May 22, 2011. It is a day Joplin, MO residents will not forget. Cannot forget. Ask anyone who lived in this city on that day what they were doing at 5:30 on that Sunday afternoon, and they can immediately tell you. I was taking shelter in a closet under the stairs, with Greg. As we stepped inside that cramped space, the first 2X4 board came crashing through a window. The next few minutes were surreal. We first stood, then crouched, as the sounds of breaking glass, splintering wood, crashing debris and that unbelievable roar of fury assailed our ears. Briefly, I calmly considered that these were to be my last moments as the house shook and groaned and then began to lift upwards.
When I stepped out of the battered house, all I saw was ruin and rubble and brokenness. It is a sight seared into my brain. Thankfully, we were unhurt. Our family members were unhurt, although my mother’s house was also hit and my daughter and son-in-law lost their house and vehicles, riding out the storm a block from their home in the car. Joplin was changed. We were changed.
Much progress and healing has taken place since that day. We came together as a community, rolled up our sleeves, literally, and began to rebuild with the help of thousands and thousands of volunteers. We moved through our days, experiencing daily reminders of what had happened, and journeyed onward. On this, our third anniversary, we collectively remembered, and grew thoughtful, emotions rising with surprising strength.
For my first today, as I reflected on my journey and the city’s, I attended a very special dedication for a very special place, the Butterfly Garden and Overlook, located in the northeast corner of Cunningham Park. This park, located at 26th and Maiden Lane, took a direct hit May 22. It was completely destroyed. Work began the next day, clearing debris and cleaning it up. Located across the street from what was St. Johns Hospital, many consider this area ground zero. As the park was restored, it became a memorial park with a children’s reflection pool in honor of the lost children who would never play here again. There is a memorial wall with the names of the 161 victims of the tornado, a memorial fountain, a tribute to the volunteers, new playground areas for the kids, including a Boom Town play area built by Extreme Home Makeover while they were in Joplin, and 161 trees, one for each person lost.
It is very fitting that as we heal, a sacred space for doing so has been included in Cunningham Park. This beautiful addition is a collaborative project between the TKF Foundation, who believes in the restorative power of nature, Drury University, Springfield, MO, Joplin Parks & Recreation, Cornell University, US Forest Service, MO Dept of Conservation, Walmart Foundation, Forest ReLeaf of MO, Great River Assoc. and TILL Design. Sitting in front of this amazing space during the dedication, listening to representatives from the different organizations speak, my eyes filled with tears.
According to the program provided during the dedication, the Butterfly Garden and Overlook is an open space, sacred place for individuals to work through their grief over what was lost, whether a person or an object such as a home. The garden is set up to flow through four phases. “Accepting the Reality of the Loss” begins as visitors pass through the front door of the lost home. The path winds through the site, allowing for “Processing the Pain of Grief”. Benches are set up as points of reflection, including a bench with a journal beneath it so that visitors can write about their loss and “Adjust to a World Without What Was Lost”.
The steel outlines of the three homes represent all homes erased during the storm and storyboards placed through the first structure educate on the destruction, acts of heroism, survival and the miracle of the human spirit. “We Move On But Do Not Forget” completes the phases. The butterfly attracting flowers create a unifying circle within the garden. The waterwall has 38 segments that represent the minutes the tornado was on the ground. A void at minute 7 marks the moment the park was struck.
I was very moved as I strolled around the beautiful space, crowded with other visitors and yet still peaceful and serene. This quote by David Willard is on one of the fountains in the garden: “The biggest and most disastrous moments in a person’s life can be the most defining of a person’s character and a person’s heart.” I would say that is true of a city also. It is true of Joplin. I am grateful for the organizations that have brought this idea into existence and for the promise of restoration that it offers. I will return here often to think, to write, and to allow my own memories to heal.