Thursday, April 28, 2011

Tornado Survivor, Never Victim

With this month of April, a month that according to the poets should be devoted to blooming posies and singing birds, going down in the record books as one of the worst tornado seasons ever in the United States, my heart breaks for those who are hard hit. My thoughts, my prayers, and my positive wishes are sent in their direction because I know, with the stark and harsh reality that only another tornado survivor knows, what they must be feeling.

I don't like the word "victim". Even when my own losses were new and fresh, I refused to be classed as a "victim". I am and was a survivor.

In another April some years ago, I was a sassy thirteen year-old girl living in a trailer park on the edge of a small Missouri town. I was still an outlander, new to the region from the more urban setting of my birth, and I knew very little about tornadoes. That changed very fast.

When I look at the scenes of destruction and devastation, I can't help but flashback to that terrible night when my mother, brother, and I walked back into the ruins of the trailer park to look for my father. Thanks to a premonition - the women of my family are prone to having The Sight or some measure of it - my mother took us just far enough out of the main path of the storm, moments before it hit, to a laundromat. When we drove just over a mile after the fury of the storm passed, we returned with trepidation and fear because we could see, blocks distant, that nothing remained of the place we called home.

My father had been getting ready to leave for his night shift job as a USDA poultry inspector at an area plant so he stayed home and he stood in my bedroom, at the window that faced west, and saw the monster tornado that broke that home into pieces. With no time remaining to run or leave, he faced it with more courage than I think I might summon but since I am very much my father's daughter, maybe I could. I hope that I never have to find out. He survived the storm and despite his injuries, he walked out of the rubble to search for us.

I can't describe in a single blog post how it felt to walk into the silent devastation, to jerk my younger brother away from the live power lines that still hissed and flashed fire like some kind of terrible snakes, or to scream out for my daddy until my mother hushed me. I can't begin to explain how it felt to kneel in the mud in front of where it seemed I had lived until a few minutes earlier praying, not in just a few words. When the moment came when my father returned, walking down the debris strewn road and my mother ran screaming into his arms, television cameras filmed our reunion. I have that footage stored on my desktop computer but even now it is difficult to watch.

That night, I walked out of there owning the clothes that I stood up in - Levi jeans and a T-shirt. Over the next days and weeks, we scrabbled through the mess that remained searching for what few possessions we could salvage. I have enough stories, good and bad, to fill the pages of a book but it is one I have not yet attempted to write and I don't know if I ever will. Suffice it to say that I saw the very best of human nature and also the worst.

There was a photograph taken of my brother and I, unaware as we picked through the destruction that ran first in the local newspaper with the caption "God Save The Children" and then went worldwide over the AP wires. Relatives around the country and even in Europe saw that photograph. Somewhere I have a copy but I seldom look at it. I don't need to - it is engrained on my soul.

I still live in tornado alley and in recent years, more than one tornado has come too close for comfort. In watching the recent destruction, a toll added to daily, I can only offer this to those affected - no matter how dark it seems now, you will survive. All the horror and loss than you endure will make you stronger in the long run and although you may think you will never get past this, someday you will but you will be changed forever.

I know that I was and am.
All my thoughts, prayers, hopes, and wishes go out to everyone affected by the spring 2011 tornadoes and to anyone who, like me, is a tornado survivor. I learned early to prefer that term to "tornado victim".

I am a survivor.

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