I just got home from my son’s apartment. He called me at 3 am last night, asked if I was okay. Yeah, what’s up? There’s a tornado, he said. Oh, yeah, fine, I slept through it I guess (we barely got anything in Sparta). It took me a few groggy minutes to ask if he was okay. He said, “Yeah, I’m okay, but it blew the windows out of my apartment and tore the roof off the apartments behind me.” What?!
We took him some battery powered lights and a battery to power his electronics, checked on him. The closer we got the more anxious I was to get to him; full mama bear mode. Russ drove, looking for somewhere to park. I finally said, just let me out, I’ll walk to him. That’s ultimately what I did, through wreckage strewn all over in ridiculous ways. Tornadoes make no sense, there is no logic to them, the embodiment of chaos.
And there he was, on his balcony. It was like something out of a movie, seeing him across a distance full of shattered remains, relief washing over me even though I’d known he was okay. I went to him. He’s fine. Thank God he’s fine.
In the photo, the back of his building, you can see the tarps flapping in the wind, covering the destroyed parts of the roof over every unit in his complex except his. Every other apartment has windows blown out; in each of his windows only one of the double panes was shattered; other tenants had water pouring in shattered windows or shorn roofs. The man next door said the sky was green, and the massive electric lines were down right next to the building. If your power was out, it was probably because of those lines right there.
I have only been to the edge of the devastation; his apartment is right on the easternmost edge of the worst part of the destruction, but it is breathtaking. Forlorn-looking stuffed animals in trees amidst pieces of houses maybe miles away. Trees shorn as though a giant-sized lawn more went over them. Apartments gutted, everything having been sucked out of them. Homes and businesses flattened to the foundation. Everything coated with a bizarre paper mache looking stuff. Pieces of 2×2 lumber stabbed into a wall as though they were thrown like a spear.
Trauma’s a funny thing, not until I was away from my only child did the full force of this hit me: I could have lost him last night. Also, the full force of this: many mothers did lose their babies. Nineteen dead in this county alone, more across the state.
The fragility of our infrastructure hit me with the force of a tornado, too. Electricity gone, our connection to one another gone. It took all day before I heard from some of the church friends I checked in with. How very temporary we are. How powerful we think we are, and how quickly we are reduced to rubble, sticks, and the bits of fluff with which we insulate ourselves against the cold world.
But I’m also amazed by the way we come together in the face of it. The lines of people waiting to donate blood. My son’s land lady, who couldn’t get a car close to his apartment so she ran several blocks there at 3 a.m. with another wave of storm coming on to check on the mostly students who live in her complex. My friends who went around Cookeville dropping off water, canned goods, and pet food to places that were distributing it. And so many other stories I’m sure we’ll hear in the weeks to come. “Look for the helpers,” Mr. Rogers said, when things are scary. They are always there, and I’ve never been more grateful for them, professional or civilian. There are a lot of heroes in Cookeville tonight.
Brandon said he thought he could use a walk, so we did, strolling among the strewn wooden skeletons and siding skin and puffed fiberglass and paper mache guts of people’s homes lying all around us. As we walked away from where the workers were smashing the remnants of a twisted electric tower to bits, that human noise receded and the chorus of spring peepers filled the air. Little frogs who had no doubt literally been outside in a tornado less than 12 hours before, filling the air with their urgent songs to create more of them, celebrating life in its most elemental form, maybe singing gratitude, too. I understand that song, and this one: Life Goes On.