My newspaper called the EF5 tornado that struck the state Monday a monster.
This is accurate.
The monster took 24 souls.
It sucked an infant and a 4-year-old, sisters, out of their mother’s arms. It crushed two elementary schools, claiming the lives of seven children inside of one of them. A mommy and baby died hiding in the freezer at 7-11.
The violent loss of life is awful. What makes this so much worse is that this tornado took so many children from their parents, even as everyone did everything that they could to hide the children and keep them safe from the storm, it seems.
The storm was the stuff of nightmares.
That’s why even though I’m exhausted, I’m *trying hard* not to complain. My babies are safe. My house is a wreck and the refridgerator is bare. At least I’ve got a roof over my head. Thousands of people in the south Oklahoma City area don’t even have a home to mess up anymore.
I’m trying to rally.
I spent all week at disaster scenes and in a newsroom and other places people don’t typically go to just hang out.
Believe it or not, I finished my piece on Eli on Tuesday.
That was an ordeal in and of itself.
To back up – I had the piece about 90 percent complete for most of the week before my deadline.
There was one more call I needed to make.
I met Andrea Cochran at our Great Strides event earlier this month. She’s 27 and has CF.
I spoke to her because the large number of people surrounding her, supporting her, caught my eye.
First, I talked to some of her friends.
I asked about her. Her age, the basics.
Then I asked “Is she able to work?”
It was the first thing I thought of.
It’s kind of a rude question.
She couldn’t work, her friends said.
This upset me. We started our walk. I started to think of Eli, growing up, getting sicker, not being able to work at the time of his life he is supposed to be healthy, strong, like most of the rest of us.
I wanted to cry.
After the walk, I tracked down Andrea.
She had such a big smile on her face, a glow about her. It was freezing cold and windy. I explained that I was a mom of a baby with CF and a reporter and – actually, she was the first adult with CF I’d ever talked to. I wondered if I could get her cell and maybe talk to her about her life later. Kind of for the piece but also because I’d like to get to know more older people with the disease.
We parted ways. My family went home.
May 4. The day of the Great Strides fundraising event.
That was the entry in my Oklahoman piece that remained blank.
The monster visited the state on Monday, May 20, but the carnage from the tornado outbreak started the day before.
This weather was the story — but just case – just in case we needed something for the upcoming Memorial Day weekend — hey, it was a long weekend — I still needed to get my piece done. This is to allow others to work on it before its original run date: Sunday, May 26.
I tried really hard to get out of it.
I ran to the Shawnee area Sunday with a photographer as soon as I heard a trailer park there had been flattened.
On Monday, when not hiding in a closet Tweeting the monster, I made my way to the morgue, just to see what I could see.
The kids were in bed. I needed to somehow help figure this thing out.
You would think this is not normal behavior. But it is for a reporter. Reporters want to help break down devastating events when they occur.
I wanted to work on the tornado, not the piece about my son, I told my editor. I tried to get my deadline for the CF piece pushed back.
Nope. It had to be done.
I was at the morgue.
There I met a toxicologist who was a surprisingly good listener for the line of work he was in.
I had my lap top open in the lobby of the medical examiner’s office. This turned out to be great place to get a little work done.
I asked him what brought him there tonight.
He had no real business being there, he was just there to support his fellow staff members. They were going to be working through the night. It was his day off and he wanted to make himself useful, he said.
I told him I knew the feeling.
I’m writing a piece about my son, I told him. I’m hung up. Can’t finish it.
“This is really hard,” I said to my new therapist at the morgue.
“Those are the best to read,” he said. “The ones that are the hardest to write.”
You know I really kind of liked my new morgue BFF.
We talked about media.
We talked about CF. He told me about a friend who has a child with the disease – a child doing a really well.
We talked about natural disasters like this that tend to hit Oklahoma. Where he was during the last couple – May 3, 1999, which is a date everyone knows around here. That tornado in the same area killed over 40.
My new friend got back up. Firemen had arrived. They were wearing blue medical gloves. He needed to see what they needed.
I had written a basic story on the event and on Andrea as I sat at the morgue seeing what I could see, but I just couldn’t finish the May 4 post. I couldn’t really get it straight what I wanted to say.
It was writer’s block like I’ve never had before.
The morgue had no official news to release so I went back home.
Even given the fact that, yes, I am a reporter, and yes, I want a piece of any huge story that hits my area — It’s just not like me to try to get out of something I’ve promised so many people, frankly. I was so gung-ho when I got the assignment to let people know about my son, about facing a life that isn’t the life you thought you’d get.
Then all the sudden, I quit trying to finish it.
It was like I’d been training for months for the race of a lifetime. I sprinted the race then got to the last 50 yards and just started to walk.
The piece was due the next day. It wasn’t done.
I wanted to call Andrea before my shift, which starts in the afternoon on Tuesdays.
I work at 1 p.m. I called her at noon.
You know, I’m glad I did.
I told Andrea it was hard for me to call. I know I’d love to talk a lot more – I just wasn’t sure that I could now. It’s my son, I said. I have a hard time thinking about him getting sick.
She totally understood. However, we did get to talking a bit.
She’s a sweetheart. Andrea also has great perspective on her own medical care, which is really valuable. I got to know her just a little bit, confirmed the basic facts I’d gotten from her friends the day of the race, and said I’d call again.
I went into work.
I sat down to talk to my editor about the piece, my hang ups, my unusual field trips.
I didn’t even know what to say going into the meeting.
I decided I was going to ask — no, beg — for more time.
Instead, I confessed:
I can’t stand thinking about the future when it comes to my son.
I can’t stand it.
I told her that I agreed to do the piece thinking I could handle it since I’d been writing all along. I hadn’t realized how emotional it would be, how it would put my mind through the ringer to learn things I didn’t want to learn, face things I didn’t want to face. To face Eli’s future.
I confessed something I hadn’t even realized was true until I blurted it out: I’d been hiding at disaster scenes to avoid my own life.
The future was my monster. The monster from my nightmares, the monster waiting to take my son away.
It was easier for me to cover other peoples’ disasters than to look ahead, into the unknown, into Eli’s future.
And yet, CF is so different in everybody. And medicine is advancing so fast. I know his life will be happy, good. Andrea’s life seemed happy and good. She’s so strong, even though she faces major challenges – she had to have open heart surgery last year. That’s because a catheter near her heart – much like the one Eli had for his medical procedures- developed a blood clot.
Still, she’s married. She has a dog, June Bug, and a ton of love and support in her life. Her spirit is so strong. I loved learning all that. But I hated that she was sick. Too sick to work. This wasn’t fair.
I hate that Eli has this disease.
I thought I was ready to face it all.
I still made the call, I told my editor.
I have every detail I need.
And I will finish it.
I needed the deadline to make the call.
After I spoke to Andrea, after I talked to my editor, I finished the last post in less than 20 minutes.
I said everything I wanted to say about what we had experienced, what we had learned so far.
The words just flowed. I knew exactly what I wanted to express.
Of course, the piece was held.
There is no room in the newspaper right now for an long piece about my family’s experience. This is the worst natural disaster since ’99.
In a few weeks, or maybe even sooner, the time will be right.
Maybe people around here need a story like this.
The monster took so many children, so many homes.
Each person left standing in the rubble got a new life. Each person in the new life is grieving for the old life, is grieving for what was supposed to be, then, in an instant, wasn’t.
Life is like that. Hard.