Timothy A. Clements holds an MFA in writing from Lindenwood University and lives nearby in St. Charles, MO with his wife and two children.
PETTY IS DEAD
My wife and I sat in an over-crowded Joe’s Crab Shack waiting on southern-style steam pots while we argued over things I cannot recall. I’ve tried countless times to remember, but I can’t. If I asked her I’m sure she would remember. It’s a skill, or curse, she has when it comes to remembering those types of seemingly inane details. I choose to forget so I won’t regret something stupid I may have said. My wife is quick to forgive me, and quick to apologize when she is the culprit, but never forgets. It gives her satisfaction knowing that we have grown.
It was an early Sunday evening, our pre-school aged children were being unruly as they often can be in restaurants, and there was a storm heading our way. We live west of Saint Louis and whenever a storm kicks up in the Southwest, Texas, or Kansas, it very often speeds across the state right into us. I remember wanting to leave before it started raining, before the screaming and whining and fighting were compounded by the torrential down-pour my phone had promised. After we finished eating the waitress cleared our pots and took her time bringing us the check. By the time it made it to the table I had my Visa out, ready to spend ten minutes wondering about the security of my card. I didn’t even look at the bill, already knowing what it said: overpriced.
As we waited, the kids continued to play; we continued to bicker. Our arguing had turned more toward our very temporary, but very real, mutual disdain for one another. It was that place couples get to where nothing one says to the other matters, even compliments. I could have told her; “You know you’re beautiful,” or she could have played into my ego: “You’re the best I’ve ever had.” Either way I’m confident our answers would have been the same—ugh.
Then my smart-phone vibrated in my pocket. I retrieved and opened it, thankful for the interruption; she relaxed with the distraction. The text message was from a co-worker and friend.
“Hope your family is okay,” it read, “Let me know if you need anything.”
I thought hard about this. This wasn’t the type of text message adult men send each other with any sort of frequency, if ever. It only took a moment for me to figure out what he meant. The thought always lays dormant somewhere in my mind, happy to remain there forever and hopeful to never become a reality. “Hope your family is okay,” he had said. There were storms all across the state; must have been a tornado. Whatever face I was making as I put all of this together must have alerted Christine to a problem.
“What’s wrong,” she asked.
“Josh texted me, said I hope your family is okay. I think there was a tornado in Joplin.”
Before I finished telling her I had already begun to search the web on my phone. The only information available was that a large tornado had indeed struck Joplin. No details. As I relayed this minimal information to her she immediately began to gather the boys, her things, and the leftovers. She was great. The waitress arrived and laid my card and receipt on the table.
“Have a good night,” she said.
I quickly filled out the slip and we were on our way. In that moment everything got quiet as the fear and worry and unknown washed over me. The fighting and bickering, the boys treating our immediate area and the areas of a few other customers as their own personal playground, the terrible ambience of the chain restaurant, none of it mattered. Reports said a large tornado.
The crab shack is about twenty minutes from our house, which normally works out because there is almost no chance of driving by and popping in, but on this night it irritated me. Rain was moving in and people were slow. This made the traffic worse and the people even slower. Christine tried searching for more information on her phone, but no new reports were available. Information was slow, incredibly slow. The web was dark.
I called my father’s cell phone, he always answers, but this time he didn’t. Then my mother’s, nothing. Then my brother’s house, the line was dead. Panic began to creep in. In an effort not to alarm the kids or upset my wife I decided to make the drive as enjoyable as possible for them. I talked to the kids about whatever movie they were viewing in the back of the van to keep them busy. In reality I was trying to keep myself occupied so I wouldn’t think of the worst. That tends to be where my mind goes. I could also see that Christine was growing more and more worried as she silently looked at her phone, and I didn’t want her to think of the worst either, imagining what could have happened, at least not in front of the boys.
When we reached the house it was business as usual. It was already past normal bath time, so she immediately took them upstairs and readied them for bed. She assured me that everything would be okay, her constant optimism still a beacon of light in my life every day, and then led them away. That’s the type of person she has always been. Always putting on a brave face, something she had more than enough practice with. After I watched the three of them disappear up the stairs I sat on the couch and tuned to the Weather Channel.
Two years before, during a routine check-up, Christine received a familiar diagnosis—cervical cancer. She had it twice before; once as a teenager and once as a young woman.
“It’s no big deal,” she told me, “I’ll beat it again.”
“No big deal! It’s cancer,” I remember shouting. Not out of anger but fear. “What stage is it?” I asked her.
“Stage-3, but it hasn’t spread.”
Her optimism in the matter was almost annoying; I thought she wasn’t taking it seriously enough. In time I would realize that there was no other way for her to handle it. Her familiarity in dealing with this kind of news, something that I have feared for myself for much of my life, angered me. My anger was not with her, but with her body.
“The doctors are going to remove my cervix,” she told me, “no more kids.”
We had already decided we were done having kids, but someone telling her she would be unable to have them, that was the worst.
“I’m not a woman anymore,” she told me crying one night.
“Of course you are,” I said, and then I held her in my arms.
She soldiered on, I supported her. Her doctors gave her a pill to take daily.
“It’s like chemo in a pill,” she told me, “to make sure it doesn’t spread.”
Her positive attitude was still intact, but within a few days of taking the pill regularly she would become violently ill. There was constant nausea, vomiting, and fatigue; it was like chemo. I worked a rotating shift and was going to business school at the time, so I tried to drop out.
“Don’t,” she told me, “I can handle it.”
This went on for months. Finally, her doctors scheduled her surgery. She was still mostly concerned with losing her cervix; I was concerned with losing her. My fears turned to tears as they prepped her.
“I love you,” I told her, just in case.
“I wub yu too,” she told me, the drugs fulfilling their obligations.
Surgery would go as planned and the cancer would be eradicated from her body once again. This time, we hoped, it would not return.
Not long after Christine’s surgery we had an appointment with a neurologist. This time it was for our oldest son. Since birth he’d had development issues. He didn’t walk until he was almost two, didn’t hit his speech and motor skill milestones with his therapist, and had overall low muscle tone. That is exactly what they had diagnosed him with, Hypotonia, which is a fancy way of saying low muscle tone. But there was something more. We knew it, the therapists knew it, and all the different doctors we saw knew it. The neurologist we were referred to was supposed to be the Rain Man of head doctors, and if we were going to get a definitive explanation for our son’s condition, this was the man to see. He examined our son and was quite positive on his diagnosis; Kleinfelter’s Syndrome, a genetic disorder that affects both physical and mental development. This was unusual due to his young age, as Kleinfelter’s isn’t normally diagnosed until later in life. To be safe, he ordered blood tests and a Cat-Scan.
The first Cat-Scan would not help the doctors determine anything more. Several months later a second scan was ordered. In the second a mass was discovered next to his brain in his skull and we would have to see a specialist. We would later find out that the mass was present in the first scan but went undiagnosed. My wife cried as I paced our home, full of rage.
“God damned doctors. You’ve got one job to do and you can’t do it right,” I yelled.
“Calm down,” my wife cried.
“Did you see that thing? I could have diagnosed that mass!”
It was the first time in my life that I had felt utterly helpless. This had become our new normal.
During Christine’s illness she was self-admittedly less than fun to be around. It was hard, and the kids didn’t really understand, but she had done her best. My role grew as a parent on top of school and work and the fear of losing my wife. Then, when we should have been at our happiest, the diagnosis with our son and the unknown came. It was already more than any family should have to handle. The stress of it all had finally gotten to both of us. That’s why we had been fighting in the crab shack; one long nightmare of illness with no real reprieve from our own fears and doubts. Now there was a more pressing unknown.
Back on the couch, much of what I feared was true. A tornado, estimated at a mile wide at its base, had cut a large and destructive path through the heart of Joplin. Radar revealed that the storm which produced the tornado was a stand-alone cell that developed just west of town. The beast had cut its path all the way through to the East side of town.
Words like catastrophic and the worst possible scenario were constantly repeated by meteorologists and newscasters alike. It had taken out St. John’s, a large hospital on the Southwest side of town. I knew it well from countless summers of bike rides with friends. There were a lot of residential houses in the area. The house I grew up in was only a few miles to the East, on the edge of the tornado’s path, though my parents had moved us north of town when I was a teenager. Then they mentioned the high school. It had been hit; completely destroyed, a catastrophic loss, still throwing that word around. But they were right. My worst fears were coming true; I reached for my phone.
I had to get a hold of Dennis, my brother; he only lived a few blocks from there. No service. He had recently gotten a cell phone; having avoided getting one for a very long time, and this fact escaped me initially. I navigated to the number in my contacts list and hit the dial icon. Ring…ring…ring…voicemail.
I tried every number for every family member I had, for my best friend who still lived in town near St. John’s, then again, and again, but all I could get was the busy signal—then silence.
When Christine finished bathing the boys and putting them to bed she made her way back downstairs to check on the situation, to check on our family, to check on me. I was pacing in the living room trying to decide if I should jump in my car and speed down I-44 toward town. Maybe I could help, get more information, something; or, could I even get through? Besides, it’s normally a four hour drive. My pragmatism took over my brain, keeping me from rushing off in a tense moment, my heart kept me pacing and worrying.
“Try again,” she told me.
Miraculously, within a few attempts my father answered his cell.
“Hello?” he said.
It was the same way he always answered, except this time I could hear the fear and shock in his voice. This was a man that always made the big things seem little. Once he was throwing bottle rockets up in the air when I was a little kid, I may never know why, when one shot back down and struck him on the edge of his eye. He jumped sure, and grabbed his eye, but his response: “I’m good.” He wasn’t good. Hearing the fear in his voice that night was something I had never experienced before.
“There are trees down everywhere. Most of the power is out,” he told me.
“What about Dennis? What about my brother, and Sarah and the kids?”
“It went right by there. We’re on our way now.”
That’s all he could tell me. He didn’t know anything, nobody did at that point.
For the next hour or more there was no news. No calls from my father or my mother or my brother. Broadcasters had said that services were largely down. I tried to remain calm. It was hard; especially considering Jim Cantore was spending a lot of time on the screen in front of me. He’s the guy you see on the beach standing sideways in hurricane-force winds and rain reporting while the majority of the people of whatever town or city he is in have already evacuated somewhere. He represents bad weather: the worst weather. As the coverage continued I broke down and began to weep at the images of the aftermath: complete destruction.
After countless attempts to make contact with someone in my family, I had managed to finally get through again. Somehow on call attempt thirty something, the network decided I’d waited long enough and my mother answered. All of them had made it to my brother’s house; mom, dad, and grandma. They had picked her up along the way. My brother, his wife, and their two beautiful children lived out the terror of the tornado from the safety of their new storm shelter. It was the best news I could have possibly gotten, my feelings in that moment are something I’ll never forget.
Dennis and I were always good friends as well as brothers, and things remained that way, even though I lived on the other side of the state. To this day he remains one of my biggest champions. Only a couple of months before the tornado he’d had the storm shelter installed due to the growing ferocity and frequency of Missouri storms. Some of his neighbors had considered the shelter to be too big and ill-placed. A lawsuit was pursued by some of them and he moved it to a more agreeable place. They hadn’t liked the way it looked, then when the storm hit, several sought the safety of it. When I finally got to speak with my brother he was clearly shaken up; I could hear it in his voice.
“Everything’s gone man, everything. Family’s okay, I have to go,” he said.
Later, he would recount climbing out of the shelter and trudging through the destruction, happy that it was over and that his family was okay, and devastated at the loss and destruction he would witness. Two houses to the North of his, there were no houses. Even though his home hadn’t suffered a direct hit, it had been close; the winds took down a tree and threw branches through their vehicles. He helped where he could. I tried to talk with him about it once, but he grew agitated and we moved on to other topics. Talking about it is something he doesn’t like to do; for him it’s like reliving the day all over again.
The family was safe, all of them. Watching the news for the next several days was truly heart-breaking, and I felt so lucky to have not lost any of them. With each new story of someone’s loss, or search for loved ones, my feelings about the town I once called home began to change. Joplin is not a large town, and as a kid I always wanted to leave. In my youthful ignorance I assumed that everything I could ever want in the world could be found elsewhere. So, that is what I did.
At seventeen I left for basic training in Texas. Even when I would return to visit, and even though I got that true feeling of home when I was there, I shunned my true self and the idea of calling it that. It was simply a place where my people were. Sitting on my couch and crying at the images and stories recounted over and over again on the screen before me helped me realize what a hometown is really about. It always was, and will be, home. My first kiss, first girlfriend, first serious girlfriend, friends, first car, high school, first sex, sports, and most importantly family, it was all there. Many of the places I once enjoyed as a boy, a great many of them mere concrete slabs where they once stood, were gone forever.
The tornado caused a great deal of damage and loss of life; more than 150 perished and more than 7,000 buildings were either flattened or completely destroyed. I cried for the victims and their families and everyone else the ruthless monster had emotionally destroyed. Then, more reflection: It really is a quite natural thing to think; “What if it had been me, my family?” Everyone with ties to Joplin must have felt that. We can’t help it, we’re human and it’s natural. Empathy makes us yearn for those we love in ways that the mundane nature of our daily lives often makes us forget.
Life is different now. For the longest time I couldn’t even drive by that Joe’s Crab Shack without thinking of the tornado and the way in which I fought with my wife pettily over things I cannot recall. It makes me cringe. While I was being petty, and selfish, many people in Joplin were living out a nightmare. The randomness of it all, the way the super-cell developed out of nowhere, all of it unfathomable. I lived in Joplin for thirteen years and had never experienced a tornado, let alone saw one. It made me realize how fleeting life really can be.
My relationship with my wife has become something I never thought imaginable. Movies are made about the type of relationship we now have. We almost never fight, ever. Petty is dead. I would like to say we got there on our own, but we didn’t. Progress takes time, and in our case, cancer, fear of brain tumors, and a massive tornado. Not long after the tornado we had a follow-up appointment to discuss the mass in my son’s head.
“As long as it doesn’t grow as the skull develops there should be no worry and no surgery,” the specialist told us, “it’s benign.”
Christine cried, I rejoiced. It was that same feeling I’d had on that terrible night the previous May when I finally found out my family was okay.
We still drive down to Joplin a couple of times a year. The aftermath of the destruction is still very real and evident. Every time we drive in and I see it, those same painful feelings get drudged up and linger. I don’t know if things will ever be the same, but I feel many already have done their best to move on. It’s an unfortunate reality, and a necessity. We tend to get used to things with prolonged exposure, or perhaps each of us handles the devastation differently; more efficiently. My brother is permanently altered in that way that demands a less sunny and more cautious disposition, while the rest of my family chooses to put it behind them, so they can try to forget. Mom and dad did install their own storm shelter though.
Tragic events change people, and for my family that meant happier relationships. After everything that happened, there is now no immediate fear of cancer or brain tumors or death. I would like to say that we never went back to that particular restaurant, but we did. It was my idea, I wanted to come to terms with the feelings I would get just seeing this building sitting off the highway. Plus, I had a hankering for seafood. The four of us packed ourselves into the small wooden chairs on the over-tabled restaurant floor, listened to the music, smiled, laughed, and ate. The boys played, which entertained many sitting near us; others not so much, but this time I didn’t care.
~ Timothy A. Clements