Tuesday started with a kazoo.
My parents, who are on a cruise, had left a brown paper bag filled with goodies for my son Nate, one for each day they are gone. That day's bag said "Must open Tuesday!!!" When he opened it there was a note from Dad that it was National Kazoo Day. There were three kazoos, one for each of us and this note:
We sang Beatles songs driving into school -- well I sang them. "Here Comes The Sun" had been on heavy Spotify rotation this unusually cold Birmingham winter. Nate had the sniffles, and I told him to tell his teacher if he didn't feel well -- I would come and get him. On the way I listened to more Beatles.
"Once there was a way/to get back homeward
Once there was a way/to get back home."
I drove to the office my neck hurting thinking I'd like to spend some time back at home in Florida, where it was warmer, and of of the long list of to-dos that day.
I was interviewing someone when the snow started, flakes falling down on our wooded campus. "It looks like a snowglobe," one of my colleagues said, and we took photos for the magazine's Instagram feed. I took one on my way out the door after I got a call that the schools were closing:
I checked Google maps -- bumper to bumper traffic. Normal for this kind of situation -- the rare snow fall that closes schools and businesses all at once. It would be a long drive, but what was a an hour or two in the car. Ha.
How smug I was, deciding to bypass Interstate 65 to go down South Shadescrest Road, a road that runs parallel. Google maps showed there was no traffic there! I would get so much work done -- clear the queue of my inbox filled with stories to be edited. I could probably get laundry done too!
And then the cars came to a halt.
Many people have written about the factors that caused this storm to be a disaster for Birmingham (and Atlanta too). In a nutshell, no one forecasted the severity of the temperatures and the ice that would form into a dangerous sheet on the roads; our cities are not equipped to clear the roads; the weather was literally a perfect storm of danger.
I didn't know this yet when my car got stuck at the top of that hill. I just knew that I had picked the wrong shoes that day: gold Tory Burch ballet flats that let the cold water and ice seep onto my feet when I got out of the car to talk to the other stranded drivers. In front of me, a man in a Ford Focus looking for someone to drive his car while he and two fellow motorists pushed from behind. "No one wants to drive it," he said. I wasn't sure I was doing the right thing but got behind the wheel of his car. I was scared as they pushed the car into the intersection. It moved.
"Thank you. I will drive it to my office and come get you," he said. His name was Josh.
Josh did come and get me, walking the mile from his office to push my car as I drove, then inviting me in to the IRS Customer Service office. We listened to the radio with reports that things were getting bad. Cars sliding, roads blocked. "If you are in a warm place, stay inside." But Josh found a route he thought that we could take safely. What was the other choice? Sleep in the IRS office? If I only we knew what was ahead of us.
My neck muscles seized up as I clutched the wheel on the backroads. Cars slid within inches of my car. Drivers climbed out of ditches. The gas guage dropped close to the red zone. Shane and Nate had made it home, abandoning our SUV a mile away from the house on a steep hill, walking the rest of the way. That calmed me down -- many of Nate's friends were still at school, and the news reports said teachers were making preparations for the children to sleep there.
I prayed: "God, guide this car. God, protect the kids at school. Protect that person in front of me." The sinking feeling in my heart was that people would die.
"If I can just get to the entrance of the neighborhood," became "If I can just get to the YMCA," became "If I can just get indoor befoe I run out of gas." The sun would soon set and I would be alone, in a stranded car. I'd already heard the reports -- the police couldn't get to stranded motorists, even the injured ones. Dear God.
At one accident, I passed a group of people surrounding a man sprawled on the ground. People gathered around him, cell phones in hand. There was no ambulance in sight.
In front of and behind me, cars that were out of control. Around me, snow, hills and ice. Just four miles from home, there was no way to get out. Shane called.
"There's a church up ahead. Parkwood Church of God. They are opening their doors. Try to get there."
The moment I saw the light on at the church, I gasped. I would get there.
The crazy thing is that this is where the story actually begins.
In the fellowship hall my fellow refugees sat around circular tables, bent over cell phones, trying to get word from their families. The threads of the stories were the same: mothers worried about their children sleeping at schools, people with dark circles under their eyes tracking the progress of a wife or friend walking miles in the snow. Updates from loved ones about falling on the ice, and broken bones, and totalled cars, and medicine that was halfway across town with no way to get there.
This was bad.
Kendra, the minister's wife, made an announcement: "We have Pop-tarts and Goldfish." With her husband stranded across town, she stepped up, joined by a group of neighbors. Greg, who just moved back from Birmingham from New Orleans and who lived down the road, wore a wide brimmed hat with a Zulu pin, and welcomed folks in from the cold. And joining them in the kitchen, two elderly women washing pots to prepare for a supper with ingredients from the neigbors nearby.
The reports I was reading on Twitter were getting worse. A man had had a heart attack in his car and died in his wife's arms. Pregnant women were going into labor on the interstate, with paramedics unable to reach them.
It felt like helplessness was setting in around the city, though stories of goodness started to be shared. And I saw it in front of me, Greg mixing up a pot of gumbo, talking about happier times on Dauphine Street. "You ever do a story about burgers in New Orleans? I have a great little dive for you." And in the center of the hall, Lionel, who guided my car into the church lot, singing "Amazing Grace." Kendra, tending to the woman with three children under the age of five, one of whom had thrown up on the floor. "My husband is trying to get to us," the woman said. In the meantime, she had a new family.
I left covering breaking news a long time ago. It made my body hurt, staying up through the night going to crime scenes. I never tired of hearing people's stories though. So I plugged my latop in, took out a notebook and listened to anyone who wanted to tell them.
There was the woman whose husband had recently had a stroke, and was across town alone. There was the man who had walked five miles to get to the church and was worried about being able to pay his bills because of the work he was missing. There was the woman who had already been up for 24 hours, working the overnight shift at a call center and in class all day on her quest to become a nurse. There was a banker, a Waffle House manager, and a therapist. There was the man who carried in his bagpipes from the car because they would shatter if left in the cold. First, stranded with an IRS agent, and then a bagpiper? This time was not dull.
Some people didn't want to talk -- not to me or to anyone. The young man who pulled his hoodie over his head. The older man with a hat that said he was a Vietnam Vet. And so it was.
At dinner time Kendra and the volunteers laid out bowls of hot food. "Made with the finest artisinal goat cheese," Greg said. I laughed. Kendra prayed the blessing, and we all ate together.
"We're going to sleep in the sanctuary," said a volunteer after supper. I unplugged my latop and grabbed the thin blanket I'd taken from our car. Once we walked in, I searched for an outlet. I can survive cold. I can survive sleeping in a room full of strangers. But being unplugged ... that's another story.
With my laptop at my knees and phone charging, I felt connected to the outside world. With everything feeling so out of control, it was the one thing I could do to maintain normalcy. My toes were numb and my body hurt, but I could send out updates, trying to focus on good news, creating a hashtag (#goodsnownews) for people to share some positive stories. I didn't write the entire truth, because I didn't want to scare anyone. So many friends checked on me -- my college professor, my colleagues, my family. I didn't tell them how worried I was.
When I tired, I tried to lay down and sleep. Nothing. Grabbing a hymnal, I flipped open to a random page. This one. Was someone trying to tell me something?
I won't lie: I did feel alone. Alone with my thoughts. This was one night for me in a shelter. What about people who struggle like this every single night? My world, a world of conference calls and Excel spreadsheets, and multi-tasking, seemed so far away.
My head pounded.
Though travel has been my life for the past five years, this had been the toughest trek I'd ever taken.
You think a lot of things when you are laying alone on the floor of a church, having lost feeling in one foot. Why did I leave my office? Why did I leave the IRS office, where I was safe? Why hadn't I been injured or my car hit? Why was I in this church, at this moment?
I thought about my parents. Had they been in town they might be out there, too. Dad, who needed insulin. Mom, who needed blood pressure medications. Someone's parents' were out there.
I walked around some more, standing at a pew with a woman who told me about her struggle with breast cancer, how her mother had died of the same disease four years before her diagnosis, and how she didn't get sick a single day from the chemo. How she felt she had a calling for her life. A woman next to us rolled her eyes.
This is part of the story too.
I'd like to say that everything I saw and heard during this time was all about the goodness of humanity. It was almost entirely good. Those are the parts I'd like to remember. But there were other parts -- the police officer who showed up and seemed more interested in taking selfies than anything else. EMA not responding to volunteer calls to help a paraplegic man who needed transport. Maybe it wasn't high on the list of emergencies. Maybe the policeman had a reason he was doing it. Maybe. This is just my perspective. There was a man pacing who was getting nervous, and one who tried to barter with me. Emotions run high in a crisis. But I knew that our volunteer leaders -- Greg, and Kendra, an dothers -- were looking out for us.
As the morning crawled on, I considered my options. The National Guard had delivered food and the selfie police advised against leaving. But some who had ventured out on the roads were texting, saying they made it through.
At one point I thought I might walk, talked out of it by the woman whose ill husband was across town.
Thank you, angel, for talking me out of that.
By noon on Wednesday I was starting to get anxious again. The chatter in the fellowship hall, where we spent the morning, was getting to me. The decision about attempting to drive made me nervous, the weight of what had happened to Birmingham made me sad. I stepped back into the church onto the red plush carpet. Light flooded in.
The woman with the paraplegic man walked in, her lip quivering. "We need to find a way to get home." She, Greg and I looked at Google maps. I sent out a Tweet asking about road conditions where she needed to go. I felt helpless. Later I would text her to see if she got home. She didn't respond.
Cars littered the roads as I drove to the gas station. With a full tank I got on the salted interstate. In 15 minutes, I was home. I have never been so happy to see a messy house, and to climb onto the couch.
I slept for 10 hours. My body still hurts today. I haven't regained feeling in one foot. (Note to gold shoe loving self: leave those for much warmer weather.) Along with the rest of the city, I've been in a daze.
Everyone here has a story -- of sleeping in an office, of the fear of being separated from their children, of wondering if they would ever get home. All day long I've been shaky, scrolling through my Facebook feed to see updates like "I'm FINALLY home!" and "Looks like I'm still stuck." The stories are overwhelming -- teachers that walked miles in the snow to get an insulin pump for a student, a doctor that risked his life to perform brain surgery. We're going to be hearing them for a long time, and we should.
We're going to be telling each other stories of how we got through this because we have to. And then, we will get back to our lives, our work and our school and our errands. Emotions will subside.
How has this story changed us? How has it changed me?
I don't know if I will know the answer to that right away, but I walked out of that church a litle different. With everything stripped away -- security, comfort, and my identity to the outside world -- I was just a girl with a notebook praying to a God for peace. I am shaken, tired, still a bit dazed.
Before I left the shelter I talked with Lionel one more time.
"Do you know any songs with 'sun' in them?" Lionel asked. I thought, "Here Comes The Sun," the first song I heard that day. "Pick anything," I said.
It was a day that started with a kazoo.