The things you grab in a crisis aren't always the ones you would list as part of an icebreaker or team-building exercise, or at least, they weren't for me. Sitting in calm surroundings, thinking through your possessions and trying to gauge what your answer is going to reveal about your priorities (will they judge me if I say the first thing I would grab is my phone instead of the family photo albums?), is all very civilized as an intellectual exercise, even as it makes most of us shudder at the thought of ever facing those choices in reality.
But when the crisis is real, and you're doing everything you can to stay outwardly calm and reassuring while the metallic tinge of fear in your mouth is competing for attention with the lump in your throat and the empty feeling in the pit of your stomach; when you have to balance being thorough with the ticking clock that sounds like "Hurry, hurry, hurry!"; when you are in disbelief that any of this is happening at all and you have no idea if you'll only be gone a few hours, a few days, or if you'll ever really be able to come back--the things you grab are a jumble of what's immediately accessible and what you know you need.
I sent my son to grab things for himself and his younger sister from the room they shared upstairs. I grabbed an IKEA trivet and put the still-hot pan of taco meat I was cooking for dinner into the refrigerator before grabbing the key to the safe and running down the basement stairs. I retrieved birth certificates and passports (things that would be a pain in the ass to replace), slammed the safe shut and locked it, and raced back up the stairs and straight into my oldest daughter's room. She was at a friend's house; I would just have to guess what she would need. Toiletries, pajamas, and an outfit for the next day would have to do. I knew she would probably object to the outfit I picked for her, but it was clean and, well, whatever. She would have to deal with it. I threw everything in a pile in the middle of the floor and ran upstairs to get my stuff.
I pulled a big duffle bag from my closet, toiletries from my bathroom, and a couple days' worth of random clothing, whatever was closest at hand. I scanned the room for other can't-leave-behind items and landed on my laptop and my cameras. Chargers for everything, too. I scooped all of it into my arms and went back downstairs on the heels of my son, who had just finished his assigned gathering. I didn't look at what he put in their bag. I just asked him, "Did you get your sister's wubbies (special blankets I crocheted before she was born)? How about clothes? Toothbrushes?" He said yes, and I said good job and told him to go get in the car. I shoved all my stuff along with the pile of my oldest daughter's stuff into the big duffle bag, took the baby (who had been watching Barney the whole time) by the hand, walked out the front door and locked it behind me, went down the steps to the driveway, and loaded the bag and the baby into the car. I didn't leave a note. The whole process probably took ten minutes, but in my disoriented state, it could have been 30 seconds or three hours.
I have no idea what would have happened that night if I had stayed. Possibly nothing, though I doubt that. All I know is that within minutes of each other, three completely different sets of people who loved us called and told me to leave, right then. Even after hearing the concern behind their urgent voices, my inclination was to stay put. But then I swear I heard a voice right over my shoulder say one word as clear as day: "Go."
So I went.
I picked up my oldest and drove to my friend's house, one of the people who called and told me to leave. She and her family played with my children while I dealt with phone calls and the logistics of all the wheels coming off the bus. The shock and the pain of that night would roll into deeper shocks and more intense pain before it was all said and done. When I think about pivotal moments in my life, experiences that took me off one path and set me squarely on another, that night was one of the most important.
So many details are seared into my memory: talking to various people and telling all of the truth in the same place for the first time; a trip to the ATM for a ridiculous amount of cash just in case my card wouldn't work the next day; phone calls in the middle of the night followed by long gaps of not knowing what was happening; waking up after fitful sleep, realizing my black dog's hair was all over the beautiful quilt in my friend's guest room, and attempting to pick each individual hair off the quilt while my daughters slept and the sun rose higher in the sky. I'll never forget drinking coffee with my friend that morning after her daughter left on the bus for school. A few weeks later I bought a percolator like the one she used because the coffee we shared was so good.
A plan for the next few hours came together, and then the next few hours after that. We went home and unpacked all the things we had grabbed under so much pressure the night before. Then and now, there were no villains or victims; everyone involved made some brave decisions that night. Reinforcements arrived; some semblance of normal returned; but eventually it sank in that things would never, ever be the same.
I will never, ever be the same.
That May night forced me to make choices far beyond what to throw in a duffle bag or load into the car. That May night forced me to reckon with what mattered to me when it wasn't an intellectual exercise. That May night forced me onto a path filled with healing and growth as well as uncertainty and fear, and by the grace of God, I've somehow managed to stay on that path. Everyone--on all sides of the situation--has come a long way in the years since. I am grateful to that May night, even as I know the dread and gloom that lurks around every corner and under every bush when we roll back around to the anniversary each year. I probably have PTSD, a term I know people throw around too casually, but which I think is appropriate here.
That night as we drove to my friend's house, I played this song on repeat, and my kids, sensing it was helping me hold it together, kept any objections to themselves. I'm still singing it, still living it, even though the lyrics resonate with me for different reasons now.
For anyone who finds themselves in an Age of Worry, hang on. It might get worse before it gets better. Your definition of "better" might have to change. But I believe we can make it to the place where those worries and fears become part of our past instead of dominating our present. A place where we shoo worry away--"Get out of here!"--and get on with the business of joyful, hope-filled lives. A place where May just feels like springtime and the beauty of fresh flowers.
Mother, photographer, writer. Expert in making things up as she goes and figuring things out along the way.