Yesterday, we went to Joplin. It is a couple of hours from Kansas City. “No,” I told the cashier at Kentucky Fried Chicken in Nevada, “we aren’t going to Joplin to see President Obama. We are going because my husband’s brother James lives there.” James, his fiancé’ Natalie, Natalie’s mom and Natalie’s three-year old daughter Claire, lost everything. Basically, they lost everything except what they had on when the tornado hit. You hear people say the video coverage and the pictures don’t do the destruction justice. They are right. Fortunately, I have never seen what it looks like after war or a bomb. What I saw in Joplin is what I imagine it looks like after a bomb hits. Neighborhoods wiped out leaving behind lots of stuff. One house obliterated walls and all. The next house walls standing. A jar left sitting on the countertop. A washer thrown to the next house. Tornadoes do the strangest things. As we were getting packing the salvaged items, a neighbor from across the street beckoned that they had found a letter jacket. It was Natalie’s.
We wanted to go to Joplin. We wanted to see James and Natalie and Jonathan’s parents, sister, brother in law, and nieces. They all came to help too. I know from sudden tragedy and loss in my own family, that in a time like this you really need to physically see your family. You need them near you even if it is only for a day. We needed to see them, too. We wanted to be able to help in someone. Beyond taking “stuff” – needed stuff like clothes, lunch, linens, toiletries, and so forth, we wanted to help. We went to the house where James and Natalie were when the tornado hit. They were visiting Natalie’s cousin. An older home, they were able to get into the basement just in time. They showed us how they climbed out. It took them an hour to climb out and I’m not really sure how they managed to get out. Then, without cell service, they walked for miles. We then heded over to Natalie’s mom’s home. We saw where her mom huddled in a bathroom tub. She too escaped without physical harm but emotionally all of them are still in shock, still overwhelmed by the magnitude. We spent the day helping sift through the remains. The stench of dead animals and rotting food made me think of the Holocaust museum. I still smell it this morning. After I visited the Holocaust museum, I smelled the shoes in the train car for weeks. The subconscious.
Days before, a friend had found James wedding band for their July 16 wedding and a gold tiepin left to Natalie by her dad who is deceased. Everyone took a turn searching in vain for her wedding band that originally belonged to James’ mom. At then end of the day, we didn’t find it. We assisted in sifting through the debris to find a few family treasures. We salvaged a couple of useable items. I was impressed by the many volunteer relief efforts and just good people who came through handing out cold water, apples, sandwiches, prayers and physical help in sifting through it all. I was impressed by the people who heard we were going and sent the money from their pockets, gift cards, new linens, and bags of things from their garage sale.
James is the first to say we are okay and it is just stuff. That is a good lesson for all of us to learn and truly embrace. It is just stuff that can be replaced. People can’t be replaced. They are alive and healthy thought the emotional toil is yet to be measured. Still, for Natalie and her family, she sees her life in ruin. Thankful to have her life but sad for the memories that the tornado took.
Rachel stayed in the van most of the day playing on her electronics. Late in the day, as Jonathan and her Uncle Glenn were loading things in the back of the van, she called her other grandparents. We overheard her say, “I’m not really okay with this. But, I have to be positive and pray for Uncle James, my new Aunt Natalie and my new cousin Claire and all the people that the tornado hurt.” That pretty much says it.