approximately my eighth long day in this old, southern city that had been
devastated by the tornado. It was approximately my tenth visit to a family that
had experienced fatalities as a result of the disaster. Up until now, my work
had been concentrated inside the clean and sterile hospital where surviving
family members clung to their own lives, with bandaged heads and broken bones,
and legal drugs to ease their pain. But as we wrapped up with the infirm, we
moved into the community and found a vastly different experience.
We traveled by car,
where the roads would allow. The destruction from the tornado seemed unreal to
me, looking more like photos from a blasted war-zone than any disaster I’d
personally seen before. Buildings were in splinters, fallen trees speared
through buildings like arrows in a target, and vehicles stacked in precarious
positions, crushed and crumbled. As we left the hospital from our morning
visit, we marveled at the luck (divine intervention, some said) of the hospital
being unaffected, when just a block away it looked as if a massive bulldozer
had plowed a large swath straight through the city. As we moved on by the aid
of our chirping GPS device, farther away from the city center and away from the
path of the tornado, I was surprised to see us turning into a neighborhood with
no street signs, no sidewalk, homes with no doors, boarded windows—but not due
to damage. This was deep, deep poverty.
There is a silence
that accompanies grief, unlike any other silence. It is heavy—like the weight
of high summer’s humidity in the Gulf States—and relentless. We approached the
home with reverence, knowing that the people we would find inside were mourning
the loss of a child, but I was unprepared for the experience.
The home, if it
could be called such (though certainly, not in legal terms), had a piece of
long, black rubber tacked over the front doorway. We were welcomed inside by
our client’s younger sister, whose 2 children climbed and clamored for
attention, searching through the bags of hygiene items we brought to every
family in our visits. The apartment itself was not damaged, but every extra
space was filled with donations collected at community support sites: cases of
bottled water, still wrapped in plastic; bags and bags of diapers, stacked up
high in the corner; a stockpile of toothbrushes. As I took a slow glance around
the small room, willing my eyes to adjust to the low light, I noted how many
people were crammed into this small one bedroom apartment—2 adults, 5 children.
This may have explained the sour, stale smell, but perhaps that was a
side-effect of the crushing heat in a window-less room. I was unsure.
The kids climbed up
on the back of the old, worn sofa, perched atop like birds observing the world
below. I settled onto the carpeted floor, crunchy with the evidence of
discarded and forgotten snacks, stiff with dried spills. There was insufficient
seating available, but that didn’t matter in this moment and I introduced
myself to the woman of the house. If she could curl up on the floor, I could
sit there too.
uncontrollable sorrow, has a look. For some, grief contorts their bodies and
faces into painful, wracking sobs. For others, like this woman, grief might
crush the light out of one’s heart. She sat in complete silence, blank-faced,
staring in the distance, and rocked slowly back and forth while tears (silent
tears) rolled down her cheeks. She couldn’t speak. She hadn’t spoken since she
learned her oldest son had been ripped out of her sister’s truck and into the
storm. She hadn’t left the house or showered in over a week. She was utterly
consumed by her grief, a darkness that stole her ability to function and
crushed all meaning in her present life.
I watched her as her
sister relayed the story of the terrible moment—“My nephew, he was so scared of
that tornado that he froze and refused to get out of the truck. He was just
going to the store with me, but that’s when the tornado came and I was
screaming at him, I was hitting him and screaming at him, to get out of the
truck and run inside with me and the kids. But he wouldn’t come, and he was too
big for me to drag out of that truck so I had to just leave him right there.
They found his body a couple’a blocks away.”
Grief, when pairing
the hopelessness of poverty with the loss of someone’s life, has a way of
giving perspective to listeners. As the story wore on, I felt a pricking sensation
across my leg, and hands, and back—and as my eyes adjusted to the dim light in
the room, I realized just how far this family was living in the pit of despair.
Cockroaches were crawling on me, were moving slowly across the carpet, were
climbing on the silent woman and the children, and the walls. In all of my
time, I had only seen cockroaches darting quickly about from one hiding spot to
another, but without a door to stop them and a family too frozen by grief to
care, the cockroaches acted like lazy flies sitting about the room.
I couldn’t say
anything. I never mentioned the roaches, and they pretended they didn’t exist,
and for a moment we allowed grace to exist in a place where desolation had
taken hold. In grief, I found that my limits were boundless and my life given
perspective. Cockroaches don’t matter when your son is dead.