There’s something about increments of ‘5’ that make us sit up and take notice. We celebrate those anniversaries (5th, 10th, 25th etc) as more monumental than others. Why? No idea. It’s just one of those generally accepted societal truths.
To state the obvious, my reason for bringing this up is that this month marks the 5-year anniversary of the Joplin tornado:
Five years ago the lives of every single person in this city completely changed…
Five years ago we watched in shock as a third of our town was utterly and violently demolished…
Five years ago we learned that 162 people had been killed as a result of the storm….
Five years ago Joplin, Missouri became known to the world for something we never wanted to be famous for…
Five years ago we found ourselves at the bottom of a debris filled deep hole, staring up at the nasty sharp rock-lined walls we were going to have to climb if we ever wanted to find ourselves on level “normal” ground again.
And today? 1,821 days (ish) later? Well, things sure look different around town. All of the big business and many of the small ones are back and lots of them have beautiful “Memory Gardens” in place. Most of the residential areas are filled with pretty new homes and freshly landscaped yards. Sure, there are still a few sets of concrete stairs climbing up to vacant lots…but grass has covered most of those rocky yards so they’re not so glaringly empty. We finally have new business building and opening that aren’t replacing blown-away places…but are coming here of their own accord because we are a growing city! The newly-planted trees on the south side are almost as tall as the new houses, which makes things look so much more settled.
People are healing too. Residents have traded in their “Restore Joplin” t-shirts for “Joplin Proud” ones to commemorate the rebuilding. There is a whole slew of newcomers who have moved here that have no knowledge of what PT (pre-tornado) Joplin was like. Tornado watches don’t even tend to keep people at home nowadays (although “warnings” are a different story).
So yes, we as a city have healed enough that the 5-year anniversary can be a celebration of how far we’ve come. It can be a time to celebrate our own resilience and appreciate the huge number of people and organizations that poured into Joplin to help our restoration. It can even be another time for our community to unite and remember together how different we, as a town, are after five long years.
But–and there’s always a but you know–there are some people who just might feel a little differently than that:
–Some people are just “grinning and bearing”…sick of having to remember and wanting the day over with and wondering why we have to do this every year.
–Some people need and use this day as a chance to explain to themselves WHY they are so different from who they were five years prior.
–Some people are missing someone they lost so so so badly that any idea of a “celebration” is utterly bewildering and possibly even hurtful.
–Some people experience such vivid memories (aka flashbacks) of that night and the trauma surrounding it that they’d rather avoid thinking about it all together.
I think a lot of people bounce between all of these categories. I know I do. I’m generally not a big fan of anniversaries anyway. I don’t like being forced into celebrating/thinking about/focusing on something just because the same random calendar date has come around again (and yes, this goes for wedding anniversaries too. Sorry, dear spouse.). So, I sometimes find myself in the “grin and bear” category. But then I see something like JOPLIN PROUD and what they are doing and I find some misty pride seeping out of my eyes for our funny little southwest Missouri town that has come so very far. The next thing I know I find myself in tears because some story from that night has popped up on my facebook feed and vivid wrenching memories shove their way into the forefront of my mind. Two minutes later I find myself rolling my eyes at somebody who is describing how THEY have gotten teary eyed because of tornado related stories they have read.
I guess everyone handles it differently. Apparently some of us even handle it differently depending on the hour of the day!
Truly though, it is good to remember. It’s not good to be trapped in fear or unable to let go….but it’s good to remember. If you look through the Old Testament you’ll see that the Israelites would build altars or put stacks of rocks in places where God had done something big (Genesis 28, 33, 35; Exodus 17, 24 for example). In Joshua 4 the Lord even commanded the people to stack stones so they wouldn’t forget a miracle He had performed for them. God and His people knew that it was important to have something that would “force-focus” thoughts and memories toward whatever had occurred. These stacks and altars would ensure that the people wouldn’t forget what had happened.
Today we have Shutterfly books. Or time hop. Or memory boxes, scrapbooks,phone alerts,online journals or blogs.
In Joplin we even have huge pieces of metal still twisted around trees. And we have memorial anniversaries. I can’t tell you that all of the memories surrounding this particular date are going to be good and victorious ones…but I do believe that some good will come from each of them.
Some of those memories might help remind us of:
How God protected us or someone else…
That every single second of every day is precious…
That we can truly find something good in every situation…
How completely releasing someone or something to God is the most terrifyingly freeing experience imaginable…
That angels disguise themselves in so many ways…
How when people are put in awful stressful terrible situations, they will often surprise you with the amount of goodness and love they give…
I’d like to share something I wrote on the one-year anniversary of the tornado. I was feeling really anxious about being overwhelmed by emotions on that day, and I had written,
What’s going to happen on Tuesday?
What’s going to happen at 5:40 when I remember how scarily empty my arms felt when I couldn’t put them around my son and nephew as trees began flying?
What’s going to happen at 5:41 when I remember how loudly my ears popped?
What’s going to happen at 5:42 when I remember holding my arms over my son and godson and his sister in my basement and hearing the world rip apart around me?
Let me tell you what actually happened on that anniversary: I remembered.
I shook and had goosebumps and chills and tears as I remembered. I felt the visceral fear again–knowing that a part of my heart was stuck out in the middle of the worst thing I had ever experienced. I heard the noises again and remembered how I had so badly wanted that banging to be the sound of my family running safely to me in the basement and not the sound of my house crashing in. I remembered the green awful light leaking under the door as the eye passed over us. I remembered the screams of one neighbor and how cold I was as we climbed over the shattered home of friends looking for them. I remembered hearing a voice and realizing it was me–praying out loud for Ethan, Wyatt, Aunt Sana and Uncle Frank’s safety as I ran across the street to another pile of home-splinters.
But…then I remembered exactly how my friend John’s voice sounded when he yelled, “Uncle Frank’s truck is here!” I remembered how it felt to wrap my arms around two wet dirty boys as they clung to me almost as tightly as I held onto them. I remembered looking at our aunt and uncle and their beat-up truck and realizing that nothing other than the hand of God cupped over it had kept them safe. And you know what? I was glad to remember.
I realize not every story had the happy ending mine did. I’m going to pray extra hard for those families as May 22 approaches. I will ask God to give them peace and comfort, and pray that He will reveal His goodness to them, and that their pain is transforming into beautiful memories.
This year it’s on a Sunday again. I’m grateful that the graduations are already done, honestly. It’s going to be a pretty crazy weekend for my family; my husband is having major leg surgery that Friday, my parents are coming in to run the Memorial Race Saturday, my second-born has an all-weekend basketball tournament, my eldest will be running in the state track meet AND we are celebrating his 16th (gasp) birthday on the 23rd. Amidst the minor chaos though, I plan on taking some time to do some remembering.
I will probably re-read my story of that night and the subsequent anniversaries…
I will read through Psalm 116…
I will listen to THIS SONG…
I will realize with shock the numbers of concretes from Shake’s I ate that summer…
And maybe I will even have another wedding-cake concrete for old times sake.
To my Joplin friends: however you plan to spend the day, spend it intentionally. You are so lucky to have it. And please remember that not everyone will spend the day the way you do…and that is OK. Be kind. Be indulgent if necessary. May 22 is a big stack of stones for so many people….and all of us stack them differently.
If you want to read my story from that night, here’s the link. Just click on the blue words. It’s still a little hard for me to do without shaking, honestly.
MAY 22, 2011
I’ve included some links to old entries on the other anniversaries of the tornado. Feel free to click on them if you want to remember with me.