The tornado sirens sliced through the air, and the hail pounded our van with violent click-clacks. As we made our way back to the airport after a conference in Kansas City, Missouri, my co-workers and I stared out the shuttle’s rain-soaked windows, eyes wide with fear. I could hear my heart beating, along with a string of nervous F-bombs pouring out of my mouth.
Dark, finger-like clouds hung ominously on the horizon. It seemed at any moment these clouds would go all Dorothy-and-Toto and start swirling around us, plucking us from the earth into a vengeful, fury-filled vortex. I prayed and started texting my husband like mad, sure that these were my last moments.
“I love you. Please pray,” I begged.
Upon entering the airport, we were immediately escorted to an underground tornado tunnel. Hundreds of irritable travelers huddled together, their scents and body warmth all mingled together. It was hot. It was stinky. Oxygen was in short supply. Outside the airport, tornadoes were touching down.
I kept praying and tried not to breathe through my nose. To keep my peace, I imagined my children’s faces.
Once we were released from the tunnel, we spent the next few hours in the airport, working our way through the mess of security and waiting for updates on our flight.
Despite the weather, our flight took off, though hours delayed. It was the worst flight I have ever experienced. As my eight-year-old would say, it was “epic.”
For two hours, the storm battered and bruised the plane. Turbulence lurched us up and down; I gripped my seat handles so tightly, my hands began to cramp. Lightning flashed outside the windows, until I finally just squeezed my eyes shut. Again, I imagined my kids and focused on my breathing, in and out. I just wanted to be home.
At one point, the plane dropped precipitously and seemed to fall out of the sky. The passengers on either side of me grabbed my hands, and although we were strangers, we prayed together.
“God, keep us safe. Bring us home.”
Somehow, we made it. I have never been so happy to touch the ground. I wanted to hug the pilot, but he too seemed traumatized, running off the plane as quickly as his legs could carry him.
It was after midnight, and nothing mattered except getting home and snuggling with my babies. When I walked in my front door, I cried tears of joy. When I hugged my husband, I sobbed.
The next day, I noticed everything. I was like a newborn baby, staring at the world in all its technicolor delight. The trees were so green! That bluebird was a freaking miracle! Had watermelon always been this juicy and delicious?
I couldn’t believe my luck, to have this life, this house, this family.
Of course, in the days that followed, my newborn bliss faded as reality set back in. The kids were whining, the dishwasher needed to be emptied, and some sort of green slime had to be scraped off the couch.
But remnants of that scary night will stay with me forever. In those moments where life and death were flush with one another, all I cared about was my family. All I thought about were my relationships. Nothing else mattered. On that dark night, everything else fell away, and my life was very simple.
Since then, I feel softer. It’s easier to let things go. I’m less hostile about the pile of stuffed animals cluttering the floor. I’m kinder to myself. My words are softer with my kids and husband.
Sometimes, in all the rush and hub-bub of everyday life, I lose sight of my center, that rock-solid core where it all starts and ends. The good news is, it’s always there. Even on my dark night, underneath all those menacing tornado clouds, there was light and clarity. Truly, when I strip away all the fluff and distractions, only faith, family, and love remain.
Of course, Dorothy said it best: “There’s no place like home.”
Photo credit: Solange Swafford