AFTER THE STORM
By Elizabeth Hamilton
On the day after Christmas, a dozen tornadoes ripped through North Texas, killing eleven people and injuring many more. The whirling cyclones reduced suburban houses to piles of rubble, wooden frames splintered like brittle balsa wood, fences scattered like breakable twigs, bricks hurled like rectangular chunks of Styrofoam. You probably heard about it. The next day and the days after, it was all over the news.
The storm happened at night, in the dark, but tornado warnings are so common in North Texas, few people took them seriously at the time. Not that it mattered to me. I was on Christmas vacation in Santa Fe, and when my friend from Dallas texted me to see if I was all right, I didn't know what she was talking about. I was sipping red wine after a scrumptious dinner. What was this about a storm? But my neighbors, just miles from my Texas home, had quite a different evening.
A mere month before, a young couple bought a house in Rowlett, a northern suburb of Dallas. They took the week off to redecorate and celebrate their first Christmas in their new home – a home which lay directly in the path of those tornadoes.
When the cyclone hit, they hid in their ceramic bathtub, walls crashing and windows shattering around them. Parts of their roof tore clear off. Water flooded the ceiling, chunks of plaster and insulation fell like snow. Later, the insurance company told them they would have to rebuild. They lost almost everything in that storm, but it could have been worse. At least they were alive.
The couple happened to be new to my church, and when I returned from the mountains of Santa Fe, I grabbed some work gloves from the garage, donned my grey rain boots, and pulled on my grubbiest T-shirt and oldest ripped jeans. Another friend joined me, and we packed empty cardboard boxes and bubble wrap and water bottles in the trunk of my hulking SUV before hitting the freeway north to Rowlett.
On the way, we passed beneath an overpass one of the tornadoes hit. Several people died on that overpass, their cars flung onto the buildings and streets below. We passed an apartment complex with great chunks taken from its roof as though some monster had come along, raked the shingles with its claws and taken a bite from the second story.
We exited the freeway and drove down a simple, suburban road, on either side ordinary brown brick houses and leafless oak trees with scraggly branches twisting toward the sky. We passed a church housing volunteers. We pulled in line behind a string of pickups. A police officer directed traffic, turning away anyone driving by just to have a look.
The couple's house, with its caved in roof and mangled garage door, looked fairly stable compared to those down the street. Those were completely leveled. All that remained of one was a fireplace and a single couch beneath the cloudy sky. Someone had stuck an American flag in the ruins of another, which was nothing more than a pile of debris.
A house across the street and two doors down lost its chimney in the great wind. The bricks flung everywhere and the wooden frame, a ten-foot, two-pronged spear, shot across the street and stuck directly into the side of my new friends' home like a massive dart. In the dining room, there was a puncture in the wall where the chimney struck.
Volunteers were everywhere. Women dressed in white T-shirts that read “Blessing Crew” dug through rubble with bright yellow gloves. A mother and daughter in a black truck drove by and rolled down the window.
“Would you like some coffee?” they asked.
Yes, we would. We were freezing.
A little later, a fellow from the local Baptist church dropped by.
“We have a crew that can cut off the broken limbs on that tree in your front lawn,” he said. “Your insurance company isn’t going to cover that.”
Volunteers poured in and out of the home. Friends from church. Friends from school. Friends who moved from New Orleans after living through Katrina. Friends who said things like, “She has a lot of nice stuff. Let’s be careful,” as they delicately packed salvaged glasses and yellow placemats embroidered with white flowers.
Some men shoveled wet insulation from the living room floor. Some women crowded into the kitchen to pack dishes in bubble wrap. One even offered to unload the laundry machine, lay out all the underwear inside, and photograph it so the insurance company would reimburse even the unmentionables.
I went for a walk down the alley to a drainage ditch and stared across at the houses on the other side. These storms are so capricious, noted one volunteer. This street is destroyed, but you go one block over and it’s like nothing ever happened. My friends were hit head on, but they were safe in their ceramic bathtub. Others were not so fortunate. Those hit in flimsy tin mobile homes were offered little more protection than the cars on that overpass.
I sipped my coffee. It had already gone cold.
My friends would rebuild their house. They had insurance. They would be okay. But I'd already read in the paper about another couple who lived in a trailer park. They had several children, and one, beautiful, newborn baby, freshly home from the hospital just days before. They called her their "Christmas baby."
Well, the tornado hit their meager park. The husband saw it coming. He heard about it on the radio and stepped outside to see the roaring cyclone tearing down the road. He rushed inside, tried to warn his family, but it was too late. The whirling wind bore upon them, flinging trailer and children and husband and wife into the air.
He landed in a field nearby. When he made it back to the wreckage of his home, he found his wife tearing apart the ruins, searching for the baby that wasn’t there.
What kind of world do we live in where a newborn baby is thrown in the sky by a wild wind? What kind of god would allow such a thing? What about prayer? What about the promise of provision? What about that slender, wooden sign I've seen on windowsills in houses and bookshelves of Christian novelty stores: “Good morning! This is God. I will be handling all your problems today”? If that’s handling our problems, I think I’m better off on my own.
I stand in the kitchen with the other volunteers at the end of the day, boxes stacked around us, the last of the insulation like clots of dust on the linoleum floor. We say a prayer of thanksgiving for safety, and I am glad to whisper it. I have known safety in moments of danger, and it is something to be thankful for. But a hard sliver in my heart wants to protest. Don't give me any banal religious platitudes! Don’t tell me that if we pray about it, it will be so! Don’t tell me that God is always providing for us, always offering a hand of safety, because sometimes, a vicious cyclone tears through a quiet neighborhood, a simple trailer park, and tosses a baby in the sky with nothing to soften her landing.
It’s dangerous out here, and any physical protection we think we’ve got is an illusion. We’re standing in the middle of a thunderstorm, and praying won’t keep us from being sucked up and thrown out by the roaring twisters.
And yet, we stand in that empty kitchen, scene of a natural disaster, and pray nonetheless. We thank God for the protection of our friends, even as another couple mourns the loss of a baby. We enter into the inner sanctuary, and cling to God in this swirling madness, needing the healing hand of comfort for this day we made it through, knowing we’ll need that same hand even more the next time, when we don’t.
Here I am, standing on the edge of a terrible cliff, and it’s nothing but a rope of prayer, loosely bound, held taught in the hands of Another, that’s keeping the wind from blowing me over.
Elizabeth Hamilton is a writer in Dallas whose stories, essays, and reviews have appeared in The Santa Barbara News-Press and The Dallas Morning News. In 2013, she received a B.A. in philosophy from Hillsdale College. She writes regularly about life, faith, and other matters on her personal blog, elizabethannehamilton.com. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.