Tuesday, May 03, 2016

The Things That Change

There are few weather events that fill me with paralyzing terror the way tornadoes do.

I remember a day in an August long ago. I think I was eleven. It was a Thursday and we had to go to church that evening. I was playing at a friend's house that afternoon and it was time to go home. My friend's house was on the next street over from mine, not really far. I remember opening her front door and seeing the blackest clouds I had ever seen. I ran home, not wanting to be caught in the rain that I knew was coming. I walked into my front door, my mother said "good, let's go" and herded my brother and I into the garage, and then she opened the garage door. In the space of time it took me to walk in through the front door and out through the garage, the tree in front of our house was on the ground, bent over by the fierce wind. That black cloud was overhead and my mom made the decision not to drive to church after all.

This was an odd storm. All the neighbors were outside talking about the wind, that came and went, and the blackness that made the summer evening look almost like night. I remember we played outside with a friend who lived on our street while everyone stood around and discussed this unusual storm. We each had our favorite stuffed animals. Suddenly, my brother looked up with an expression of absolute fear that I never want to see on his, or anybody's, face ever again. We asked what was wrong and he just pointed behind us. The sky turned eerie green, the funnel cloud formed right over the house at the top of the street as we watched. Shingles flew everywhere.

We ran for it, into our house and into the pantry: a tiny room under the staircase with no windows or outside walls. I have no idea what the adults were doing. My mom and our friend's mom found us in the pantry. The rain was falling now. They said it was safe to come out. Apparently, that funnel touched and left. We were commended for our hiding place and for knowing what to do. My father came home from work shortly afterwards, bringing the mailbox inside with him because he found it rolling down the street.

That image - that ominous green cloud that touched the roof of the house beneath it, the brown cloud of dust gathering around it - was burned into my brain. This particular funnel wasn't bad as funnels go, but tell that to an eleven-year-old who was mere yards away when it touched. Every time I heard of a tornado even remotely in my area, I was overcome with fear. There were two more cyclones that touched the ground within my eyesight since, all of them relatively minor.

Eleven years later in April - so almost exactly 14 years ago - the worst tornado in Maryland history touched down some 20 miles away. Interestingly, the main thing I remember about that storm was that my father and I were driving to Tennessee in the morning for my great-grandmother's funeral and we decided not to drive through that town. It was somewhere in the Carolinas, when we stopped for gas and food, that we caught a news report giving that cyclone an F5 rank. It was later changed to an F4. This one is significant in my life not because I saw it, but because I now live in the neighborhood that was in that F4's path. There was another small funnel the week after we moved in, actually. I remember everyone standing in front of the hardware store with their phones pointed at the eerie green sky as the funnel formed. That one didn't actually hit ground until a bit later, but it was trying. You could see the cloud twist downward and a finger rising up from the ground to meet it, only they didn't connect just yet. It brings my total of observed funnel clouds to four.

Anyway, we had a tornado warning last night. A warning means the clouds are turning and conditions are right for funnels to form. The rotation was less than 10 miles away. Considering that the F4 was on the ground for 24 miles, less than 10 is really nothing. I don't know if a tornado actually touched anywhere last night, but that's not the point.

In my attempt to conquer the crippling fear that tornadoes have over me, I will usually wait. I will hear about a tornado in the area, or get the warnings on my phone that say "take shelter now," and I'll move to a window and watch. And wait. And if I see a funnel forming, then I'll take shelter. For an actual funnel that I see, not just a warning. Maybe this isn't smart, but it's really what keeps me able to function and think clearly when storms roll through because, before I started doing this, they would reduce me to a shivering, sobbing heap.

Last night was different. My husband was at rehearsal. My dad had just left, after babysitting all day, for his own rehearsal. I got out of the bathroom and my husband was calling. This is actually unusual - that he calls, particularly when I know he's at rehearsal and would be for several hours. I didn't take my phone into the bathroom and it's constantly on silent lest it rings or beeps or buzzes and wakes the baby so I completely missed the warning on my phone to seek shelter now. I probably wouldn't have seen it at all if my husband hadn't called (though my dad did text about 10 minutes later). This time, instead of running to the window and watching the sky, I gathered Elora's socks, a couple toys, a blanket, my water bottle, and a flash light and took the baby down to the basement. We weren't in an interior, windowless room, but I wasn't right in front of the glass doors either and could easily move to one in a second.

And that's what changes. It wasn't just me. It wasn't just me and the cats. It was me and her and taking care of her is the most important job I have ever had and will ever have. Even more important than heading upstairs to collect the one cat who didn't follow us to the basement. I wasn't a shivering, sobbing heap either, though I'm sure an observer would say I was obviously agitated and anxious. We got through just fine and, 30 minutes later when the warning expired, we went back upstairs and watched a movie and practiced standing and had a fine evening. I don't think taking the warning seriously was overreacting in the least.

It got me thinking that there were so many things I would have done differently if I was alone last night. My regular way of dealing with these things had to change. And I think I got through alright.

No comments :