The hardest thing I’ve ever written

Disclaimer: This is not a feel-good post.

There are so many things to write about, the least important of which being the excellent smoothie I just ate. But my hunch is that smoothie recipes would be much easier to recap than the last almost-two weeks, because the last almost-two weeks have been, in a hyphenated word, life-changing. Unfortunately for us all, though there are lots of blogs about smoothies, this isn’t one of them.

Do you want to hear about the tornadoes? I’m betting you do, unless you were there, because everyone who wasn’t there wants enough details to feel like they were and everyone who was wants to turn off the news already and just forget about it for a little while. I’m sorry to say this blog post won’t afford you that luxury if you were, in fact, there, because it’s something that needs documenting. The truth is, if you were there, 5:13 pm changed your life that Wednesday, too. I know it.

I’m going to go ahead and let you know that my friends, my apartment, and my own self were just fine, if being intact is the same thing as being just fine, which I’m beginning to see isn’t the case. My city, on the other hand, was not, and I have a feeling all of the intact people and homes in Tuscaloosa won’t feel fine for quite some time.

What happened to me is a very tame story compared to the thousands of people who are attempting to sort out their lives in the face of loss right now, but my story is the only one I have to tell. This is what went down: By God’s gracious and loving hand, I didn’t go home, even though I’d planned to.

Instead, when my teacher canceled class (due to a sore throat, not the weather, even though everyone else’s teachers were watching the Weather Channel), I got lunch with my friends and headed to Coston’s dorm room to work out. The walk there was quite blustery and we all knew bad weather was on the horizon, but I had a lab test the next day (college speak for you should be freaking out) and two finals the following Monday and honestly, I just didn’t have any mind space to devote to the wind. In the middle of working out, Coston convinced us that despite the weatherman’s claim that “it’s going to completely miss Tuscaloosa,” we should go sit under the concrete stairwell in the hallway. Let me go ahead and pause to give Coston thanks and thanks and thanks. The lad protected us then and proceeded to stand up and go before us in the days ahead. There were several times when I was scared over the course of the next three days, but never terrified because he was always figuring it out for us. Let me also say that the weatherman didn’t have all his ducks in a row.

We spent the night after the tornado in Coston’s dorm, without power and without really understanding what had happened. What we knew was that it had been bigger than we’d ever imagined, and even in the light of the day, we wouldn’t be able to see it all. We still haven’t. Communication was limited because everyone’s mommies wanted to know they were safe, and nobody had power to charge anything. We got snippets of information from Facebook, but then all of our phones and computers died and we played Liverpool Rummy and prayed that our apartment was still standing. We’d heard it wasn’t.

The next morning we decided to make the trek to our apartment complex. We had to go completely around town because the street from campus to our home had been hit, though we didn’t know the magnitude of the damage. It took us two hours to get to a place where we could park and walk to our apartments- and much to our relief, the rumors were just that. Our apartment complex had been damaged, but it was not flattened, like we heard, and the only thing we lost was our welcome mat. It was a beautiful blessing, but it felt undeserved, because what we realized was that the tornado had wiped out entire neighborhoods 200 yards away.

I know it’s small, but I took this on my balcony. You can see the destruction in the distance.

Things were still surreal, as we grabbed tuna and peanut butter and clean underwear and jammed them into bags we could carry back to the car. We spent the rest of the day making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to hand out to those without food. And then- we went back. And I wasn’t prepared. You see, we’d gone around the destruction that morning. And that night, we went through it. They only let us through because we were gathering clothes we’d been collecting at the apartment for our clothes pantry, and now seemed like a great time to donate them. As we drove down the road, the sun set on droves of people who were wandering up and down the road, their lives about them in bricks and boards and baby dolls in the dirt. It was too soon for them to have been directed to the shelters that were being set up, but the looks on their faces said they had already seen too much. I didn’t see anger, but I saw sadness that can’t be described. I saw worry and aching and loss settling over them like a blanket protecting them in the face of the cold front ushered in by the tornado. And then I arrived at my home a couple hundred feet away, where all of my stuff was so untouched that I began to feel dirty for being spared because it wasn’t fair. And then, I sobbed sobering tears because I couldn’t change what had happened.

A cell phone picture- the green building to the right of the water tower is my apartment.

After that, we bounced around from place to place. The apartment wasn’t safe because, well, it had no power and was a few feet away from desperate, desperate people. We took a vacation to the lake (one that was so refreshing and healing that I promise I’ll write about it), and then came back and did what we could to ease the looks on those faces. The most heartbreaking part? The people at the shelter keep their eyes down. My heart was crying to them: It happened to me, too. I sort of get it. Look at me. I promise I’m not looking down at you.

That’s my story. I’ve learned more in the past 10 days than I ever did in biology. I learned again that life isn’t fair, a lesson that is seemingly always seen through the lens of pain. I learned that the things I devote myself to, the things that seem so important, just aren’t . Lab tests, working out, limiting ice cream consumption, summer jobs- these things are fine to spend time on, but man, when there’s wind coming at you, it’s that you’re clasping the hand of your best friend, it’s that your mom has to get a hold of you so she can breathe again, it’s walking over rubble to give to a stranger, even if all you have to offer is a peanut butter sandwich and a prayer. It’s praying even when you haven’t a clue what to say. It’s surrendering to the will of God, and simply acting in obedience moment by moment, even though every fiber of you craves to know what’s next.

That hour under the stairwell changed my life, in ways I can count and see and ways I haven’t yet discovered. It rocked my city and her people, but it awakened the spirit of the Lord throughout her streets, and at the end of the day, I know each and every one of us can further the Kingdom in the following weeks and months because our God is bigger than tornadoes, and he’s given us a great big platform to demonstrate His love. And so, painful as it was, we’re still smiling.

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4 thoughts on “The hardest thing I’ve ever written

  1. Beautiful entry. It’s so hard to come to terms with the fact that it could’ve destroyed your home—but it didn’t. I’ve felt that guilt before…but you’re doing a wonderful thing by reaching out to those around you. Sending prayers and happiness your way from Birmingham 🙂

  2. Your writing is vivid and from the heart. It made me cry and makes me feel guilty that I’m not there in my beloved Tuscaloosa. I’ve felt guilty since the storm that I wasn’t there with my family and friends. Thank you for what you are doing. You are the face and hands of Christ to so many in need. God bless you my dear.

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