I know that look on your faces, Oklahoma. I know it because I’ve had it, I’ve seen it, I’ve lived it.
Your life has been upended, and your face tells the story: Shock. Pure, unmasked shock. The tornado that ripped through Moore left you feeling as if today you awoke on a planet other than your own. This is not your life. It’s not the way you left it. But it is what you now have to face, and that is the most shocking thought of all.
I know this is true because six months after Hurricane Sandy wrecked my house, leaving three and a half feet of water and months of chaos, I am still processing how your life can go from utterly routine to completely unrecognizable in less than a day.
You look around, and that which you once found so comforting -- home, community -- are suddenly foreign, scary, dangerous. You seek out something familiar and when you find it, you embrace it — the neighbor down the street, a cracked dinner plate, a mangled stuffed animal.
You’re looking for normal, but you’re not going to find it. Normal got swept up by that tornado, just as our normal got washed away by Sandy’s storm surge.
You’ll keep looking around you, overwhelmed, not knowing where to start, where to go, what tomorrow will be. Your routines, the heartbeat of every day that you had no idea you relied on so much, are gone. New ones will replace them, temporarily at least. You’ll become an expert at pulling things apart and tossing them away. You’ll unearth remnants of your former life and they will make you dizzy — a destroyed christening gown, a ruined high school yearbook, smashed Christmas ornaments. The first discoveries will make your hands shake and your mind swirl. You’ll sit and cry, or scream or punch something. But over time the pain becomes so constant that you don’t feel its sharp jab. You’ll see your destroyed wedding album and say, “Just toss it. It’s only stuff. We can replace stuff.”
That’s what the initial days will be like. But there’s one part of this story I can’t relate to, one that makes my heart deeply ache for you Oklahoma: The death. So much injury, so much young death, so many parents whose arms will be empty, their hearts ripped apart and leaving wounds that will never fully heal. The refrain that got us through Sandy — It could have been worse. At least no one was hurt — will not be your salve. Instead, your hurt will turn to unquenchable anger. You will go to dark places where I have not ventured. I don’t know how you will rebuild your lives while trying to carry that loss, as well. But I do know this: You will. What you now think is impossible somehow, with time, becomes endurable. The human spirit is stronger than you know at this moment. Six months from now you will look back and realize: I’ve endured much and somehow I survived. I’m still angry, and I’m still hurt, but I’m here.
People will come to offer you their help. Take it. They will offer you free food and water and clothing, things you never in your life thought you’d be on the receiving end of. Accept it. If you’re lucky, someone will come in and take over what you cannot do. Let them. Walk away when you need to and come back when the time is right.
Try not to plan too far into the future. It’s May. You might already be thinking, “We can rebuild by the time the kids are back to school, right?” No, you won’t. But you don’t need to know that yet. Go into crisis mode. Don’t wait for the offers of help. If you have family nearby, think about whose roof you’d be best able to live under without losing your mind. Then ask them for huge favors. Your friends and family love you, and they want to help, but truly they don’t know what to do. If you need money, ask for it. If you need a hot meal, ask. A bed? Ask. Childcare? Ask. Don’t hesitate. You’ll be shocked by how happy your candid requests make other people.
Register with FEMA. Call your insurance company as soon as you can. They will help you but they will not be the ones who save you. Their bureaucracy will be infuriating at times. That’s why you need to accept the help that comes from the easiest sources. Someone shoves money in your hand? Don’t be proud. Now is not the time for that. Later, when you are sitting where I am, another tragedy will happen, and you’ll be the one writing the check. Today, you are the victim. Today, you need to do what you have to do to survive.
Cling close to those you love. During those first few days after Sandy, there was no greater comfort to me than my husband’s warm embrace during those cold, long, dark nights when my mind whirled with questions of how we’d rebuild our lives. At times during the recovery we were separated, and those were definitely the darkest days. Keep those you love close to you. Let them know you love them. Hug often. It will help.
And as a warning, in these next few weeks and months you will simultaneously find yourself at your best and worst. You will endure, survive and create things you never imagined. But you will also face emotions you’ve never felt as intensely as you do now. Anger, fear, loathing — they will make you snap at your children and your spouse, make you want to run away from all the immense responsibility that is now upon you. During those moments, step back. Stop what you are doing. Figure out how to calm yourself down. And most of all, forgive yourself. There are many tomorrows ahead of you, ripe with opportunities to reclaim the person you once were.
Your community will take even longer to recover than you will. Every service you’ve come to rely on will feel as if it’s regressed 100 years. You will value electricity like you never have before. Your mail will feel as if it’s been delivered by the Pony Express. You might have to drive for miles to get food or water. Nothing will be easy and everything will exhaust you. Try to endure. Remind yourself that it won’t be this way forever.
You have tough days ahead, Oklahoma. You’ll find yourself crying at the most unexpected moments. The slightest inconvenience (and there will be many) will leave you flustered. Why can’t anything be easy? you’ll wonder. Why can’t I feel happy? Reach out to those around you. Your fellow survivors are about to become your kindred spirits. Voice your emotions, be it in a journal or on social media or the old-fashioned way — with a long, possibly tear-soaked, conversation.
Repeat to yourself the mantra that got me through the darkest days: Every day is one day closer to normal.
I pray your normal finds you soon.