This story is by Eva Saunderson and was part of our 2022 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
In the eye of a tornado… or simply “a storm in a teacup”
“Beauty is mysterious as well as terrible. God and the devil are fighting there, and the battlefield is the heart of man.”
The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky
Olivia had always been fascinated by tornadoes, hurricanes, tsunamis, or tropical storms for that matter. It started when she was very small and would watch the tiny dust devils in her part of the world – how they would start out of the blue and move at tremendous speed over the land as their funnels grew taller and taller like giant writhing worms, redirecting their path every now and then, carrying along with them anything light enough in their way, only to come to a sudden halt, almost as unexpected as they started. Only later in upper primary school would she learn that those little devils are close relatives to the real McCoy’s of destruction, the tornadoes.
Later, in the 1980s when television arrived in Namibia, the adrenaline junkie in her often followed the reports and visual footage of the so-called hurricane hunters, who risk their lives in order to place sensors in the paths of tornadoes and others who literally fly through the eyes of tornadoes with a helicopter to gather information such as wind speed, barometric pressure, humidity, and temperature. The more she learned from these awe-inspiring adventures, the more hooked she grew on these phenomena. From their origin, their development up to the devastation they caused – everything captured her imagination very early on in her life. So tremendous was her addiction that she would watch the water drain from the bathtub in a clockwise motion, she would liken it to the vortex of a tornado.
“Does it go the other way round in the Northern hemisphere as real tornadoes do?” she would wonder…You could say Dorothy Gale from the Wizard of Oz would be her dream role if ever she had the opportunity to play in a musical – just to be in the eye of a tornado.
Another aspect of these storms that grabbed her attention was the naming system – way back when Olivia was a child and she only kept track of tornadoes via news broadcasts over the radio, tornadoes were only named after women. She heard adults speculating over this peculiar state of affairs with the most common assumption being that it is so, because of the unpredictable nature of these storms. Even at the tender age of nine, this did not sit well with Olivia – it caused an uneasy twist in her tummy. One day she would find out the truth she had promised her curious, egalitarian self. She would also find out whether there was a storm named after her and if perhaps it had been severe enough to have been retired permanently from the World Meteorological Organisation’s list of possible names …
Fast-forward thirty-three years and Olivia is still interested, if not mesmerized, by her favorite unfavorable subject. On this bluer than usual Monday, she is particularly restless after she learned from the weather forecast the previous evening that a male tropical cyclone called Ike, had swept through portions of the Greater Antilles and Northern America, wreaking havoc on infrastructure and agriculture, particularly in Cuba and Texas. Ike took a similar track to the 1900 Galveston hurricane, the deadliest of its kind in human history, which caused between 8000 and 12000 fatalities.
Her stream of thought is interrupted by a gust of wind that shuts the front door and reminds her of the stark reality of unfinished chores. As she rummages through the dirty laundry, looking for remnants of tissues, candy papers, and till slips, she is humming along to Bird of Figment’s song, “Beauty in the Mundane” while feeding her old trustworthy Whirlpool machine its weekly ratio.
The tiny tornado inside the washing machine reminds her of the small victory she had celebrated on the day when she discovered the truth about the naming of tornadoes. Maritime tradition referred to the ocean as a woman, which caused the preference for female names. In the meantime, Olivia also could not believe her luck when she found out that her name was indeed chosen to go on the list of anticipated tropical cyclones in the North-eastern Pacific basin for 2024. How exciting … hopefully it will not cause any distinct devastation or loss of lives. She would not want her name to be retired from the WMO’s list due to the amount of havoc that she wreaked as was the case with hurricanes Inez (1966), Carol (2004), Katrina (2005), or Dean (2007).
The next moment the sound of the radio, the gurgling sounds from the washing machine, the swooshing sounds from the wind, and virtually every other possible sound were obliterated by one blood-curdling sound that came from the inner depths of a shattered soul, a primal cry similar but higher in pitch, to that of a woman in labor and about to give birth.
Just like the demolition and destruction left in the wake of tsunamis, hurricanes, and tornadoes, so the aftermath of human storms is littered with emotional wreckage – leaving shattered, bruised, and pierced souls with crushed debris scattered far and wide, plunging into the hearts of those nearest and dearest to them, causing a ripple effect of devastation. This is the bewildering awareness that shoots through Olivia’s mind when the shrapnel of yet another disillusionment hits her right in the pit of her stomach.
As she tumbles down the abyss of utter disbelief and torment, her woeful shrieks of distress and calamity are silenced by a pair of invisible hands that take hold of her throat, tightening their grip, harder and harder until she could no longer breathe.
Olivia’s agony is intensified when she hits rock bottom and utter desolation floods her entire being when she realizes that this time she is all by herself – this time she will have to face the tsunami of betrayal on her own.
Yes, there were hurricanes and earthquakes before – some even more severe and gruesome, but those were buffered by an unwavering support structure. The unsettling thought of having to deal with the remnants of another loss leaves her undone, motionless, and numb.
The same numbness that has paralyzed her on that dreary Tuesday morning in the consulting rooms of her gynecologist in a well-known suburb of Cape Town has returned with a vengeance. She can still recall Doctor Olivier’s words verbatim.
“When last did you feel your baby moving?”
She knew instantly and instinctively. As the earth was giving way underneath her, it suddenly seemed as if everything within her was dead – not only her unborn baby. Up to this day, the 13.6 km drive back to Brackenfell remains a blur in her mind. How she managed to drive by herself in that state was a mystery that kept nagging in her brain for a very long time.
Olivia’s current predicament takes her even further back on her road of affliction to yet another time when it felt as if all the blood and life had left her body – her first encounter with a real tsunami. For parents to be confronted with the seismic disclosure of the dismantling truth that their child would be paralyzed for the rest of her life is indescribably heart-wrenching. Even so, from some mysterious source, they have mustered up the courage to tackle the gale winds that would threaten to engulf them with determination and gumption. What kept Olivia going was the reassurance that while the tornado was surging, there was someone by her side who would sustain her until this storm reached landfall.
But in this dreadful moment of utter abandonment, the Gale is howling an eerie tune of hopelessness and melancholy. Not one single sinew in her body is brave enough to spring into motion, so she keeps staring at the cracks in the floor – the fault lines which undoubtedly caused the onset of the tsunami in the first place…
Only when the storm has lost its rage, after the dust has settled and the earth has regained its equilibrium, does Olivia take time to count her losses.
Fortunately, when you hit rock bottom, the only way to go is up and the only way to gain perspective is from above. While observing her seemingly hopeless dilemma from an elevated position, it suddenly dawns on Olivia how shamefully distorted her thinking is and how in the larger scheme of global catastrophe and pandemonium and sometimes unfathomable human strife and peril, her tsunami was merely a storm in teacup.
So, she heaves herself up, finishes her tea, kicks off her shoes, and starts to dance. She dances the kabuki of gratitude, she dances the cha-cha-cha of freedom and forgiveness, she dances the boogie-woogie of wisdom gained and she dances the twist of terrific new horizons.
As Olivia’s feet shift and glide over the cool cement of the floor, swirling and turning, sweeping, and swooshing, her movements remind her of the vortex of a hurricane – only this time it is in reverse mode. The agony, stress, and strangulation are leaving her body gradually as she is elevated higher and higher by an invisible power. She feels the breeze combing gently through her hair and gravity losing its foothold on her. Skydivers and spacewalkers have nothing on her at this moment – it is sacred.
Her awareness at this moment is that the heaviness in her heart was replaced by immense joy springing from the surge of gratitude that was now engulfing her. An endless stream of blessings and grace that were bestowed on her throughout her lifetime flashes through her mind – almost like the notorious movie that people report to have seen scrolling in front of their eyes during a near-death experience. She sees her carefree childhood, growing up in the countryside with loving parents and siblings, going to a school where teachers were committed to their profession, eating organically grown food from the naturally nurtured earth, breathing in pure unpolluted air, the joys of swimming in a river, picking berries from the veld, playing dollhouse with her siblings – the vim and vigor with which her younger sister would conduct her imaginary school sessions (even the destruction often caused by her older brothers when they would try and fix their tiny household appliances or perform surgery on their favorite dolls), learning to cook on a coal stove and trying out new recipes with her older sister. It goes on … She recalls her student years – full of adventures and life-changing episodes. She also relives the thrilling experience of going on her first overseas trip and living in a foreign country for some time – traveling, they say is the only thing that money can buy that makes you richer – how true is that? She could not agree more with Mary Anne Radmacher when she says: “I am not the same, having seen the moon shine on the other side of the world”.
An infinite stream of her happiest moments continues to flash through her mind – like the surreal experience of falling pregnant with her firstborn. She can still recall that day as if it was yesterday – the few meters that she had to walk back from the lab to the Adult Training center in the small desert town of Oranjemund, felt as if she was floating on cloud nine. Equally overjoyed was she on the day of her second daughter’s birth in the same little town – the second time around. After her previous pregnancy not going full-term and three months of daily hospital visits, ventilators, oxygen levels surging and falling, depleted medical aid funds, endless medical bills and merciless doctors, the relief of giving birth to a healthy 3.65 kg baby was all the more palpable. She would never forget those two big dark eyes staring at her almost as if to say ‘’everything is going to be all right.” and her own inaudible response, “now I am ready to face anything that may come my way!”
On top of all these joyous recollections, came the realization that having to raise a child with special needs is an experience that she would never wish away. The determination and spunk with which her daughter is pursuing her journey through this harsh and unapproachable world where people with disabilities are still not allowed an equal place under the sun or treated with respect by most people are remarkable and awe-inspiring. Her razor-sharp humor and wit, her kind-hearted and compassionate nature, and her innate sense of justice and fairness caused Olivia to realize that what she had gained, far outweighs her loss.
The very few people who have been lucky enough to be caught inside of a twister and lived to tell the story say that in the eye of a tornado it is eerily calm compared to the calamitous winds swirling around the eyewall. It finally occurs to Olivia that on that stormy autumn Cape Town morning way back in 2004, she was carried safely in the quiet center of the torrent.
Olivia is now floating even higher – unrestricted by anything that used to hold her down – the demons of unforgiveness and self-chastisement and she is reminded of the line from Sidney Carter’s The Lord of the Dance, “It is hard to dance with the devil on your back …” – indeed! She is experiencing the freedom and joy which is only possible when you fully embrace your vulnerability and stop pretending to be perfect.
When the tempo of the music suddenly accelerates and Olivia twirls even faster, she experiences how every sense is returning to her body with intensified clarity and strength. She encounters the rainbow colors of her life in stark contrast to the grey clouds and muddy waters. The tantalizing taste of sun-ripened peaches will forever linger in her taste buds. At this moment, she savors it once more as she reminisces about her early childhood years and the resourcefulness of her parents. She smells the heavenly familiar fragrance of Lilies and momentarily knows that her Lilli-baby is looking down on her from heaven with an angelic smile. When she hears the birds singing with glee, she concurs with Maya Angelou when she says that “the caged bird sings of freedom, because there is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”
Olivia used to believe that there was a fine line between love and hate, pain and joy, virtue and vice, or between any two seemingly opposites in life, but now she knows with certainty that, that line is non-existent and that everything is inseparably woven together. In hindsight, she now realizes that her most challenging times were her best times too because it was during those times when she was hurtled to and fro by the winds of calamity that she was stripped from her pride, self-righteousness, and self-centredness. Like gold is purified by fire, so one needs to go through the furnace of tribulation in order to be left with the real authentic person that you were meant to be. If your soul is cluttered with earthly vanity, greed, and intolerance the light cannot shine through the prism of your heart in order to be dispersed into all the different colors of the multi-dimensional being that you are. Through the tears of distress and hopelessness, the rainbow of rebirth, opportunities, joy, growth, buoyancy, innovation, and vitality becomes more tangible.
She hears her heart pounding in her chest like a djembe drum – only this time it’s not played by a man as African tradition would dictate, but by a higher power and she feels how the lifeblood gushes through her veins, restoring vigor into her cells, propelling her to even higher heights, where the dust and turmoil of her life collapse into a fiercely brilliant and joyously jubilant star. Up till this day, on the darkest of nights, she will come out wink, and dance to the tune of her Lord.