Did you ever see that episode of “Friends” where the guys go on a police ride-along with Phoebe’s boyfriend du jour, and Ross gets all “I have a new lease on life” because he thinks someone took a shot at him? And Joey threw himself onto Ross to “shield him from the bullet”? But it was really just a car backfiring? And Joey was just saving his sandwich? And for the next week (or however long 22 minutes is in a sitcom) Ross walked around all starry and dreamy because he truly believed he had been inches from death? Well, last Thursday night I was Ross, but instead of being on a ride-along with a cop, I was glued to the local weather report, and instead of thinking I was being shot at, I thought a tornado was going to rip my house out of the ground. Also, there was no handsome Friend diving on top of me to save his sandwich. I was mostly doing the diving, and there was no sandwich, only a small, sleeping 16 month-old who finally woke up after the worst was over, reached up and touched my face in the dark, and said hi like being curled up next to your mother in the bathtub in the middle of the night was the most normal thing in the world.
I have talked about my fear of tornadoes on this blog, but I have never been as afraid of a tornado as I was last Thursday night. In the past my tornado horror fantasies were pretty scary–I was pulled right out of my house through a gaping hole in the roof, or I was in my car and the funnel cloud lifted me right up into the air a la Dorothy Gale–but I was always fighting, clawing my way to safety. The tornado never got me, because I was all I had to look after, and I’ve always been of the opinion that I can survive anything. But add someone else to the equation, someone smaller or weaker, or smaller AND weaker, and all bets are off.
I was a tree-climbing, no-helmet-wearing bike-riding tomboy as a kid. I hung upside down on the highest monkey bar on the playground and stomped around barefoot in the woods. I played on the railroad tracks behind my childhood house and stood a mere foot or two from the trains as they passed. I never thought twice about any of this until Middle Sister and Little Sister were born. I remember watching them climb and romp and dangle when they were little and I was a seasoned 16, and I constantly saw potential injury. When I was older (you know, like 17) our family went to a local amusement park and I literally broke out in a cold sweat watching Little and Middle stand in line for that stupid pirate ship ride that hangs upside down. Every time I closed my eyes I saw my tiny sisters raining down out of that boat. All that danger was fine for me, because I could take care of myself, but watching them interact with danger was torture for me.
Do you see where I am going with this?
Last Thursday was the scariest moment of motherhood thus far, scarier, even, than that first moment when my doctor placed Mia in my arms and I came face to face with the magnitude of her existence and all it entailed. Last Thursday there were a few moments when I doubted my ability to protect her, when I saw the potential for danger all around me and was not sure if I could keep her safe. That, my friends, and not the tornado, is now my greatest fear.
It was around 10 p.m. when I tuned into the storm coverage on a local news channel–and that I typed those words without any implication of mockery or sarcasm should give you some idea of how scared I was, because I do not watch local news or weather. At first I was convinced it would fizzle out by the time it got to us, that there would be some lightning and thunder and rain, and I would go to sleep wondering if my mostly deaf dog had even registered the event. There had been tornado warnings all night, but no actual tornados had been spotted, kind of like those blizzards that never reach the ground during winter in the South. I kept telling myself the NWS was just being cautious. The weather guys thought as much. As it turns out, we were all wrong–the storm just got stronger, and the tornados found their way to the ground–three of them. The weather guys were using fancy weather words I’m sure they don’t get to say much, but there was an edge to their delivery, and it made me nervous. It wasn’t the typical ominous tone local weather people use when there might be bad weather. There were no mights, no maybes. This was for real. When they started naming streets less than a mile from my house, streets I drive every single day, and when they urged people on those streets to take cover, I tossed every pillow and cushion and quilt into the windowless hall bathroom, built a nest in the tub, and pulled a soundly sleeping Mia out of her bed. I pulled pillows and blankets all around us and formed a shell over the baby with my own body, and then I held onto her as tightly as I could without waking her. And then I prayed.
I was raised in a family that prayed, a family that believed an all-powerful God heard those prayers. As an adult I don’t talk much about religion, and my spirituality is very personal to me, but I would be holding back if I didn’t tell you that last Thursday night I prayed. I have never prayed so desperately or so sincerely–or so simply–in my life: Please please please please protect us, please keep us safe, please please please. Later I would think of Anne Lamott and her books about faith, and how she wrote once that if you can’t think of what to say to God you could just start with “please” and maybe add a “thank you.” But at the moment, when that first deafening roar swallowed my house, and then when it returned a second time a few minutes later, I was only aware of two things: the word “please” coming out of my mouth like some primal animal wail, and smell of my sleeping daughter, sweat and soap and skin pressed against my cheek.
Later, when it was all over and she was wide awake and amused as hell to be lying on a bunch of pillows in the tub, I got around to the “thank you” part, which was more like a gigantic sigh of relief than an actual prayer. But the next morning was a different story. No one in my neighborhood lost homes or cars, or, to my knowledge, was even injured–not like those poor souls a few towns over whose homes were literally flattened. My neighbors’ yards were littered with branches and leaves, overturned trash cans and chairs and other yard items. The trees on our cul-de-sac looked like they had been hastily shaved after two rounds with quarter-sized hail. But at my house there was little out of place–a few holes in my hostas from the hail, a small littering of rose petals on the driveway from the wind, and evidence of the heavy rain, but that was it. My plastic Adirondacks hadn’t moved an inch. The big blue exercise ball that Mia likes to push around the yard was exactly where I’d left it. When I walked outside on Friday morning I almost felt ridiculous, like I had panicked for no reason. And then I opened the morning paper.
Pictures of mangled planes and stacks of cars initiated my first round of “thank you thank you thank you” that morning, but it was the story of the mom and her two small children being trapped under the debris that was once their home that really got me. That could have been me, my kid, my house. There were at least three tornados on the ground that night, and two of them were within a mile of my house, maybe closer, and they didn’t even rearrange the stuff in my little yard. You can tell me that storms like this one are unpredictable, that they can level a house and leave the one next door standing, and that I simply escaped a random act of destruction. You can tell me that it was the sheer power of my own will that protected us from harm. You might even tell me that yes, some higher power heard my call for help and shielded us from the storm. Like I said, spirituality is a private matter. But last Friday morning I truly felt like I’d been spared something awful, and every breath I took felt like a prayer–Thank you thank you thank you–and when I stopped outside Mia’s room to listen to her breathe on my way out of the house it was like getting a response from the lips of God himself: you’re welcome you’re welcome you’re welcome.