"When you arise in the morning, think of what a precious privilege it is to be alive - to breathe, to think, to enjoy, to love." ~Marcus Aurelius
We’d spent the early evening at the farmers market in Green Bay and I was in a foul mood for most of it. It was one of those stupid unnecessary conversations, turned arguments on our way that triggered it all. Well, by the time we left to head home, I was feeling much more relaxed.
Fifteen minutes into our hour drive, my neighbor calls informing us that we are to head to the basement immediately, there’s been a tornado spotted in our area. Now, she’s been a little worried about our crazy, unpredictable weather since she moved from Colorado two months prior. So part of me brushes it off. I let her know we’re about 45 minutes from home anyway. Once we hang up, my husband asks what that was all about. So I relay the information and mostly shrug it off. The sky is light grey, looks like rain coming maybe.
Five minutes pass and I get a little worried as I think about her warning. Thankful for modern technology in this moment, driving on a highway past farms, I check out accuweather.com on my cell phone. This is my reliable source when the weather gets sketchy! It says by our house, SEVERE THUNDERSTORM WARNING. I want to know more than that if the area between where we are and home is safe to continue traveling. So I have it check out my current location. TORNADO WARNING. Eek! Except, I’m not seeing anything too terribly scary yet. So I let my husband know and begin checking out the sky everywhere. Within a matter of a few very short minutes, the sky goes from light grey to dark cloudy grey to dark green/grey.
As a kid, growing up in Wisconsin, I always knew to fear that ucky green grey tinted dark sky. So pretty instantaneously, I get a little knot in my stomach. As I’m sitting in the second row behind my husband and next to my little one in her car seat, I try to lighten the tense mood in the car now as she looks at me with an almost knowing look. I start singing and I am rewarded with a smile. I keep singing but am scanning the sky wildly. “Maybe we should pull over. Get off the road, find a farm house to go to,” I offer questioningly. “I don’t see anything,” he responds like many men would. Within moments, the wind picks up, but unlike a windy day, where you hear it whistle by you, it sounds as though we are IN the wind. It roars and we notice things flying all over, at us, and I begin to shake. Our vehicle seems a little out of control, like we’re gonna get carried away at any second. I look over at my daughter, who is nine months, see her just watching me intently, and I realize my hand that was resting across her lap, is now firmly covering her and my hand is gripping her little thigh.
“I’m sorry we fought,” I blurt out. “It was stupid. I said some mean things and I’m sorry baby.”
“I’m sorry too. We just both got worked up over nothing. I love you,” my husband told me sweetly.
I wondered if this is what people do moments before they know they’re gonna die because they aren’t sure if they’ll ever get a chance to right their wrongs. Or if they worry that when they face their creator, he will be mad that they treated another person disrespectfully. So much unknown, but something about confession felt right in that moment. It felt innate.
He asks me if I think he should just pull us over under an overpass and I suddenly see a gas station less than a mile ahead, just off of the road. Try to get there, I urge him, terrified. I look to the left and see a tower that’s normally lit with red blinking lights, is blaring WHITE blinking lights. This only serves to confirm the real danger and increase my anxiety at the moment. It feels like forever as we’re trying to keep driving safely and get to a safer location, one with more stability than my vehicle. Things flying past us, the loud roar of the wind, the wobbly feel to the car, my sweet baby girl next to me unaware of the severity of this moment. Enough to make anyone sick. As we pull off the highway, I lunge into the front seat to grab her Ergo carrier and strap it to me as quickly as I can maneuver with these clumsy hands tripping me up. The moment we pull in, I try to break her free of her car seat, but am shaking so badly, that it takes much longer than I want it to. I finally get her unhinged and pull her to me, wasting no time getting out of the vehicle and into the building. Upon walking in, seeing others who’d done the same, their unease, uncertainty at what was about to come, I felt the choke in my throat and I noticed just how severely I was shaking. My stomach clenched, baby snug up to me, we headed towards the bathroom.
Eight women and four men, aged somewhere from thirty to eighty are standing near the bathroom, many people on their phones, either texting or talking with someone who they obviously care for. Everyone is getting updates on where the tornado is. Are we gonna be safe? Or are we gonna face the scariest moment of all of our lives (with exception of the eldest man who looks seasoned with the balance of a man who’s made quick and certain decisions without the luxury of being able to question them. He looks as though at one time, he lived in circumstances that caused him to face fear day in and day out, though when he was a much younger man, possibly in World War II).
“It’s coming right to where we are?”
“Another tornado is hitting in Krakow?”
“How many are there?”
As I eavesdrop on these strangers conversations, my eyes get wide and show their fear only to my husband, or so I think.
“You must be related to my wife!” the old man observes out loud.
“Excuse me?” I ask confused once I realize he’s talking to me. At a time like this, what could be final minutes with my husband and baby, this man is making physical comparisons? It seems absurd and a I’m not sure why I’m feeling a bit annoyed that he’s intruding on “our” time.
“You both have the same frightened look,” he says with a smile.
It dawns on me that he too is trying to bring comfort and a lightness to a tense moment, just as I was minutes earlier with my little girl. I’m instantly ashamed of my self centeredness. It was the same me I’ve noticed emerge occasionally when a stranger at the grocery store strikes up a conversation. I sometimes wonder what their ulterior motive is. I know the answer before I ask it. I know they’re simply friendly people, ones who love creating connections with fellow beings. But for one reason or another, I have found myself annoyed at them or doing what I can to “shake them” as quickly as possible. Not every time, but at least half of the time this happens. And it’s as low as half because I’m aware of this flaw and dislike what it must mean about me. As of recent, I’ve started trying to combat this flaw by being proactive when this fear or annoyance presents itself. I’ll expound on my answers to their questions or ask many of my own. In a couple instances, I’ve been the one to initiate the conversations altogether. And you know what? It’s pleasant for the most part, these strangers willing to share their time and personal lives with me. Suddenly I’m reminiscent of a different era, a time when each person was not their own island, but rather a part of the greater community at hand. It almost makes me want to cry because I didn’t know how much I missed people caring about each other, for no other reason than that they are people. It’s a beautiful thing that makes me sad because it’s so lost. And this sweet old man just reminded me of all that.
I smile and feel his wisdom and humor ease over me a bit! I let him know that it IS really scary out there, as I glance at his wife standing between him and the bathroom doors looking prepared for the worst. But I know that he’s not shaken. I’m grateful for this wonderful soul in a moment like this, comforted by his presence and glad to have simply met him.
Over my shoulder, someone on their phone says something about tornado coming RIGHT for us, very near, and urges everyone to the bathroom. As we shuffle to the bathroom, my husband, who I know doesn’t want to or feel a need to go in but will because he knows I want him to, pauses wondering aloud if he should really be heading into the women's bathroom with us. A woman ahead of us on her way in remarks with a wink, “It’s fine! Pretend we’re at a concert”. We all laugh and head on in. The elderly man remains outside the doors, as though he’s our guardian.
The level of anxiety in my heart, growing by the second, as I stand beside my husband, my baby girl attached to me, quiet and face to face with strangers, waiting...just waiting is a miserable feeling. The minutes pass and as my sweet girl has been patient for a good long time, that time has ended. She’s hungry and lucky for me, my body still provides the main source of her food. So, as I turn toward my husband, with my daughter still in the carrier, I raise my shirt and she dives full speed two inches ahead. She is completely satisfied and I’m proud that I can bring her comfort in what may be final moments before the unknown happens. Normally, I would find a more private place or have a blanket on hand (for one reason or another I wish not to debate), but...desperate times call for desperate measures (though I know feeding her so publicly isn’t anything near desperate or obscene). With these women all older than me by a couple years or more, I know that most of them are probably mothers and understand this need and bond without hesitation.
In the nervous quiet of this place and this moment, I keep looking at my husband, feeling the choke in my throat that you feel when you think you might get sick or cry. As the minutes pass and the alerts from friends, family and trusted weather sources roll in, we begin to get the sense that we’re likely going to be just fine! And as my little one finishes up eating and everyone’s feeling relief, I get many smiles from the other women. With color returning to normal on so many faces, one by one, people staggering out of the women's bathroom, we follow suit as the last to leave. As we enter the main part of the gas station, I immediately see the old man, just where we left him, standing guard. He sends me a smile and I exhale with ease. For some reason, seeing him, his years, his steadiness, seems to infuse me with an air of confidence that everything, not just in this moment, but weathered by time and life will be okay.
Still nervous, I agree to face the elements, getting back on the road to head home. Hoping we still have a home that’s standing, my mind begins to race towards thought of all that I have and am grateful for in this moment. Suddenly realizing how for granted I take this gift of family, the comfort of home, or the clothes in my closet, I feel ashamed. The choke in my throat is back and threatens to expose my emotions. I look out the window to steel away for a moment. I look at the black and fiery orange sky and marvel at the vibrancy and contrast of it all. I see trees, some stripped of a few branches and am grateful for their beauty and strength. As we drive down the winding road with the still fully in tact cornfield rising up on one side and the open grassy plain on the other, I’m more and more convinced that everything will be alright upon arriving home. As we pass the lakes by our house, I notice how calm and glassy they are, reflecting the beautiful sky above. Feeling so grateful to see such a sight, knowing things could have turned out much differently and have for so many people, I begin to weep. I weep for the ones who’ve lost so much in other storms this summer. I weep for those who’ve lost loved ones or precious belongings documenting a life together. I weep for those who won’t get to see the sun low in the sky in the morning, the promise of another faithful day, full of hope and goodness ahead! I’m grateful that I can count on that after a long night of darkness, the light will come and if I’m so lucky, I will have breath to breathe, people to love, a purpose to fulfill and hopefully coffee to drink. My heart is exploding, so I finally release the choke in my throat, let the excess overflow, tears pouring out of my eyes, dripping down my cheeks. I am humbled on this stormy night.
*Written from events of August 21, 2013
*Written from events of August 21, 2013