Thursday, June 05, 2008

Of Tootsie Rolls and Gray Hair

It's been two weeks to the day, nearly to the hour, since the tornado ripped through our town to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars in damages. And that amount includes only those things upon which we can place a monetary value. It doesn't begin to address other losses we've incurred. For some of us, that loss is a sense of security. Our young kids are frightened. They can't sleep. They don't want to be too far from Mom or Dad. My own Bella, usually one of the most joyful kids you could imagine, is suddenly fixated with death and dying. She doesn't want to die, and the only thing I could say that finally brought her peace is that if it was time for her to go, the tornado would have taken her. Clearly, I told her, there's more in store for her. She thought about that, and her 7-year-old brain wrapped itself around the idea that life has purpose, and until she achieves that purpose, she's here for the duration. Good enough.

For others, that loss comes in the form of personal momentos that were swept up and scattered, never to be returned. How can we put a price on that lost family photo, the one where all the kids are wearing ornery expressions because they don't want to be sitting there in front of the camera? Or the one of a beloved parent, now long dead? Maybe the keepsake isn't a photo, but a hair ribbon. A love letter, perhaps.

Regardless of the extent of damage to our homes and businesses, all of us here in Windsor have lost something. As days pass and we reconnect with friends, make sure they're okay, offer assistance, those of us who do not live in the disaster zone can temper our loss with the idea that we're luckier than many. And there is truth in that. But while we're feeling grateful, I think it's imperative to recognize that the fact that we still have our houses, our belongings, our families, doesn't dis-count the other fact: Our lives were turned upside down on May 22, and it will take time to recover.

This became crystal clear to me when I was in the check-out lane at King Soopers last week. The cashier asked how I was, and without giving it a thought, I replied, "Well, it's a good day when foot-long Tootsie Rolls are on sale and there are no tornadoes." Then I simply stared at her, amazed that such a sentence even formed itself in my brain. "Wow," I said. "Have my standards lowered!" And we laughed, but the humor didn't hide what was left unsaid: What I once took for granted was no longer a given.

I'm disorganized, easily flustered, incredibly forgetful. I'll open my mouth to say something and before the words come out, the thought has left me. I don't like this at all. But I also know I'm not alone in my stumbling, fumbling days. Many of my friends are experiencing the same thing. There's a sense of disconnect, and when we try to focus on something, our thoughts drift. It's an odd feeling to have that happen, especially if you're usually an organized, get-it-done type of person.

And many, many of us are dealing with our insurance companies, making appointments, getting estimates...our days are really interrupted and disjointed. And even when the insurance company comes through and helps us rebuild and repair, it's stressful. I am not exaggerating in any way when I say that I've had more gray hair appear on my head in the last 2 weeks than ever before. I wake up each morning, and there they are, a few more strands. I had my hair pulled back last week, and Tucker thought it was awesome. "Woah, Mom! You have, like, Wolverine gray hair!" For your viewing pleasure, I've posted an illustration of Wolverine so you can see what Tuck means. See those black wingy things? Imagine them gray, and that's what Tuck thinks I look like. Now, he's also the kid who asked me if I was going through a midlife crisis last year when I bought a pair of white sneakers with little silver-sequined stars on the outside of them, so maybe he isn't the best judge. But take it for what it's worth. Now I'm an X-Man in midlife crisis. (And for the record, I bought those shoes because they were cheap.)

At any rate, we plug away with each day, hopefully feeling a sense of normalcy gradually replace this murkiness. I really just wanted to reach out and let people know that we should feel grateful, yes. But we should also allow ourselves time to feel sad. We all lost something two weeks ago. Big or small, major or minor, we lost.

So whatever it Tootsie Rolls or a day of sunshine (remember sunshine?)...find your joy where you can.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Tornado tore out our buildings, trees, but not our hearts

We take photo after photo, intent on capturing the extent of the damage wrought upon our community by a tornado that chose Windsor as its rest stop. We want to remember as intensely as we’d like to forget. And somewhere in between those two desires is the reality of life here, from this point on.

But photos capture only images, expressions. They show us what’s gone, what’s ruined, what’s forever changed. But they can’t show what I’ve seen here these past four days, since power went out around 11:47 a.m. on a day no one here will ever forget.

They can’t show you our spirit.

Sixteen thousand people live in Windsor, a community that in recent years has been experiencing growing pains as it evolves from being a rural region to one that is home to industry and energy resources. I’ve felt exasperation at some of the choices my town has made as it struggles to decide who it wants to be. I have never held back on calling the shots as I see them.

But what I’ve seen since Thursday’s tornado wreaked its havoc to the tune of tens (hundreds?) of millions of dollars in damage is like nothing I’ve ever been a part of. Past frustrations aside, I am proud to call Windsor home, and I’m proud of the people who live next door to me, down the street, across town.

The F3/F4 tornado and its accompanying hail damaged more properties than I know. It stole the homes of hundreds of people, leaving them with little to nothing. It killed beloved pets as well as one war veteran who tried to outrun the funnel in what would be a valiant last stand. It has forever changed the lives of every citizen, some more than others. But unlike the homes and businesses, the historic buildings and century-old trees, it hasn’t torn us apart. If anything, this disaster has brought out the best in my little community.

The response to this sudden emergency has been nothing short of phenomenal. The volunteer emergency response teams from all over the region have dropped their own lives to help us get on with ours. The National Guard, the governor, Xcel Energy…they have reacted with such clarity of purpose and commitment that I couldn’t be more impressed.

And then there are the local businesses and organizations. Our recreation department was turned into a command center, and I have never seen the likes of such dedication. “Whatever you need, you come to your rec department and we will help you,” the director promised. So great was the turnout for individual volunteers that by noon that day, they had all the volunteers they could use at that point. Our police and fire departments have answered the call of duty and worked 24/7 to help Windsor remain safe in what has turned out to be a most vulnerable time. Loodles, a newly established coffee shop, provided free coffee to everyone all day, for days on end. Our local 7-11 distributed milk, water, bread and other staples free of charge. And if you didn’t have them in hand as you walked out the door, the employees encouraged you to take some. If you already had some, they told you to take more. I’m sure there were other instances of goodwill throughout town that I don’t even know about.

With each passing day, Windsor gets a little cleaner. People smile a little easier (though I’m sure we will remain paranoid over every little storm for months to come). A drive down Garden Drive, Cornerstone Drive, or Hwy. 257 shows you what these people are made of as neighbors help neighbors, strangers help strangers, and everyone shares a common goal: To pick up the pieces of the past so that we can move forward into the future.

I’ve driven down the “disaster area” streets several times. The devastation is mind boggling. My entire body is sore from struggling against the 130+-mph winds as I collected my children from the storm. Mentally and physically, I’m exhausted. Drained. And I’m one of the luckier ones. Throughout this ordeal, I managed to remain composed and focused, in “mom mode,” as my siblings call it. But all composure crumbled as I slowly took in the sights along Hwy. 257. I saw houses one couldn’t really describe as “standing” any longer. Overturned pickup trucks, demolished businesses. I would liken it to images I’ve seen of war zones.

But what finally broke through my stoicism was the sight of a woman and her family, standing in what I assumed was once her kitchen. There were no outside walls, only the crumbled ruins of inner walls and rooms. And as twilight fell upon the outskirts of this shattered town, this woman was rummaging through her cupboards, trying to salvage what little might be left inside. My heart just ached for her. Our immediate world had fallen apart in less than fifteen minutes, but here was someone finding purpose in the simple act of finding…what? A frying pan, maybe? A colander? A bag of rice? It seemed absurd and totally logical at the same time. Though I didn’t know her, for that instant, I loved this woman, just for doing the best she could for her family at a time when they most needed her to be strong.

Windsor will slowly rebuild. Our streets will no longer be lovingly cradled by the old trees that link us to our past, but they will still take us from here to there. We will forever be reminded of an event we’d rather forget as we take those streets through town and say “Remember when the flour mill stood there?” or any number of similar remarks. We can never go back to the way we once were.

But if what I’ve seen happen here is any indication of the way we are now, we’re headed in the right direction.

Please feel free to post your comments here...share this blog with others who went through this experience. Some days, it's enough just to be reminded that you're not alone.