Monday, May 9, 2011

The Grip of Grief

I don't want to mislead that every moment is transcendent, or that I'm any better than anyone else at finding redemption amid the dirt and debris of the tornado. Some days have been simply grueling, with one problem causing another, the system breaking down, and just plain exhaustion. And then there's the grief.

The aftermath of a tornado, even if human life has not been lost, is like a death. There has been this love affair - this hands on relationship with a home, or for many here in the country a farm,  for so many years. As in a relationship, there has been deep sustained emotional and physical interaction - the back and forth of honeysuckle growing, cutting it back; fences painted fresh black, and gradually fading to gray and beginning to crack in the Southern sun; the give and take that comes from seeding, mowing, fertilizing, grass growing, and mowing again. The thrill of beholding the hardwoods turn to gold and red, to skeletons against a dim winter sunset, and to yellow green. The expanding shade of the oaks in the spring, making an umbrella for picnics outside the kitchen door, and the fall winds swirling the tiny pin oak leaves into every corner of the chimneys, defying raking. All of these things involve reciprocity; the spiritual act of comprehending, appreciating, and nature giving, taking, changing.

Like a death by sudden tragedy, a tornado leaves you with too much change too fast to fathom at once. The mind numbs itself for protection. Then, like a death, there is little time to grieve for a while. Too many things need doing - endless lists of phone calls, questions, trying to understand disaster procedures and insurance policies -- and all that doesn't count not being able to get to the door because the oaks (the ones you couldn't bear to imagine losing) are lying like fallen soldiers around and on the house, having taken the hit of the winds, but blocking the doors and slamming power poles to the ground. It's similar to losing someone and having to make calls about hours for visitation and other incidental details of ceremonial ritual, and not a second to even feel the loss, for a time.

As with sudden death, life is instantly changed, never to be the same again. We are reminded of our smallness in the scope of the universe and the whimsical nature of chance by the tornado's casual romp through three states, taking lives here and there with no seeming order - killing a mother and her three children up the road, but leaving a china figurine still intact in the same house. The willy-nilly side of a natural disaster recalls Lily Tomlin's comically tragic routine about how we are all just "specks."

And as with a sudden loss or a death, there is the social context to loss - friends responding with well wishes, all welcome reminders of the "other" life out there on the other side of the fog of coping, but also  bringing home events in ways that there may not have been time to really digest. And as after a death, the physical exhaustion sometimes makes even a phone call hard.

And finally, there are the reminders that do not go away after a natural disaster. I find myself consumed in tasks, tractor clearing or phone calls, only to look up at the sloping forest across the valley that once gave solace, and now just keeps on looking like a hillside of broken bones.

You teach yourself to avoid the reminders. You don't look that way, you look out over open pastures where only grass grew and nothing could be taken away by the 200 mile an hour winds. You escape into the mundaneness of little things - which shoes to wear - the old tennis shoes or the really old ones. It's just dust and ashes outside; burn piles and powdery paths of the track loaders.

But we gather together, as in mourning. Each night the neighborhood meets at one of the houses with power, and we pull together a really good meal, and people bring food too. And we joke about the quirky things. And my neighbor who lost her horses and house and barn says to her husband, maybe we should move away, and he says, no way, I'll be #@%# if any tornado is going to drive me away. And in the pauses we notice each other's still faces and know we share something.

Loss takes us to a place of isolation. A relationship, or many layers of a relationship - a home, a tree, precious photos of a child, a landscape...  has been irrevocably fractured and that experience is different for each person.

But loss also brings us together. And dares us to find strength in solitude and strength in numbers. And the truisms abide. Each day it gets a little easier, and life will never be the same.

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