laundry room, hiding alone in there with a backpack and a flashlight like a dumb Yankee, waiting for storm after storm that would never come, or would blow over into the neighboring poor trailer parks as it always did, as if the finger of God kept cruelly pointing at people it assumed didn’t have anything left to lose.
Maybe you’d start to hear, in the distance, banging you couldn’t understand, and the blood would drain from your face like the blue from the sky, and you would turn a shade of green. Maybe then you’d frantically reach out to your husband on campus, ask if he was okay, hear that he had to stick around for his scared students, then watch the power go out on your GChat so there were no more instant messages from him until it was over. Maybe you’d call everyone in your family, but wouldn’t be able to get a hold of anyone but your father who you were still on shaky terms with. He was supposed to fly in, visit later that week, but neither of you could know what would happen, that his flight–that almost all flights in–would be cancelled.
Maybe he’d tell you to pull the mattress over you, and you’d try to drag it off your bed and into the bathroom, but it wouldn’t fit through the hall, and you’d wonder, “How did we ever get this thing in here in the first place?” Maybe you’d grab couch cushions as a substitute, and when you lay your body in the bathtub with them pulled over you, any light still coming in would be blocked almost entirely. You’d think, “So this is what it’s like to lay in your own coffin.”
Then you’d cry. Then you’d hear the pounding that wouldn’t cease, first in your chest, then outside. Then that sound, that wrenching, breaking, slamming, twisting, snapping, crushing, smashing symphony. It is not like a train. It is not like a plane. It is not a sound you can describe to anyone who hasn’t heard it warping in their memory. Imagine the sound of wind, just wind, being strong enough to wrap a semi-truck around itself into the shape of a donut, punch tree branches into bricks, shatter every window simultaneously within a five mile radius, pick up all the chunks of your city and drop them in another an hour’s drive away.
You’d stop crying. You’d stop anything-ing. You might pray. You might say to God, “It’s okay. I can die now. And thank you, God, for my life.” You might go into a daze. You might feel whatever was alive in you being prepared to let go of its grip on living. You might feel your whole body, your whole soul, unclench. You might be filled with a strange, unearthly peace amidst the chaos and the panic, like whatever debris might be slammed through you, maybe a steel guardrail would impale you or a tree would crush your skull like it were an eggshell, and your skin would be paper to rip, your bones toothpicks to snap, all the pain of living would be gone, and it would be okay. You had your time. You fell in love. You wrote some poems. You went to school. You loved your family, even though that love was imperfect.
Even though the father who comforted you on the phone used to beat your mother then come into your room and tell you and your sister that your mother was faking it. That she would scream and wail into a wall to pretend she was being attacked, to frighten you and ruin his reputation. That you were afraid of both of them, but mostly afraid of this: That you didn’t know what you couldn’t see. This was the terror of the tornado, too. Unless you’re a storm chaser, you don’t see the funnel until later, on the news. You listen from your safe place, and you’re left with the most frightening tool of understanding: your imagination.
It is no wonder the poet Dean Young once wrote,
“We are clouds, and terrible things happen / in clouds.”
It is true what they say–that the eye of the storm is calm. It is all about the triple A’s: Anticipation and Aftermath, and how they will haunt your Anxiety. You will get up from your bathtub again, almost disappointed that you didn’t die because you were prepared to. You had readied your heart to let go, and when it still beats, you don’t know why. You can’t ever know.
You will walk through your livingroom as a zombie. You will open your front door and see those trees you love, but they no longer tickle the belly of the sky. Instead, they lay everywhere on the ground, carpeting the earth like a mass grave of spring. Their edges are jagged, their stumps leave sharp, misshapen spikes ripping at your vision, even when you close your eyes. There is debris still in the air, so it hurts a little to blink, to breathe. When you walk, there are nails everywhere, one of which will go up into the foot of your husband when you are walking around later everywhere because your car ran out of gas just before the storm, and for days, there aren’t gas stations open to fill it. And he can’t get the nail wound treated because the hospitals and doctors’ offices are too full to see him.
But before that, your husband will abandon the empty-tanked car at a gas station up the street, the closest he could get to you because of the downed trees and powerlines. He will crawl through the jungle on the ground to get to you, not believing, seeing how many bricks, basements, bathtubs, branches are everywhere, he will find you-you but your body. He will get to you, and he will not know you feel, in your mind, like just a body. You feel like your soul let go. You will sit at a table that night and eat the only thing in your freezer, the top tier to your wedding cake you had been saving for a one-year anniversary it wouldn’t make it to, now that there was no power. There wouldn’t be power for days–or clean water. You rely on the kindness of strangers, their bottled beverages coming around every few days on trucks from across the country, but that would be later, too.
That night, you eat your cake, and you listen as a radio calls out the names of the missing. So many names. So many families hoping and praying and despairing and hunting. You don’t understand why one of those names doesn’t belong to you.
Somehow, that night, you sleep, even though, without power, your husband can’t wear the machine that helps him breathe, and so his snores cut through you because every loud sound now, for days, for years, maybe for the rest of your life, will cause you to jump, get edgy, irritable. You will not label this PTSD until a year later; after all, that designation belongs to valiant people like soldiers who fought to protect a country and were haunted by the things they’d seen. You fought to protect yourself and your cat in a bathtub, and so you won’t feel entitled to your fear, your sorrow, your newfound raw sense of everpresent vulnerability.
You will get up that morning before your husband has woken, and you will walk for hours, for miles, to see the rubble before they’ve sent in crews of workers, military, to clean it up, to keep people from ogling or looting. Later, your husband will speak disparagingly of the lookie-loos and the rubber-neckers, but you’ll know it wasn’t a tourist’s choice to walk through, looking, but a mental compulsion, an urgent employment. You’ll know you were taking inventory.
You’ll know you were counting stumps and trying to reorient your mind to a neighborhood and set of streets that lost every identifying marker. Your home will have become a foreign country. Some of the stop signs or street signs were twisted metal lopped off in the middle and plunged into other areas entirely. 12% of the city will be gone, lying in heaps of brick and glass and nails and boards and sleeves without arms and dolls without owners and dishes without dinners. Cars in parking lots have been flipped over like matchbox toys. Glass is everywhere, reflecting you looking at its shards.
You’ll know, secretly, that you are scouring the piles for bodies. It’s sick, but there you are: scanning for limbs. Your imagination has told you that every broken building contains, amongst its rubble, corpses. You are sick to your stomach with imagining. It needs to be made real. You need to see it. You can’t get past it until the reality matches the dark twisting machinations of your repulsive fantasies. You will see people helping people–you will be a person who is helped–and all of that will not register until much later. Maybe you grew up in Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood, literally as a Pittsburgher, and you still can’t bring yourself to follow his advice and “look for the helpers,” the heroes. Hero-hunting is for those who aren’t haunted.
Maybe you are sick with grief for strangers, but maybe, in more likelihood, you are looking for your own body. Maybe you can’t wrap your mind–like a door around a tree–around the thought that you were left alive. The counts on the radio rise, and you were spared. You can’t understand why. You have wasted so much time watching TV. You have spent countless hours in the bathroom, pissing. You have helped no one, done nothing special with your life. Why were there lovers and mothers and babies and caretakers dead and gone and you, left still with your fully-functioning body?
You will feel like the stump of the beautiful tree that once shaded the duplex where you lived. The other half of that duplex you lived in? Destroyed. There is a tree in your neighbor’s car, where trees should never be. They have lost windows. Safety. You have lost almost nothing, literally. Some roof tiles. The next duplex over? Levelled to the ground. Gone. As if it were Never There. You were a stone’s throw from total annihilation, as with every other tornado survivor. The winds pick their victims indiscriminately. And you, for what feels like no reason, were passed over.
Even that tree stump would be haunted. You will call, months later, for an exterminator to come inspect the stump, because you’ve seen a few cockroaches skittering near it. (With all the trees down and many buildings, the insects were displaced, too, scattered from their original hidey holes.) The exterminator will spray that stump and what seems to be thousands of roaches will pour from its hole. They will cover your brown yard where grass could never grow again, and they will make a living, wriggling carpet. It is like something out of a horror show, you will think, only this is your life. And you should feel lucky, though you can’t bring yourself to for years, to live it.
“Survivor’s guilt,” your friend Wanda will label it for you. But guilt doesn’t cut it. Survivor’s grief. Survivor’s “I’m so sorry the world was stripped of your son or your daughter but was left with me.” Survivor’s depression. Survivor’s pressure to be something more than a person who wastes time, writing poetry, falling in love, loving your family, abusing your abusive memories by constantly revisiting them, watching TV, watching news coverage of other states’ storms and not helping, checking your Facebook feed every April 27 without knowing why because secretly, you need to be triggered. You need to be reminded.
And then, little Lily, there was you. And there wouldn’t be a you if there was an I in a heap. I wouldn’t be writing you these letters, explaining my pains so that you can try them on for size, so that you can try to understand what others who survive must go through. I wouldn’t be asking you, and I am, my dear, unfair of me as it may be, to be a helper if ever you’re in a situation like this. Your dad and I did, a year later, clear a rubble site so that new homes could be built there, and it was horrifying and liberating to do something towards changing the landscape for the better.
And Lily, it’s harder to nurse my survivor’s guilt now when I know that if I hadn’t lived, you wouldn’t either. I never question your right to be alive alongside me. I think it is pure grace that you were born in the spring.
I also never question your right to waste your time. I have heard, though I do not know who to attribute it to, the quotation,
“The time you enjoy wasting is not wasted time.”
And for you, my dear, I hope this is true. I hope you walk along tree lined streets, and their limbs shade you. I hope you see the green of the world blossoming, and you stop to pick a flower, maybe play a game of “They love me / They love me not” with the petals, but you always land on love. (Cheat if you have to. Count the stem, too.) I hope you own a home with a strong basement, and you scurry around in your car collecting things, things, things, some you need, some you don’t but want anyway, some you will give to others who might need them more than you. I hope you give of your heart to this world, and you understand that your life has purpose and a meaning that may be incomprehensible to you.
I have said it before, and I will say again, though I know it’s a lot of pressure on such a little girl: You have saved me. You have changed my life, in so many, many, many ways for the better. I adore you, and I hope we spend many wasted hours of your future together. I will enjoy wasting time anytime with you. And I will continue to grieve on April 27 for those who lost their sons and daughters, fathers and mothers, friends and families. I have to keep living and loving because they can’t. And it breaks my heart. And it mends it, too.
This was my Facebook status from yesterday, Lily:
Thank you for your lessons about life, Lily, too. Mostly this: That it goes on and becomes so much more meaningful than you ever expect it to.
- By Paducah, KY NWS office – http://www.crh.noaa.gov/pah/?n=evansvilletornado-nov.6,2005, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1323691