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Tornado of Angels

Friday, May 27th, 2011
Common Roots Cafe
Minneapolis

Last Sunday, May 22nd, a tornado dropped from the sky into our backyard.

As I sit here in this cafe on a day not unlike last Sunday, I don’t know how to string the words together to convey what is in me right now, what is sitting in my solar plexus, what is blurring my vision with tears as I try to write what I don’t know how to express.

I have always believed in angels, in both human and spirit form.  But last Sunday, before, during and after the tornado, I am certain we were and have been blessed with a fleet of them.  I write this mindful of the people and families and community of Joplin who have had to endure the loss and devastation of the same tornado hours later.  It is a tragic mystery that butts up against my own experience, a mystery which makes my fingers pause above these keys of my laptop, not knowing how to proceed.

Sunday, May 22nd.
T-minus 30 minutes:
Paul and I were itching with cabin fever, imploring the kids to come on a walk with us through our back woods, which, a half hour later, had collapsed into itself, a tangle of great, fallen 100 year-old trees.  Oliver and Lucy would not budge from the basement where they were playing.  So Paul and I went into our backyard to poke around, pull weeds, and admire the pagoda dogwood that we had planted from our 5th anniversary.  We decided since the kids would not walk with us, Paul would run up to Home Depot in St. Louis Park, where the tornado began its rampage, to get mulch.  He took Oliver with him while Lucy and I hung out around home.

T-minus 20 minutes: Lucy is serving me “banana tea” in her little pretend kitchen in our basement while I am crawling with the desire to be outside.  “C’mon Luc!” I begged. “Let’s go outside.”

T-minus 10 minutes: “Ok, but first can I see those bunny slippers I wore when I was a baby?” she asked.  There is a dresser in the deepest part of the basement where I keep all of the clothes that I have kept from when Oliver and Lucy were babies.  Exercising patience, I agreed and together we pulled out tiny dresses and shoes, Lucy delighted by the slippers that barely fit over her now four year-old toes.

T-minus 5 minutes: “C’mon Luc!  We are going outside.” I said, and stuffed the baby clothes back into their dresser.  “Ok,” she said, “But first can I have a bowl of cereal?”  I groaned and reluctantly headed upstairs to get her a bowl of cereal, telling her to wait downstairs so she could eat it on the back porch.

T-minus 2 minutes: Lucy and the bowl of cereal on the back porch, looking out at the swingset in the back yard, Percy the cat snoozing on the chair next to her.  “Stay here Lucy.  I’ll be right back,” I told her as I headed back into the basement to get our rain boots.

Sometime in there, a memory which remains fuzzy and loud, something exploded above, like the top of our house blowing off, like a plane crashing on our roof–”BOOM!” Lucy came toward me (Was she running?  Where exactly was I when I heard it?  Did I run toward her? Did I scream?), I scooped her up and headed through the basement toward the mudroom door.  I thought our house had blown up and my instinct was to get out.  But when I got to the mudroom and looked through the window, I knew I should not go out.  This was the work of a primal instinct.  Shock and confusion reigned supreme over my rational mind.  Even as I held my daughter in the basement, the house smashing, crashing, booming, creaking on its hinges around us, I did not know what was going on.

Then silence.

We emerged and I went to walk upstairs.  Glass shattered everywhere.  I needed to find my shoes. “IneedmyshoesIneedmyshoesIneedmyshoes,” I chanted as I held Lucy.  Found them.  Crunched up the stairs.

It was when I looked out our living room window and saw it was blocked by the tall white pine that I realized it was a tornado.  All at once, not knowing how big a swath it cut, knowing Paul and Oliver would have been on their way home, in a state of primordial terror that is granted to us in motherhood, I held Lucy and maniacally made her repeat after me, “Daddy and Oliver are ok.  Daddy and Oliver are ok.  Lucy!  Say it with me, ‘Daddy and Oliver are ok,’”  Together, as I searched for my cell phone, we repeated together, “Daddy and Oliver are ok, Daddy and Oliver are ok.”

We walked through the frame of our door, over the broken glass, past Mr. Kramer’s roof atop the once-towering pine in front of our house.  I screamed, “IS ANYONE OUT THERE!?!”  My neighbor JR: “I’M OK!  I’M OK!”

Then, slowly, dazed and bewildered, people began to come out of their homes.  My neighbors Kaija and Chris coming toward me holding Lucy.  Panic, terror, that still, five days later, reverberates up and down my spine, “WHERE ARE OLIVER AND PAUL!  WHERE ARE THEY?!” I screamed to them.  They took Lucy from my arms.  I think.  Somehow she ended up in their basement.

Mass confusion.  The tornado sirens began.  My neighbors shouting for me to get back inside.  Terrified, screaming Paul’s name, sure he and my baby boy were under a tree or blown up into the heavens, I ran down the street, Kaija screaming after me, “Get the f$%^& back here!  The power lines!”

I had to get to Paul and Oliver. I could not hear reason.

Running down Plymouth Avenue, over trees and downed power lines, screaming Paul’s name, I saw the top of a white truck cresting the bridge into our neighborhood, into the destruction. Our truck.  Paul.  Oliver.  Knees buckling.

As Paul tells it, he had just seen the gaping hole of our back yard when he heard my voice above the mayhem.

Neighbors knocking on doors, “Is anyone in there?!” they asked.  Trying to figure out who is here, who is missing, is everyone ok.  No cars can get through. Massive trees blocking all of the streets.  Sirens, sirens sounding everywhere.

Our neighbor Rob, cigarette in his mouth, chainsaw in his hand, smiling.  His home destroyed.  He’s smiling, mobilizing, helping.  He is in his element.  “Well, at least we’re all here,”  he grinned, his robin hood hat reliably on his head.

Our beloved angel Rob. God, we will miss him.

I brought Oliver to another neighbor’s house that hadn’t been hit.  On my way back, Molly is running and screaming, “Rob is down!  Rob is down,” but the emergency vehicles cannot yet get through.  It has been 30 minutes since the tornado.

Molly’s husband is administering CPR.  Middle of the street, middle of mayhem, our beloved friend and neighbor, the heart and soul of our neighborhood, Rob had a massive heart attack.  His wife standing, moaning, watching, hoping, in the midst of a nightmare within a nightmare.

Rob left us with a gaping hole of his presence.  He gets carried onto the gurney.  We turn back toward the devastation that is our neighborhood.  We begin the overwhelming process of clearing.  We don’t know what else to do.

This story got away from me.  It was about angels.  It is about angels.  Angels that coached Oliver and Lucy to keep us out of our woods.  Angels in the form of great big trees that laid down their lives to protect our homes.  Angels in the form of people that came flooding into our neighborhood from other neighborhoods in Minneapolis with chain saws and bottles of water and hugs and work gloves, picking up the debris, clearing.  Angels with food and drink to share with the angels that were helping us get through this mess.  Angels teaching us how to be angels.

In the midst of utter disaster and trauma, nothing is more clear than this fact to me.  We are here on Earth to be angels for each other.  Like a flower emerging from a the cracks of concrete in a vacant lot, its beauty illuminated by the ugliness, the actions of our friends and neighbors and strangers are the beauty of the heavens, pushing up through destruction.

This is a story of tragedy, the biggest of tragedies being the loss of our friend Rob.  While our neighborhood will be pieced back together, the hole that our friend left will never be filled.

This is a story of angels.  A story of the comfort and fellowship unique to these traumatic incidences, when all of the bullshit of our hectic daily lives ceases to be, when we look into each other’s eyes and see only the vulnerability and humanity that lies within each of us, always.

God, thank you for these angels, in Heaven and on Earth.  May we remember the lessons these moments teach.  Amen.

  1. Beautiful! I hope you don’t mind if I share your story. There is a facebook page called North Minneapolis Post Tornado Watch. I think this story would touch people that have been following that page.

  2. I was heading away from downtown Robbinsdale at 50 mph to get away from the funnel reported in Brooklyn center…headed for the Camden bridge to avoid 694…thank God for these two young men running terrified in the mayhem – I had to pick them up and drive them to shelter 3 blocks away…by the time I got to 45th and Memorial I saw the twister about a mile away. My 5 year old was in the back seat and I shudder to think what if the Holy Spirit did not prompt me in all the lefts and rights I took??? Fleet of Angels no doubt!! Bless you dear I am praying so hard for hearts to be moved – North Minneapolis needs so much!!!!

    • I am so happy to hear you are ok. I know. It really does make you shudder with the “what if?s” I hope and believe north Minneapolis will not only survive this, but thrive through this. Take care and bless your heart!

  3. Oh Janna. I’m so sorry that you lost your dear neighbor and friend and that you had to experience those moments of terror. Tragedy within tragedy. I have been crying listening to the MPR stories about the kindness in North Minneapolis every day. I think it will come back better and stronger, as only those who have lost have the courage and wisdom to do. Your neighbors in South Minneapolis are rooting for you all. XXOO

  4. I’m so sorry that you lost your dear neighbor and friend and that you had to experience those moments of terror. Tragedy within tragedy. I have been crying listening to the MPR stories about the kindness in North Minneapolis every day. I think it will come back better and stronger, as only those who have lost have the courage and wisdom to do. Your neighbors in South Minneapolis are rooting for you all. XXOO

  5. xoxo Paul & Janna – I’m so thankful you are okay.

  6. Thank you for so eloquently sharing your story, and Rob’s story. I had the pleasure of knowing Rob and you have captured it best, we just can not fill the hole that he leaves. But, in his honor, I will do my best to be a good citizen of the Earth and make life better for all creatures. He would like that. I’ll keep you and your family in my prayers as we all pick up the pieces, literally, after the Nomi tornado.

  7. My God. I’m so sorry for everything that’s happened to you, your wonderful neighbor, you neighborhood. All the hard work, the tears, the big trees now gone…thank you for writing this, for putting some feelings behind the images of that awful and scary day.

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