VILONIA — I haven’t slept a full night since April 25, 2011. I get four hours of sleep if I take an Ambien and then wake up. Someone once wrote that when you have insomnia it’s like you’re never asleep and you’re never awake. That is pretty accurate. I go to sleep thinking about April 25, 2011, and never have a day when I am not reminded of it. I am alone in my home with my pets, wife and family have left for storm shelters. Suddenly there are crashing noises, the electricity flickers and dies, now I’m on the floor in the bathroom closet, and the house is being torn apart around me. When I emerge 30 seconds later, unscathed, hell has come to Vilonia.
The familiar world of me and my family ended on April 25, 2011. After the chaos of the storm, life went on. It has to. Life is inevitable. One son graduated high school and started college. One son graduated college and was hired by the Conway Fire Department. I am so proud of those boys, who lost everything, but found the love and generosity of their friends and family and support from local churches and the community of Vilonia.
I started cycling, and even finished the 50 mile Big Dam Bridge ride. My wife continued to amaze me, with her strength and ability to always see the best in people. We bought a new house, new cars, new furniture, new "stuff."
Kelly Pavlik, one of our cats rode out the storm and showed back up at my mother-in-law’s. I even managed, eventually, to pick him up and pet him. He is pretty wild and I tell myself he would not do well in Conway, so he now prowls his old Vilonia territory, being fed by my mother-in-law and our neighbors. He no longer has a warm house to stay in on cold winter nights, or a cool place to crash in the sweltering heat of an Arkansas summer. I feel like I abandoned him. I wonder how well he sleeps, or if he does sleep what he dreams of.
As late as this past Friday, some folks, probably well-intentioned, remark how me and my family upgraded because of the storm. I’m not sure how we could have upgraded from our perfect little home. It was old, it was constantly being remodeled, it was drafty, and it was heaven. I don’t mention to these folks that it was also almost paid for, and that now, at the age of 54 I have a mortgage that I will never live to see paid off. I don’t mention that in the flurry to redefine normal after the storm we rushed into buying a new house and furnished it with furniture that leaves us scratching our heads. What we were thinking? Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate everything, but it may be a good idea when you lose most of your stuff in some sort of catastrophe, including your house and cars, to wait a month or two before making any major decisions. You could end up driving a Cube, and having all reclining furniture in your living room.
The lack of sleep has led to memory lapses. I forget entire conversations. I wrote a little after the storm but trouble putting two coherent sentences together on paper anymore. Guilt is ever present. Guilt at having survived when others didn’t. Guilt at having insurance when others didn’t. Guilt at abandoning my cat, Kelly Pavlik. Guilt at having to leave Vilonia where my wife and sons lived all their lives, and where most of her family still lives. Guilt at not looking after the bare lot where our house stood, and where the grass still grows and must be mowed. Guilt at not having thanked people enough for their help, and guilt that somehow we have lost touch with some of these very good friends that helped us so much. Enough guilt that I could be Jewish and Catholic at the same time.
As storm season comes again, the anxiety increases. Where there was no fear of severe weather warnings before, there is now fear of a 10 percent chance of showers. The fear is real, if not for me, then for someone else.
Something bad is going to happen to someone, somewhere. Tornadoes don’t pick or choose their prey. Everyone and everything is fair game. People will die, lives will be changed, none for the better. Survivors will try to rebuild their lives, mourn their losses. They will search for material remnants in the rubble; they will find immeasurable kindness and cruelty from strangers; they will wonder at the strength they didn’t know they had, and they will be ashamed to admit they sometimes cry for no reason.
Storms have already destroyed lives in the early stages what used to be spring and is now and forever the season of storms. It is ironic that a season that brings renewal can bring that renewal in the most horrid of ways. The destruction of our little piece of heaven on April 25, 2011 was complete and irrevocable. The only thing that remains is the memories. Memories of a perfect life I didn’t know I had, and the memories of a night more terrifying than I could have imagined. Memories that make it impossible to forget, and impossible to sleep.