A tornado hit my school when I was eight going on nine.
It was April, 1989. I remember that morning the sky was clear, a perfect blue. Flawless. Not a single cloud. Dad drove me to school on his Yamaha motorcycle. I felt cool riding to school on a motorcycle. I liked wearing the helmet and holding on to my dad, I felt safe.
The most traumatic event I’d witnessed thus far in life was the 1986 space shuttle Challenger explosion, which I quickly forgot about after it happened. I was a buoyant six year old. Nothing could bring me down.
My first clear memory of childhood is of riding in one of those beige colored hard plastic child-seats on the back of my dad’s bicycle. He and Mom were riding down a gravel country road on a leisurely evening in rural north Texas. I remember fixating on the endless rows of corn we were passing. I watched the corn rows with the simplicity and wonder of a toddler.
On that clear Thursday morning in third grade, I waved goodbye to Dad, walked into the school, to my classroom. I was a good student, quiet, studious, a “diligent worker,” as my report card always said.
While we were inside, the environment was changing. The sky darkened with thick clouds. By the time the power went out, it was almost as dark as night outside. Red light from the exit signs in the hallway lent the whole scene an extra eerie tone. The emergency bell rang. We’d done tornado drills before, and even those had made me uneasy. This was the real thing. I recall thinking, “I am going to die,” and not being okay with that whatsoever.
Rain pounded, winds howled. It did sound like a train, just like the grown ups had warned us it would. The tornado was descending upon us, but we were not going to be landing softly, or opening the door to any technicolor yellow brick roads. We were all crouched in a stressed out version of child’s pose, kneeling, knees together, heads tucked in front of knees, hands behind necks to protect spinal cords from flying debris. I was not aware of yoga at the time. I was not able to calm down. I was silently hysterical, however long the tornado lasted and I was crouched there, alone yet with hundreds of other people crouched in the hallways at the same time. It tore the roof off the cafeteria.
Then it went away. The storm passed, as they all do.
But I was scarred. Scared. Absolutely fearful. I felt relieved to be alive, happy when my mom came and picked me up from school that day. But something had changed in me, and I couldn’t help it.
I remember going to Mass the following Sunday and listening, probably for the first time, to what the priest was saying. We will be seated at the right hand of the Father. In heaven. And his life will have no end. Eternal life. Forever and ever amen. I tried to conceptualize this. I thought of the Earth coming to an end, the blank black sky, maybe with some stars but definitely no Earth. And no end. Just nothingness. I fixated on this and had to actually shake my head violently back and forth to distract myself and think happier thoughts.
My solution was to quit going outside. It seemed far safer to stay in the house. I also assured my parents that I would live with them until I was forty. Now I see I was exhibiting signs of post-traumatic stress disorder and separation anxiety. They took me to a counselor who had me draw with Crayola markers. I wonder what I drew. Nothing too alarming, I’m sure. I was not put on meds, thankfully.
I grew out of it within weeks.
I “got over” it many years later through spiritual study and practice. I accepted what I could not accept as a child: Death is a part of life: ultimate detachment. The unknown doesn’t have to be scary.