Home again, home again, jiggedy jig.
I am back in Connecticut after three weeks of Red Cross deployment in Joplin, MO. I arrived in Joplin eight days after the tornado. Everything was still chaotic -- and my repeated response to viewing what was termed “the footprint,” the 6 x 1 mile area of total devastation, was “Oh, my God. Oh, my God. Oh, my God” over and over again.
There are no words to accurately describe being in a disaster zone of such magnitude. This is my third experience in a disaster zone and each comes with its own specific horrors – and graces, as well.
My experiences in Joplin have stretched and expanded me in many ways; they are seeping deep into my psyche. I am still making sense of it all or, perhaps, better said, I am allowing myself simply to accept and hold that which is and that which was. Admittedly, I am weary. My psychic shield is a bit battered, and I am also ridiculously full from my time there.
It may sound funny to say, but my time doing my bit (read: mental health) for disaster recovery efforts is always blessed given the extraordinary interactions I have with survivors, volunteers, workers and all who gather to create safety out of chaos.
Let me tell you about Bruce, he touched my heart.
As I made my rounds of the client shelter one morning, I notice a man I have never seen before. He looks very much like Bruce Willis with tanned skin, close-cropped hair, eyes that hold light and a face that gives away very little of what is going on in his head. He is stuffing tee shirts, socks and the like into a duffle bag.
Bruce has been staying in our shelter; he is a volunteer worker. He would leave the shelter early each morning and work all day clearing debris and rubble, returning at sundown for dinner, shower and sleep. For twelve hours a day, he was knee-deep in the pieces of peoples’ lives – families who were complete strangers were exposed through the tornado-strewn smithereens of their closets, cabinets, refrigerators and garages. Everything was in tatters. The work was hot, laborious and tedious. The air quality was compromised.
Bruce comes from Colorado. On his own dime, he had purchased a plane ticket, flown into Kansas City, rented a car and driven to Joplin to be a volunteer. It was something he had to do.
We meet the day he is heading home. He had been in Joplin for the work week and now it is time to go home. As we talk, tears, unbidden, leak out of his eyes. He tells me a bit about his life. I wonder aloud about some of his personal struggles; our conversation settles into deeper emotional territory and the tears continue to fall, unchecked, from his eyes.
Bruce asks how can he go home and make sense of all he has seen. Will his family really understand what he has experienced? He is having a hard time compartmentalizing all that he has witnessed, all that he has felt. He has experienced a huge visceral punch to his personal reality.
Similar to men I had met during my Katrina days, Bruce came to Joplin to make sense of his own life by helping others. For whatever heartache, past sins, betrayals of self that had spontaneously driven him to re-arrange his life, Bruce had unearthed a lost part of himself. Through the muck and splintered ruins of Joplin, Bruce was returning to Colorado a new man.
“You know what? “ Bruce said. “None of it matters. You can be Republican or Democrat, black or white, straight or gay or anything else and it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter. You know what matters? Compassion. That’s what matters, compassion and forgiveness.”
I couldn’t agree more.
Bruce had learned the master lesson; he had found redemption. He was ready to go home.
Adele Ryan McDowell, Ph.D., is the author of Balancing Act: Reflections, Meditations, and Coping Strategies for Today’s Fast-Paced Whirl and a contributing author to the best-selling anthology, 2012: Creating Your Own Shift. You can learn more about Adele and her thinking http://theheraldedpenguin.com.