Memory

This was 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.

Grief, the 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.



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