I was just 21 years old when I first saw her, an old woman sitting ramrod straight against the back of her wooden chair. By her feet, her dog lay on the ground, one paw covering its nose. Behind her, her world in ruins, trees toppled against her home. On her knee, a red book, a bible. “My Forebears Were Pioneers,” she told me through the title of the Philip Evergood painting. I will survive.
I was just 21 years old when I first saw her at the Georgia Museum of Art – the old museum, tucked away in a small building on the University of Georgia campus, before it moved to its new palace. And when I saw her, I stood there, staring for what seemed like an hour. I took it in: the chaos, the destruction, the dog’s desire to hide from it – and her unshakable calm. “That is who I want to be,” I finally told myself. “When everything else comes crashing down, that’s who I want to be.”
My own life felt like it was in turmoil at the time. I had just arrived in Georgia a few months earlier, running away from a failed first attempt at college and an abusive relationship in Michigan. I wasn’t sure of who I was, what I was doing or where I was headed. Like the old woman in the painting, my life lay in a shambles around me, and all I wanted was that unshakeable faith, that certainty that all would be alright.
I love that painting, but I haven’t seen it since I was 22. I graduated from college and moved on. The art museum itself graduated from its tiny building into a large, honest-to-gosh museum. I’ve been back to campus a few times since graduating, but each time I go to the museum, that painting, my painting, has either been in storage or on tour. I haven’t stood face-to-face with it again.
Until this morning, that is, and then I saw it living all around me.
A tornado tore through my town yesterday. As tornadoes go, it was a pretty puny one, just rated and EF1, but nothing about its aftermath looks small. Three historic churches were torn apart by the storm, their steeples toppled and roofs peeled back. A second-hand store was completely crushed, its roof crashing to its floor. Across the street, the entire roof of a home was ripped away. It looks like a dollhouse in aerial images, until you realize that the walls and furniture are someone’s home, a home now laid bare to all the prying eyes curious about the frenzy of nature. Dozens of houses have been damaged, some completely destroyed. Throughout the town, trees have been violently shredded, leaves and limbs scattered blocks away.
Driving through it this morning, I remembered the old woman, sitting upright and staring straight ahead with calm determination: I will survive.
Truth be told, tornadoes are kind of a thing with me. It’s the one symbol I repeatedly reach for when my life feels like its spinning out of control and my sleeping mind reaches for a metaphor. I have dreamed of tornadoes from a beautiful, quiet distance. I have dreamed of tornadoes bearing down on top of me and threatening my life. I have dreamed of running for shelter, of being caught outside, of walking amongst the ruins and aftermath of a tornado and being helpless to save its victims. I have dreamed of tornadoes sucking the air out of my lungs, and dreamed of diving for cover under a truck to escape them. I have dreams of looking up into a beautiful sky, only to watch it rapidly cloud over and form a funnel. So, in a sense, it was only a matter of time before I meet up with one in waking life.
But there are tornadoes, and then there are tornadoes. The quick-moving kind are the ones nature delivers. The ones we create ourselves take years to play out.
After I graduated from the University of Georgia and left the old lady pioneer behind, I went on to build a life. And for a long while, it seemed like anything I touched, I succeeded at. In short order, I had a career and a husband. I had everything but any measure of happiness. And then I lost it all. The past 10 years have been one giant lesson in loss.
First, I lost my dream of having children, thanks to a body that refused to cooperate and medical treatments that sank me into a deep well of despair. With it went my plans for building a life around my children, the one thing I wanted more out of being alive anything else. It took a lot of time and a lot of hard work to bring myself back from that brink, and to find the courage to dream of a different kind of life, but I did it.
Then I lost my marriage – though, to be honest, it was an easy kind of loss. We weren’t happy together, and we certainly weren’t good for each other. By the time it was finally over, I felt nothing. Still, the sting of its failure shamed me.
Then I lost my career, four years and two days ago to this date. It was probably inevitable, as working at a newspaper now is very much like working at a buggy whip manufacturer 100 years ago. Plus, I had become so burnt out that I couldn’t bring myself to care about the job – or to even make my boss believe that I cared. It wasn’t a shock, but it left me panicking.
That very same night, I came home to a flooded basement. Roots had broke open the water line to our house, which had to be turned off. In one nightmarish evening, I had lost a job and a place to lay my head, though at least the house part could be fixed – temporarily.
Still, without a job, I couldn’t pay my mortgage, and the bank refused to do anything to help. When I asked what I should do, they said, “Do your best,” and I quickly decided that letting the house go was my best. It’s taken four years, but that time is finally here, and we move next week.
Then, I went bankrupt. Being without work for six months and giving up my mortgage made it inevitable. By now, I had become so used to failure and loss that I barely noticed the shame, though the process itself was nervewracking.
But the worst loss of all was the loss of my father. Already battling Alzheimer’s, he slipped on the stairs and fell almost two years ago. He was gone without getting to hear his voice one last time, one last chance to say “I love you” and hear him say it back to me. Gone.
These years have taught me loss. But if I am honest, they have also shown me that the well of despair is matched by an equally deep well of resilience. None of these losses overwhelmed me. And, better yet, there have been blessings along the way I couldn’t have imagined. I finally have a truly strong and nurturing love in my life. I have a career now that I sincerely care about, and that is often fulfilling. I have built a new vision for my future, and though it is not the one I first yearned for, it is something I wholeheartedly want.
Perhaps I can find meaning in yesterday’s storm. In all of the storms of all my yesterdays. The infertility, the divorce, the layoff, the bankruptcy and foreclosure. To all of them – you did not win. I am writing down to the last page of this chapter, and I’m getting ready to turn the page. Nine days from now, I am leaving that home, that town, that life behind – and with it, all of its wreckage.
It’s been more than 20 years since I first saw her, that woman in the painting. Like her, I have learned what it means to lose. And like her, I am ready to meet whatever comes next with quiet, calm determination. My forebears were pioneers. I will survive.