"A category one hurricane is still a hurricane." Alabama’s governor’s words stuck in my head, wedged between my anxious, debilitating fear and my want, need to serve. I looked at Emily, sitting at my desk when I hear what I’d be doing. She was finishing another Rubix cube, and the look on my face distracted her, the weather radio blaring behind us. I had no idea what to expect, but had every idea what was expected of me. There was no one left. Every team member was assigned, we were short handed. Emily offered to accompany me to Washington, AL. We’d be running supplies and a little manpower to the camps and victim shelters run by the Red Cross and Salvation Army. The storm was in full swing.
Reports told us hundreds had been displaced already, and when we arrived there were thousands. We served a group of 150+ to take some weight off the backs of the already overworked, barebones crew, falling asleep in the now empty van that barely got us to our checkpoint.
We traveled light, as far as personal items went. I had a work phone and an old legal pad from my VISTA PSO training and a pen. Emily had her phone and she kept our wallets and Volunteer IDs and keycards to show to the camps.
At several points, I thought the following journal entries would be my final words. I wrote with the full intention of putting my cause before myself, but maintaining that I am human. I wanted to remember how I felt in these fast moments of struggle. It’s still a blur to me. I’m happy to have these words to remember, to share with her, to share with anyone willing to listen. Writing has always been a distant endeavor to me, but these are my words from my state of mind in the exact moment I felt scared or cried or freaked out or wanted to run. This is the disjointed journal of an Americorps Disaster Relief Volunteer. This is my last 14 hours.
Your spine was that of a book, and I won’t even speak of your bravado. It was covered with all the loving words you spoke to others, falling meticulously down from the nape of your neck, resting hastily atop curves that could only be compared to the rolling hills of the South-East. Fitting as it was for you to be so inked by your own words, so impatient with your own body, so intertwined in the weaving basket makers of Cherokee, you cut yourself, a bleeding reed in the massive harmony built by hands too familiar to even yourself, and yet now you find yourself here with me. The soft spoken memories of last night now sit in the back of my mind, as we race to borders and shelters and checkpoints. With a van full of food and medical kits, the thoughts of hiding in the North now leave our heads, the passionate thoughts of the night before, now leaking from our pores. We’ll discover these thoughts again, I pray. Even now as I’m calling every God, every possible savior, every possible protector to protect you, to protect the very idea of us, I look to the sky. The swirling clouds daze me, it feels like vertigo, but the dawning storms and rumbles that we feel beneath our feet tell us we can’t stop here. Driving straight into the armies of tunneling clouds and hail, I don’t need to wake you, but even as you lay against me, occupying my right arm in this supply-laden, rusty van, we look at each other, and with a nod we both say nothing with our mouths, we say everything in our minds. The first punch of gasoline rushes to the spark plugs, as my foot mashes into the floorboards. You smile, as I wonder if it’s the last time I’ll see it. I smile, wondering if you’re just as afraid as I am.
You had me stop the van. The hail from the sky was hitting the windshield with such force that everything inside me wanted to turn back, to never look back, to run. We’re pulled over, the sound of the hail lessening more and more, as a single star peaks through, and I feel it on my skin. My jeans are dripping wet, welts on my arms from the icy precipitation are forming and we’re half way to our check point. Cell service is non-existent, internet isn’t even an option out here when there’s no storm. My hands tremble a little, but I write on these legal pads because I want to remember this moment, even if no one else cares or sees. “First Responders” that’s what they called us. Training isn’t offered for this kind of work. I want to say that we’re brave, but I’m fearful and that’s no sign of bravery. Even still, we push on. Just as previous thoughts left our heads, they leave once again. You’re still shaking from how loud the hail was, and how close lightening hit. You’ll be fine. I’d never let mother nature take you. She’d have to take me first.
Yesterday you wrote about me. You wrote about the journey we’d take today, but you had no idea it would be this. I’m sorry that I’m not sorry, but I’m just glad I’m here with you, at this gas station with coffee in hand. I’m glad you’re here to shake my nerves away, and I hope I can return the favor. We’ll drive once again, and we won’t ever stop until we’ve helped more than just ourselves.
We made it. 200 miles, four hours in the worst weather I’ve seen. At the edge of the Red Cross and Salvation Army camps and shelters you kissed me. We held hands as we looked out over what we were seeing. Fellow man helping fellow man. The kind of shit you read about in magazines was happening in front of us. The victims weren’t just another preliminary FEMA form, they were real, and as you grabbed my hand, you tugged at my arm, but something tugged at my heart. This is what I was meant to do. I was meant to help others. I want this. I need this, a basic human need. I’ve never felt so alive. Maybe it was the kiss. Maybe it’s this moment before the storm (pun intended). As we get back in the van, and drive down the hill to the camps and shelters, all I can think about is what I’ve gotten us into. We’ve made it this far. We can’t go back. We will stay, we will help, we will do what is required of us even if it nearly kills us. We will be brave. Even if bravery still avoids us.
As we unloaded the van, you looked at me in a new way. I think you could see my feelings like they were visible like the sweat stains on my shirt. Maybe you could tell that your kiss had left me still shaky in the knees, could you tell I was still thinking about it? With the truck unloaded, we signed in, volunteers for the night. Running on zero sleep because we kept each other up the night before, and with gas station coffee pumping purely through our veins, we made two entire meals for over 150 people. My arms shaking more than ever, my mind shot, my inhibitions lowered. We found ourselves alone, stashed ourselves away in the van for the night with my Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles blanket, some Power Ranger pillows, fresh oranges from a farmer trying to thank us, and several bags of off-brand potato chips. I remember your words clearly, as your voice met my ears in that sleepy, heavy manor I’ve come to expect. “It’s just like old times.”
Though it was only a few hours that I was sleeping next to you. It felt like a lifetime of rest. A sleep so heavy, I know you felt rested from it too, and as we leave this place and head back to Greensboro, I fear for “our” future. Something I’ve realized while you’ve been with me this past week or so is that I love being around you. There are different types of love, and that’s something we both know. I still love you the way I did when you were in the hospital, but a love beyond that is something that could grow and feed off our innards and kill us. I don’t want that end. Today as I woke you by brushing back your hair the way I used to do when you’d fall asleep crying after your treatments, I knew that I wanted that new love, but not that inevitable end.
What we choose to do from now until our lives are stable will define “us.” I want a definable “us,” but I fear it’s too much to ask of our broken, war scarred hearts. As you take the wheel of the van to bring us back home I write these final words in hope that someday I will figure out my own life, and then maybe we can possibly figure out “ours.”
You’re sleeping in my bed as I put some earl grey on for the morning. I sit down at my computer to type the words I’ve written over the past 14 hours. It’s incredible what we’ve done, it’s incredible what we’re capable of when we have no other choice but to be brave, and we were. I learned what bravery really is, that it’s not the absence of fear. Fearless is reckless. To stand up to your fears, for the good of something, that’s bravery. We taught each other that. It’s amazing we’re even alive.
But now, in this moment, we are more alive than ever. We are never so alive, so vital, so fulfilled or beautiful or perfect as when we are acting in service to others. It was an honor to serve with you as an honorary member of the Americorps Disaster Relief, and I will never forget this moment. This moment of you collapsed in my bed while I sit here and I write about you. Everything is calm now, and I just want to fall asleep next to you, “Just like old times.”