“She’s gone.” I never knew two words could shatter my world instantly. I repeat the scene in my head over and over without even realizing it sometimes. “She’s gone,” says the doctor in all green. “So she’s dead. My mama is dead,” I repeat back to him in a daze, my consciousness floating somewhere between two realities, the one where my mom was alive and the one where she’s gone. It just takes a second. One moment we are dreaming in our beds, getting ready for work or coming home from a long day and the next moment everything comes crashing down around us. We all go through this experience in our lives at different times and to varying degrees. It is part of the human condition. The archetype of the falling tower comes to mind. There will be these moments in all of our lives where everything we have built up to shelter ourselves from the outside world falls away and we are left there in the rubble—vulnerable and exposed.
For 190 years a pine tree in the Highland neighborhood of Shreveport grew to be a towering 120 feet tall and on February 7th at 4am it laid to rest…on the home of Alan Dyson and Debbie Hollis. “It sounded like a train hit the house,” said Alan as he tried to get the sleeping Debbie to comprehend that one of their beloved pine trees had just crashed into their home. Naked and in shock, the couple peered through the darkness of early morning at the tree, slowly and silently coming to terms with the fact that this was not a dream. As the sun began to rise, the extent of the damage came to light. Over one third of their home had been destroyed and the tree that had once been such an important part of their lives was lost. So, Alan doing what he does best sat down at his piano and started to play “Look on the Bright Side of Life.”
Around 4pm one stormy afternoon in 2009, Michael Williams sat at a stoplight in front of First United Methodist Church. The church sits proud at the head of Texas Street with its iconic 100 ft. steeple towering above, but Michael doesn’t notice the steeple or the tornado spiraling behind him. He waits for the light to turn so he can continue home. The rain beats down on his car as Michael watches the three traffic lights turn sideways in the wind. Debris flies all around him and he thinks to himself, “Gee, I hope nothing dents my car.” Bang! Then black. “Whoa! Why are your eyes closed?” Michael says to himself, “Put your break on!” Michael tries to wake up from what feels like a dream of total darkness and realizes he cannot move his legs. “Did I hit someone or did someone hit me?” Unaware that a steeple had just crashed on top of him, Michael laid in wait for help to arrive. Lights began to flash as a cavalry of firefighters surrounded the wreckage preparing to exhume the victim from the heap of metal only 17,000 pounds of steeple can create. Slowly, Michael lifts his head and says, ”Get me out of here!” It was a miracle they say. The Steeple Man was alive.
When the damage has been done, our bodies crushed, our homes turned to rubble and our loved ones lost, something impossible starts to bubble—gratitude. At first, it’s all a blur as the people come, carrying covered dishes, lifting you from the wreckage and providing a sense of solace. On what would have been my mother’s 69th birthday, I stood in front of the piano bench covered in cards of condolences, gifts and lists of people still left to thank, and watched as the sun sent beams of light through the crystal and sprinkled the room in rainbows. An overwhelming sense of gratitude filled my entire body, as I succumbed to the power of community. I am not alone. We are not alone.
“It is my privilege to serve you,” affirmed Judy Williams, as her husband lay broken but healing in his bed, “You are my hero.” While scrambling to grab a hold of the pieces of our lives that we can still recognize, a stunning thing begins to happen. First you think “Why? Why has this happened to me? To them? How shall I ever get through this?” But then, slowly and quietly, you do. Michael may have broken his back and all of his extremities, but he was alive and that was a reason to be grateful. After 9 days in the hospital, Michael and Judy returned home to a new life, a life where they would discover a second miracle unfolding before them, the miracle of love. For months, the doorbell would ring every day with friends, neighbors and even strangers bringing food, offering assistance and filling their home with what can only be described as unconditional love. “We saw a different side of humanity,” recalls Michael, “I now believe that every human being has that ability to love unconditionally.” For the Williams, it is their overwhelming gratitude to their communities near and far that has given them the strength to face life’s challenges and come through the darkness to the other side, forever changed by the love they have experienced.
Back in the Highland neighborhood, the rain continued to fall and Alan and Debbie lost two more of their beautiful healthy pine trees, their roots rising in the air as their trunks lowered down across the landscape. But just as we know that what goes up, must come down, we know that where there is death, growth is sure to follow. Alan and Debbie have always viewed their home as a place of refuge, a place where loved ones come to find community as they sing songs around the piano and take a respite from the daily grind. Now it’s the community that has become the refuge, reaching out to Alan and Debbie with acts of kindness large and small. “It’s the people who love us and who we love, who go through these things with us that makes us grateful to live in Shreveport,” says Debbie. “We’ve gotten a lot of love and I don’t know if it would have been that way if we lived somewhere else.” So now where the trees they lovingly call the “Pines of Eden” once stood, a small garden will grow into a garden three times its size and share its abundance with the community.
My mom always told me her thirties were the best years of her life. Mine have definitely gotten off to a rocky start, but nobody says growth is easy. Within a period of about a year and a half I have lost my best friend, our family dog of 17 years, and now my mom in January of this year. I have felt lost, painfully alone and vulnerable, but I have felt utter joy, unconditional love and most of all, the kind of gratitude that warms my soul. Michael & Judy like to say that the day the steeple fell was the worst day and best day of their lives. Its beautiful, this ability to hold two opposing truths. There is something about that space that makes all the pain worth it. Maybe the darkness and the light are not that different from one another after all. Maybe the tower must fall so we are able to see the abundance around us more clearly. For it seems when our life gets dark, the love we seek begins to show itself in high relief, and we realize that it has actually been there all along.
Correction: print edition did not credit Neil Johnson for cover photo