After six years, it’s still hard to feel normal today

It has been six years, Tuscaloosa

This article was originally posted on April 28, 2017 on

Those of us who feel normal, don’t today.

Those of us who go about our business with ease any other day: We drop the kids off at soccer and dance. We check our email.  We buy groceries.

Yet today – or, more likely, earlier this month when the leaves strained to push through the branches of trees and birds arrived on our porches – we found that normal suddenly stopped. We were abruptly a maelstrom of emotions.

We remember a time when nature turned and attacked us. Then some of us implode. Some of us explode. Many of us have to search to figure out why.

For me it happened early this year, in March, as I unearthed Easter decorations from a closet. An Easter wreath, made of delicate pink bird eggs and ribbon, given to us the week before the tornado miraculously survived on the front door. It was untouched that day, except for dirt. An SUV was flipped over across the street, but that wreath remained pristine.

When I pulled out that wreath it set me off. I was back to April 27, 2011, in my old house, in the closet on the floor, body draped over my 8-year-old daughter. My eyes closed tight, as I grip the steel frame of the closet. My heart is surely about to give out as the deafening F-4 tornado comes for our house, our people, our town, our state.

I treat it like my first roller coaster ride at 14-years-old. I just have to survive until I can get off, staggering, wobbly-legged and nauseous, grateful to be alive. I walk away, my dignity intact. No one knew how afraid I was except me.

Many days, I sit on the bank of the Black Warrior River in Tuscaloosa after a run. Today, the water is still and quiet. A squirrel nibbles an afternoon snack. All is calm. The wind lightly sighs in the trees, slightly moving the leaves and branches. Most people would appreciate a gentle breeze in the heat, but I have learned to hate the wind.

It has been six years, Tuscaloosa.

The gap between people who lived through this and people who did not grows with each turn of the calendar page. Someone who was not in Alabama that day has already probably stopped reading this. They have no way, or reason, to relate.

Only a handful of houndstooth ribbons remain on the walls of business around town. My UA students are all too young to remember. The paint commemorating the event was scraped off the field in Bryant-Denny Stadium years ago. We have built shopping malls and doctors’ offices, homes and some of us – the lucky ones – have even rebuilt our lives.

Some people wish I would stop writing about this. My daughter, who has blissfully sailed into her teen years, miles from the little girl with her teddy bear into the closet that day, has put it in the rear-view mirror. I am happy about that.

“Mom, do you have to write about it this year?,” she asked.

“I do. We must be vigilant,” I said. “People are still hurting. There is evidence that the suicide rate for first responders spikes this many years after a natural disaster.”

“Well, OK. But do you have to make it sad?,” she countered.

Oh, my sweet child. How do I not make it sad? My heart still breaks.

In Tuscaloosa, where the trees grow sideways, we’ve passed the 50-yard-line on a decade and I’m scared. The duplicity of healing, coupled with the need to hold onto that awful moment, is difficult.

Earlier this week I forgot the time of the tornado, when someone asked. I thought it was 5:11 p.m. It was 5:13 p.m. There was a time when I would not have believed that I would forget anything about that day. I stop to think about the difference in those two minutes and how, for some people, it meant the difference in losing a child, mother, father, sister, brother or friend. I hate myself for forgetting. I hate myself for surviving. My heart hurts for my friend who lost her college-age daughter that day. Once again, I implode.

Yet I am well aware that to be alive is grand. I am glad I no longer jump at loud noises. I am happy that I can talk about that day without overwhelming emotion in my voice. I no longer have to stop and force myself to swallow the lump in my throat before I speak about it. I don’t cry in my office.

However, I am uneasy that the memories are getting too far away. That I might forget lessons learned. Forget my old neighborhood and the good times. Forget to be thankful for life every single second. Forget the stories of loss from friends, students and neighbors.

Anyone who has ever lost a loved one knows: As the years pass, their funny jokes begin to fade from memory. A laugh, once seared in your brain, becomes hard to remember.  You might strain to hear their voice.

It’s tempting to move forward because it hurts less. But living through this day reminds me of the tree sap from thousands of snapped pine trees that covered our city that day. We have to reach back in time through that sticky film and pull those memories out of the rubble, especially the painful ones we want to forget. They are so important. We must move on, even as we remember.

There is a difference in dwelling and remembrance. Today, we must speak the names of those we lost.

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