This Is the Memory That Changed The Way I View Christmas Forever
It was Christmas Eve 2009 and I was standing in a stranger’s kitchen in Crowley, La., with a camera around my neck.
By that point, though, it was actually hard to call it a kitchen, since it had no roof. All around me, cabinets lay open, spilling cereal and rice and canned goods out around my feet. Countertops were buckled under the weight of debris. Several bricks had smashed through the glass window of the stove. Everything was wet and dripping from where the kitchen sink had been ripped in half before the plumbing was shut off. There was sunlight shining into corners that should never see sunlight. It was terrifying.
I had driven out to Crowley from Jennings because I was a newspaper reporter at the time. A handful of hours earlier, a tornado had ripped through this home, and I had arrived to do my grisly duty of photographing it all.
If you’ve never had to do that before, it’s pretty horrible -- driving up to strangers’ homes and snapping pictures of their misery. You feel so incredibly guilty when you have to ask them, “Do you mind?” Because who wouldn’t mind? Who wants that documented?
But, shockingly, this stranger didn’t mind, a middle-aged man with glasses and thinning hair, standing in the debris that had once been his world.
The son had been in bed laying on his stomach when suddenly, the roof was torn away and his blankets sucked off of him by nature's own hand. He’d held onto the bedpost until the twister passed but was trapped in the room by debris.
“You can walk through, if you want,” he told me. “I’ll show you around.”
And just like that, I was on a tour of this man’s wretchedness. I couldn’t tell if he was still in shock or not – it looked like the enormity of everything had yet to hit him.
It turns out that he, his wife and his son had all been in the home when the tornado hit. An early riser, the man had managed to wake his wife and get her into the bathroom. He couldn’t get to his son, because the tornado hit just that fast, cutting him off.
We walked through a little path he had kicked out of the way through the kitchen. We moved carefully over broken bricks and jagged wooden edges into what had once been the living room, and then we made our way back to his son’s room. The son had been in bed lying on his stomach when suddenly, the roof was torn away and his blankets sucked off of him by nature's own hand. He’d held onto the bedpost until the twister passed, but was trapped in the room by debris.
Eventually, everyone made it out without injury. It was, to my eyes, a complete miracle.
The tornado had cut a path through the house, so that if you looked down the hallway with the living room to your back, you could almost convince yourself that the house was still whole. It was a like a portal, almost. On one side was a normal set of bedrooms. On the other side, complete devastation.
As we walked, the man told me about memories he’d had in this house. And yet, I was surprised at how calm he was. It took me a while to realize what it was.
He was ALIVE. He had stared into death and come out unscathed. Yeah, he lost some stuff. He lost some things. But he had his memories, he had his health, he had his family – and he was feeling okay. Everything else must have seemed trivial to him after an experience like that.
Christmas is the most human we ever get. There is no time of year that brings out every side of the human experience that Christmas does – for better and for worse. It’s the time of year when you see what people are really made of.
And every year now, as Christmas Eve arrives, I think about that kind man. I’ve no doubt he got back on his feet somewhere, somehow. I’m sure it wasn’t easy, and I’m sure some level of suffering eventually caught up with him. But standing there in the pile of bricks that used to be his foyer – literally hours after nature had ripped his house apart like wrapping paper – he was standing peacefully and calmly.
I remember thinking, "He is a better man than I."
Christmas is the most human we ever get.
There is no time of year that brings out every side of the human experience that Christmas does – for better and for worse. It’s the time of year when you see what people are really made of.
Some people go out of their way to be kind. Others let their frustrations boil over so they can take it out on strangers. People give of themselves, but they also steal out of someone else’s shopping cart. They give money to charity, and they withhold charity, too.
Unfortunately, the world doesn’t stop just because it’s Christmas. The unfairness and the tragedy of life don’t take vacations. There really is no such thing as safety. If the world wants to hurt you, it can do so with impunity.
But as long as you survive, you win. It’s really that simple. Don't break.
The 2009 tornadoes changed the way I see Christmas, because they made me realize how flimsy life really is, like the way a theater set seems like a real building while it's really only held together by braces and tape. Every day is a victory, simply because you are not guaranteed anything. And every time someone chooses to be kind to you, you have to remind yourself that you’re not guaranteed that, either.
I think of that broken home and that unbroken man, and I feel lucky.
It's because I am. And so are you.