Dancing Among the Ruins

2 1/2 weeks. 16 days to be exact. 16 days ago, it was a normal day. Life was comfortable. Everything was as it’s always been. The sun rose, and earth was still spinning. But 16 days ago, around 2:45pm on Monday April 28th, for the only city that’s ever been home to me, the earth seemed to stop spinning. Life was interrupted. Chaos ensued. And what seemed to be a normal day, turned into a nightmare.

In the days leading up to that horrid Monday, I had seen some buzz on social media about possible tornadoes hitting Tupelo, but I never really gave those warnings a second thought. I recalled all those days we were sent in the hall during school for tornado warnings and escaped without any visible damage anywhere, as if it was only a drill. I remembered all the times as kids we got into our storm shelter, only to emerge an hour later without anything happening. Sure, I had seen the power of tornadoes that had ripped through other cities. I had witnessed the reality of the paths of destruction they leave behind when I helped cleanup in Smithville. But that was different. Because things like that happen other places, but they never happen to my hometown. My city has always come out of storms unscathed. But on April 28th, the victim was my city. The only city I’ve ever called home.

But more than it being my city that was devastated, it was my family. Not in a metaphorical “we’re all family here” sense. My actual, physical family. As I sat in my dorm in Nashville looking through pictures on Twitter of all the destruction, I became really uneasy when I noticed how close these pictures of destroyed building were to my house. Just a little over a mile from my driveway. I finally got in touch with my mom, and found out they were all okay, and my mind began to relax a little. My heart was still breaking for the businesses that I saw were destroyed, but I could breathe again knowing my family was safe.

And then, about an hour later, I got my 2nd call of the semester that I never wanted to get from back home. When my mom began to talk, I knew something was wrong, and I knew she didn’t want to tell me. She knew it wasn’t fair to tell me over the  phone. It was finals week, and she knew I needed to be worried about different things. But she knew I had to know. With a broken heart and a soft tone, she gave me the news. “Anna Margaret, Mamaw and Papaw’s house was destroyed by the tornado, and they were inside when it hit. They’re being taken to the hospital, and they think both of Mamaw’s legs are broken. That’s all I know right now.” Destroyed? For the first time I can remember, I had no idea what destroyed meant. A tree fell on the house, destroyed? The windows are blown out, destroyed? Nothing is left of the house destroyed? I couldn’t fathom what I was hearing. The storms that never hit my hometown, just destroyed my own family’s home.

That’s what destroyed meant. It’s hard to put into words what it feels like to stand in the driveway of your grandparent’s house, and look at a pile of rubble. The house where summer days were spent jumping on the trampoline with water balloons and playing backyard ball, and nights were spent sleeping on the hideaway bed in the living room. The house where I sat on the counter from the time I could talk and “helped” Mamaw cook. The house where we spent every Monday night playing with Mamaw, and then hiding from my parents when they came to pick us up. The house where me and Scott would get in trouble for fighting and then beg Mamaw not to tell our parents. The house where we sat in the living room and played hot wheels and fought over who had the fastest car. The house we made a mess of, but never got in trouble because grandparents are fun like that. It’s the only house I’ve ever known as Mawmaw and Papaw’s house. The place I begged to go to because I knew it meant I would have a fun day. And in a matter of 30 seconds, the whole house was destroyed. Destroyed by the tornado I never could have imagined actually hitting Tupelo.

But as I stood in that driveway, hugging Mamaw with tears in my eye, I couldn’t help but be thankful. Because as awful as that pile of rubble looked, I knew my grandparents and young cousin were under that pile of rubble, and they survived. And I believe with all of my heart that it was by the grace of God that they survived. They sustained some minor injuries that will take time to heal, but they survived. And they’re still here for us to make new memories. In a new house. As we hugged that day and looked at the mess the tornado left behind, Mamaw commented, “It looks pretty awful, doesn’t it?” And I answered with the only thing I could think to say, “It sure does, but I’d rather be looking at this mess than a tombstone.”

16 days ago, life was as it’s always been. 16 days later, we have a new sense of normal.

Over the past few years, I’ve learned that every situation has a silver lining. Sometimes, you have to dig around through some rubble to find it, but it’s always there. And over the past 2 weeks, I have found some bright and shiny silver linings. Our house has gone from 4 people to 8. Mamaw, Papaw, and my 2 cousins, Britney and Brooke, who lived with them, have moved in to stay with us for a little while. And what a fun experience that has been so far.

I’ve gotten the chance to drive Mamaw to see her mother who is 96 years old 3 times in the past few days. That’s more times in a week that I’ve gotten to see my great-grandmother than I have in the past couple of years. And on those drives to see Mamaw Ruth, I’ve gotten to hear some cool stories I’ve never heard before. Like that my grandparents met at the skating rink when my grandmother was only 14 and my grandfather was 19. And that they had their wedding planned for Thanksgiving Day, but Papaw had a wreck and wouldn’t get married until he got his car fixed, so they didn’t get married until December 1st. And we have reminisced on things that me and Scott did that I had forgotten about. With me being 4 hours away 9 months out of the year, and Mamaw raising 2 teenage girls, quality time has been something that has been very scarce the past few years. So the time I’ve gotten to share with Mamaw on these drives has been such a blessing. And something that would not have happened without the devastation of the tornado.

The opportunity to give Mamaw rest from everyday activities like cooking and cleaning is something that has been a huge blessing as well. Raising 2 teenagers and taking care of a husband with terminal cancer has sucked the energy out of her, and she desperately needs time to recover. I’ve been able to give her a little relief by taking care of dinner each night. For those of you that know me, you know this is a job I gladly volunteered for. And it’s been several years since my family sat down and had dinner all together each night, but the past couple weeks, we have all gathered together each night. We talk and laugh and share moments that are long overdue. Instead of everyone eating in silence in front of the TV, we get to have a real, old fashioned, family dinner each night. I know this is something that seems insignificant to a lot of people, but it has given me so much joy to sit down together and enjoy a home-cooked meal each night.

It’s been such a blessing to wake up and go to bed each night with my grandparents and cousins under the same roof. I’ve gotten to spend time with people that I’ve been “too busy” for in the past, and it’s reminded me of how important that time spent with family and friends really is.

And last, but not least, the generosity that people have shown my family has been overwhelming. I have watched my grandparents shed tears over cards they’ve received with checks from people they don’t even know. From the time word spread that their house was destroyed, people have been asking how they can help. Individuals volunteered hours of their time to help sift through debris and cut trees. They’ve offered physical and emotional support to us all. People have brought dinner, clothes, money, and offered to take my cousins shopping or give them a couple nights away from home, and that has made a bigger impact than I ever imagined. It’s shown me how much of a difference things that may seem small can make. And as the saying goes, it has restored my faith in humanity.

So, while I would never wish this kind of loss and destruction on anyone, I have seen the blessings in disguise that can come through such tragedy. We rejoice everyday that their lives were spared, and we remember how quickly physical possessions can be taken away. But the things that remain, hope, love, faith, memories, and life, far outweigh those things that were lost. Houses and possessions can be replaced, but lives cannot.

Out of the ashes, beauty will rise. We will dance among the ruins, for You are our God.