Tuesday, May 31, 2011

What I Gained from Losing (almost) Everything

In three minutes, I lost everything. Almost everything, anyway.

On May 22nd, I raced home to find my home destroyed in the wake of an EF5 tornado. Debris forced me to park two blocks away. I ran up what was left of the sidewalk, jumping over limbs and fallen power lines to find my wife holding my five week old daughter in the middle of the street, raining soaking both of them. People frantically ran by us, looking like extras running from an alien attack in a summer blockbuster movie. Our house was nearly gone. What was left of the brick bungalow was barely recognizable. What started out as a fairly typical Sunday, evolved into one of the longest weeks of my life.

Long but also good. We have been overwhelmed by the support, both emotionally and financially, that has come from across the country. Friends from high school sent baby necessities. Friends’ aunts and uncles, people from Illinois whom I've never met, have mailed checks. We are surrounded by amazing, amazing people. You hate for a tragedy to be the catalyst but it’s humbling to be reminded of how good you have it.

How good we have it is exactly what this blog is about. Honestly, I’m ready to move on. I'm ready to embrace the “new normal”, as we’re calling it. But I know that before I do, a proper look back on what took place, and the things we learned along the way, is imperative. A friend encouraged me to make sure I journaled often last week, as proof that hardship makes you better. If that’s true, the following is what I gained from losing everything.

Clich├ęs are true. Whenever someone found out that my wife and daughter were home alone during the storm, they would say things like “well, at least everyone is okay” and “you can always buy new stuff”. The response was the same as many times as I told the story. Oddly enough, they were always right. Additionally, the old saying, “they don’t make them like they used to” is also true. Even though our house was 70 years old and creaked every time someone walked through the dining room, the brick walls held up against 200 mph winds. I’ve always had a love/hate relationship with that old house – the normal frustrations that come with an abode with character. That being said, I loved that house last week.

Little things make a big difference. I always thought it was weird to watch people on the news who had survived a natural disaster. There they would be, in the B roll footage, picking through what was left of their house, looking for picture frames and toasters like buried treasure. Common sense tells you to let the little things go. The house is gone. It’s all rubble now. On this side of the street, I can tell you that it’s different when your history, your story, is the rubble. It means a lot when you are able to find your wedding ring in what used to be your bathroom or a box of old photos in the basement. In a small way, it represents hope. If you can find a necklace in a pile of brick and wood, perhaps you can rebuild the life that appears to be lost.

The Nissan Altima is the most durable car ever made. In 1995, the Nissan corporation made the perfect automobile when the first 1996 Altima rolled off the assembly line. It’s not that it was the fastest or flashiest car ever made. No, the Altima doesn’t care much for flash. The Altima values loyalty over beauty. For over ten years, I had the honor of driving my Altima and I'll admit, I spent most of that time hating it. But looking back, it was the perfect car. Sure the cruise control stopped working when it crossed the 200,000 mile mark. Sure the AC smelled funny. Sure the hubcaps fell off in 2001 but you won’t find a woman or friend or dog more loyal than an Altima. She started every morning without fail. She carried me to Colorado in 2003 and Miami in 2001 and to college and back for four years. I took and took and took from her and she was happy just to give. Remember the children's book The Giving Tree? That car was my Giving Tree. I always planned on driving the Altima until she died. I just didn’t think a collapsed garage would be what finally killed her. RIP Altima (pouring out a 40).

Stuff is replaceable. You’ll throw away everything you own at some point. If you don’t, your kids will after you die. "Why did mom still have this macrame owl?" they'll ask in disgust, hours after your funeral. Throwing everything away at once taught me that we don't need as much as we have. Start small. If you haven’t worn an article of clothing in 12 months, it’s time to donate it. Why do you still own a pair of overalls anyway?

Christians aren’t bigots after all. The truth is this, people who bash Christians don’t know Christians. Sure we have our faults and we don’t always put our best foot forward. But honestly, and not just because I have a vested interest, the churches here in Joplin are the ones leading the renovation. They are the reason the city is overflowing with bottled water and other supplies. Church groups from all over the country have swarmed Joplin over the past few days, looking to clear debris and cut down trees. Churches are working hand in hand with government organizations and rebuilding the city from the ground up. It's amazing and I'm honored to have a front row seat.

Sooner or later, your secrets come out. When twenty people came to my house first thing Monday morning and began going through drawers and closets, dumping everything that we own into trash bags, I was extremely thankful that I didn’t have a secret stash of Nazi propaganda, drug paraphernalia, or a giant watercolor of me riding a giraffe while wearing only a Viking helmet. All three would have been difficult to explain to my coworkers. That might be obvious, but I was thankful for it nevertheless.

Prepare for the unexpected. Get homeowners insurance. Get renters insurance. Put all of your important documents in a fireproof safe. Do this tomorrow. Seriously. We were not ready but we were prepared. I’m thankful for the foresight.

But not as much as I am thankful for you.

It's good to know we still have what really matters.


Anonymous said...

My parents live in Joplin, where I grew up. We had much the same experience. We spent most of the time I was there last week hugging each other as we went through the rubble of their house, and I said so many times that I'd rather be picking through rubble looking for my little sister's old stuffed animals than planning her funeral. God really is good.

Mandy said...

good words, Eric. I found myself laughing, so it's good to know you haven't lost your sense of humor through it all! I'm amazed at your resilience.