Today is the fifth anniversary of the Joplin tornado. On this date, and day, in 2011, a massive EF5 tornado devastated the communities of Joplin and Duquesne. Considered one of the biggest and deadliest tornadoes in the past 70 years, this storm destroyed a third of my town, injured more than a thousand people and killed 161.
This year, being the five year anniversary, there were many activities and times of both remembrance and celebration. I participated in several of those.
Today I have been in a quiet, reflective mood, somber yet hopeful. I was grateful for the bright sunny day, with no threat of storms. And I was appreciative of the celebrations and memorial service held at Cunningham Park. I attended the wonderful lunch that Operation BBQ Relief provided for hundreds and mingled with others while listening to music provided by Carter Hulsey and Kenny Foster.
I’ve shared in previous posts about my experiences the day of the tornado and about Joplin’s resilience. Rather than sharing my words in this post today, here are pictures that captured the event at Cunningham Park:
The 161 memorial trees planted in Cunningham Park are big enough now to provide shade.
It was good to gather with others at the park today. Good to see people I know and exchange greetings and hugs. I am thankful for all that people offered this week, to honor those who died and to celebrate the spirit of this community.
And, I made the decision not to attend the remembrance service at the park. My own backyard garden was calling to. I sought the peace and sanctuary of that beautiful, peaceful space, to remember on my own.
Watching the movie A Little Chaos recently inspired me to light candles throughout my garden. Tonight, I wanted to do that, create pockets of light, and build a small fire in the fire pit, in honor of those lost in the storm. I didn’t have 161 candles to light. But the 25 or so that I lit were for them.
Here are photos of my quiet time of remembering:
I felt restored after my time in the garden, with its warm candlelight and enchantment, and at peace. Although I feel sorrow around the events of May 22, 2011, the heaviness has gone.
I’ll never forget what happened or the people lost. Nor do I want to. Their lives are part of the fabric of this community, their stories woven with ours, inseparable. The tornado too, is part of us, part of our story. On one seemingly ordinary day, that storm turned our world upside down and revealed who we are, at our core. We are compassionate. We are overcomers. We are strong. We are Joplin Strong.
When my son Nate was unexpectedly called in to work today, I had the pleasure of picking up his daughter Aubrey from school. Normally this bright eyed girl is starving when she bounces into my car and we immediately head to one of her favorite restaurants. That was my plan for this afternoon.
Yet Aubrey decided it was a gorgeous day to go to the park. I agreed and was delighted to comply. I let her choose the park, and she picked Cunningham Park which contains lots of play areas for children, many places for quiet reflection, and memorials for victims and survivors of the May 22, 2011 tornado. There is also a wonderful area dedicated to the thousands of workers and volunteers who have helped Joplin to recover and heal.
Aubrey couldn’t have picked a better place to hang out. Today is the 5th anniversary of my father’s death. I’ve thought of him all day, with a mixture of sadness and joy, bright memories popping up at random. He fought such a valiant battle with pancreatic cancer, enduring surgeries and treatments, both traditional and experimental. In the end, the cancer won. But it only claimed his body. His spirit never faltered, his love and joy never waned. My dad not only taught me valuable lessons about life, he taught me about living with hope and humor while walking through the shadow of death, and about dying with grace and dignity.
Mingled with the memories of my dad today, were memories of my cousin Mindy, who passed in January at way too tender an age. She was so fond of my dad, and he of her. When she was fighting her first battle with cancer, she surprised my dad, who shaved his head for years, by whisking off her wig to show that she was bald as well. The memory makes me laugh and cry, at the same time.
This past week, I’ve lost two more family members. My Aunt Annie passed last Thursday, my mom’s older sister, a fun, vibrant, family oriented woman. She was my dad’s sister-in-law for a time. I’m sure she’s found him in the Beyond to at least say hello! And just yesterday, my Uncle Dale stepped into eternity as well, a quiet but rock solid man who journeyed at the side of my dad’s sister, June, for more than 60 years. I can imagine the conversations my dad and uncle are having now. I’ll be traveling to back to back funerals this week.
Aubrey knew none of this, and yet with an awareness beyond her years, she was reflective as well today. She played at the park and we also spent time walking through the memorials, speaking of those who were lost May 22. She asked questions and made observations. She is very connected to the event of the tornado and the aftermath. She doesn’t show fear so much as curiosity and a sense of respect for the victims and their families.
At the Children’s Reflective Pool, we read the plaque dedicating the pretty pool with the spraying fountain to “the children of Joplin who would no longer play at the park”. She sat before the pool, lost in thought herself, while I watched her and felt gratitude for her old soul with its inherent wisdom. Instinctively, my granddaughter took me to the best place in Joplin today to allow my own thoughts to settle into treasured memories. The Reflective Pool provided a place to be soothed by beauty and a place to drop an ache that had gathered around my heart, even as Aubrey dropped tiny pebbles into the water. The ripples that spread out across the shimmering water reminded me that the lives of my loved ones are still rippling outward, touching others, inspiring others, ever flowing in waves of love and light. They have not ceased to exist; they exist in another plane, another realm. I sense their presence now and I will see them again. I can’t wait to tell my granddaughter more about them.
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.