It’s usually the train that wakes me. The deep low whistle fills the room, and it takes me a minute to remember where we are, to realize that we’re far away from Brooklyn, that we’re in Joplin, in my husband’s childhood bed in the house that his grandmother, Evelyn, bought in 1944 with funds from her beauty shop and money from her dad’s soldier pay. When the train wakes us, we almost always rearrange ourselves—Cody and I—and spoon for the last hour or so before the sun fully rises and our two-and-a-half year old daughter calls for us. We tend to spend the morning of the fifth of July polishing off Coconut Cream Pie we bought from the church ladies and cleaning up the aftermath of all the fireworks we shot off in the yard.
But this year is different. This July 5, 2011, I’m staring out a dirty window in New York City. My in-laws, who came to us this year exhausted and needing to get away, are in Brooklyn with Eva, slathering her in sunscreen in preparation for her first swimming lesson. 5:10 a.m. came and went, and there was no train to wake me. In fact, I haven’t been woken by that train since April when we flew to Missouri for Easter, and it rained so long and hard that we did little more than hunker inside the house hiding and re-hiding jellybean-filled plastic eggs which Eva found and re-found and which we hid all over again. It’s only been three months.
In my in-laws basement is a sauna. It’s one of those you might get a wild hair to plop down $2500 for at a Wholesale Club but that they bought used off someone for $500. It’s about the size of a Port-a-Potty but the ceiling is lower, and it’s made of redwood. In the door is a window with a good view of the television, and, inside, there’s a little bench that comfortably fits one person but—if you don’t mind being close—can accommodate two. When I go back to Joplin I spend at least thirty minutes a day in it, cranking up the heat and sweating the city out of me.
I’ve always considered it to be a wonderful luxury. Maybe someone mentioned that it was for safety’s sake but I didn’t quite get the concept. I mean, how safe could it be? All I could imagine was nuclear fall-out, and, try as I might, I couldn’t conjure how a couple of cases of water and a sauna were going to get my in-laws through Armageddon.
But that’s where they were, that’s where they rode out the storm.
A few months ago, my father-in-law added reinforcements to the top of the sauna. Constructed of 2” x 6” boards surrounded with square steel tubing, the reinforcements anchor the sauna to the basement ceiling, ensuring that being inside the sauna provides more protection than the next safest place in the house: the southwest corner of the basement where, in pre-sauna drills, they had squatted and covered themselves with blankets. When the town sirens went off on Sunday, May 22, my in-laws headed to the basement dressed for disaster, meaning they wore boots and not flip-flops. Inside the sauna, they watched through the glass as the local forecasters confirmed the news of the three-quarter mile-wide multi-vortex tornado that was heading directly to Joplin. And then they lost reception: the cable was gone.
My mother-in-law’s pedicurist’s salon was also gone.
She told me this when she arrived in Brooklyn, almost apologetically explaining her unpolished nails. Her optometrist’s office was gone too, she told me later, and her CPA’s office and the insurance office, and then there was the dentist who lost both his home and his office. The Home Depot was gone too, and the 9-story hospital and Cody’s high school, Arby’s and the other Arby’s up the road. My father-in-law said there were so many businesses, so many names, that after a while it just sounded like unrecognizable static, that he would be driving down the road and have to do a double-take to try to remember what had once stood in the space. Last week, he pulled up near the McDonald’s on Main Street which he used to “drag” in high school. His heart wrenched, and then he noticed, beside him, a woman in her own car, the windows rolled up, was weeping too. 18,498 vehicles, 6,954 homes, 159 lives.
I was in the middle of the ocean when I found out about the tornado. Halfway through a trans-Atlantic cruise and disoriented by the shifting time and endless blue, I woke one morning to find my stepfather in the living room. It was one of those conversations that creaks open—slowly, loudly, painfully—like an old, heavy door in a house that you’re sure is haunted. Cody called, he said. (This is the moment when I realized it would be days before I’d see my husband again, that I might never see his parents again, that Eva’s only memory of them might be grainy video from a trip to the turtle farm.)
His parents are okay, he said. And the house is okay too.
But it’s like nothing you’ve ever seen.
The city will never be the same.
In the few pictures that I was able to pull up via the dismally slow internet connection, I couldn’t even understand what I was seeing. In one, a freight train was pulling through what was supposed to be town but town was gone; the trees were stripped; on the ground was three feet of unrecognizable debris. I tried to click for more. Finally, I turned off the computer and went to breakfast where I watched Eva balance blueberries on her spoon and wondered how I’d begin to explain the tragedy to her.
Almost a decade ago, long before the sauna, when I had only been dating Cody for a little while and had only met his parents a handful of times, there was another day, a day that I often wonder how I’ll articulate to Eva when it inevitably—God willing—comes up. I think now of how Cody’s parents must have felt in their Joplin home, calling and calling and not getting through; I envision the more than 1.5 billion miles of U.S. phone wire pulsing through the sky and underground, the invisible waves of cell phones, the rawness of a thumb that’s pressing re-dial; the calling to Cody, to his sister, who was also here, to me, who they still hardly knew; the dialing and dialing and the not getting through.
It was that Tuesday in September. Cody was being evacuated out of lower Manhattan on a boat to New Jersey. His sister was in the chaos of midtown where, she remembers now, men on their knees cried into their briefcases, people threw up in gutters, cabbies—parked sideways in the middle of the street—rolled their windows down and blared misinformed news from their radios. I was further south, up on my roof in Brooklyn, stories above a phone that wouldn’t have rang anyway because there were so many calls trying to get through. There were hundreds, maybe even thousands, of other Brooklyn-ites on the roofs surrounding my roof, and from there we watched as smoke poured from the Twin Towers.
I remember those moments as eerily still, a sort of quiet before the storm. It seemed like the most unimaginable thing in the world had happened, and we were trying to take it in, and then, an even more unimaginable thing happened: a tower fell. I fell with it. To my knees. As did so many others. So many of us, down on our knees, and released into the air was the most unforgettable sound of my life: a collective moan of grief, a sound that, if I allow it—and I try not to—still haunts me.
After the storm, my father-in-law revised his emergency supplies list. Bottled water, check books, flashlights: all those remain. But now, in addition: a shovel, in case you have to dig yourself out; a whistle, because phones are useless; dust masks, leather gloves, bicycle helmets, a weather radio for when the cable goes, a Sharpie.
A Sharpie? I asked.
To label yourself, he said. And your kids. Just in case anybody gets lost.
Last night, we spent the fourth of July in our Brooklyn backyard. It seemed so far away from Joplin, and yet, there was something in the air that kept sending us back there. Still, we did what we could to savor that which was right in front of us. Eva blew bubbles, and Cody manned the grill. His sister made a mean batch of deviled eggs and a Jell-o cake that I’m still craving while I fought the urge to Sharpie us all, to let the world know who we were and that we belonged together, as if, when it all came down to it that would even matter. My mother-in-law entertained us with her great cocktails and even better laugh, and my father-in-law, bone-tired from all the work it takes to help clean up a city before you can begin to re-build it, seemed, if only for a little while, truly relaxed. In those perfect hours, I didn’t even think of building up walls around us, of reinforcing those walls, of trying to find some promise of safety. Instead, I took a match to the sparklers and watched through the darkness as they blazed wildly, burning and burning before extinguishing themselves completely.