The anniversary of a Texas tornado
This essay about the Dallas tornado outbreak of December 26, 2015 won the Mayborn literary non-fiction essay award and originally appeared in the journal Ten Spurs.
When I came back from Africa, my house was gone.
I knew it wouldn’t be there. From a safe distance, nearly 6,000 miles east of Texas, I had tracked its final moments.When the windows exploded. When the roof ripped off. When the bricks blew away. Google Maps, the National Weather Service, and Twitter helped me piece together a timeline of the destruction as I paced up and down my hotel room on the west coast of Africa.
The Internet told the story of the tornado that destroyed my house. What it could not tell me was if the people inside my house had survived. If my husband, my mother, and my dog were alive.
My mother has had three lives. The first: She is a six-year-old in a village called Motavaracha in northwestern India. She wears a red velvet dress and a shiny black bob cut that she pins away from her face with two golden barrettes. While her friends run in circles, kicking up whorls of red dust in their bare feet, she wears leather slippers, hand-embroidered with thread the color of saffron.
But the games must halt for a moment. My mother has an announcement to make. “I’m moving to England,” she declares, her hand in the air, commanding the children to stop playing and listen. “I have a tiara to wear on the airplane.” The children squint in the sun. “When are you going?” a boy asks. “The day before Eid. They eat chocolate on Eid day in England,” she says, her hands on her hips. “Did you know that?” The boy shrugs. “OK, chase me now!” she squeals and the games resume in a cloud of dust and giggles.
My mother tells every villager who will listen to a six-year-old that she is going to England. Her father is there. He answered the call of the Empire when she promised a British passport in return for working jobs that the British refused. Her father is a bus conductor, she tells the mullah, the chaiwala, the candy man who spins shapes out of a ball of pink sugar as big as her head.
“When are you going to England?” the candy man asks, stretching the sugar into threads as fine as lace. He slips a candy necklace over her head. “I am going to England the day before Eid,” she says. It is chomahoo, monsoon season in Motavaracha. Pummeled by the relentless rains, the sodden earth wafts a sweet scent of cloves and eucalyptus into the air. My mother crouches in the doorway of her house clutching a glass jar, listening to the fat frogs croak their monsoon song. She waits for the rains to let up so she can pull back the wet green grass in search of lal gai, the red, velvety bugs that dot the long reeds. Then she plunges into the tall grass, her tongue poking into her cheek as she scours the foliage. She plucks the bugs off the grass, dropping them into the jar until it is full.
She runs to the end of the road to the old woman who turns bugs into medicine. “The oil from these creatures can make a lame man walk and a limp man … never mind,” the medicine woman cackles, wiggling her pinky finger in the air. She empties the jar into a basket lined with white muslin and presses a square, silver coin into my mother’s palm. “I will spend this in England!” the little girl tells the medicine woman. “I am going to England before Eid!” Her fist tightly squeezing the silver coin, she runs all the way home.
Now it is the first day of Ramadan. My mother has begged her mother to let her fast from sunrise to sunset, like a grown-up. In the midday heat, she swings from the railings at the front of the house and watches as the men walk to the mosque for noon prayers.
“Hey, Miss!” a bearded man yells. “When are you going to England?”
“The day before Eid!” she yells. The man chuckles. “I’ll pray for you, little girl!” Then it is the last day of Ramadan, the day before Eid. The village is buzzing with the sounds of Eid preparations. Sweet pastries are fried; silk skirts are ironed.
My mother sits quietly in a sleeveless marigold dress, watching her mother drape the sofas in orange and turquoise special-event chadors for visitors to sit on the next day. “When are you going to England?” She knows a hundred visitors will ask this question tomorrow as they squish
their fat behinds into the chador and stuff their mouths with shiny jalebi. But she is one step ahead of them. She is rehearsing her response. My mother tugs at her dress and smooths her hair. “I am going to England when God wants me to go,” she whispers.
In her second life, my mother is a teenager in Nuneaton, a gray, industrial town in the middle of England. She is seven months pregnant and working in a factory. Aged sixteen, she left high school and had an arranged marriage to a man from India. He is from the town that neighbored the village she longed to escape.
Her husband is new to England; my mother has been there almost twelve years. She tells him that she wants to go to university. “Over my dead body,” he says. She gets a second job when he stops working. Exhausted, her belly aching from the weight of a five-pound fetus, she collapses one evening when she arrives home from work. Her husband steps over her crumpled body to reach the telephone. “Your daughter is on the floor,” she hears him say. “Come and pick her up.”
Four years pass through a steady stream of sedatives and string beans. She asks her husband what he wants for their daughter. She will be an obedient wife and a proficient cook, he says. She will have an arranged marriage and serve her husband.
My mother has a different plan. She reads books while she kneads the chapati dough. She slips away to evening classes after she clocks out from the factory. She collects recommendation letters. She adds two extra supplications to the five obligatory prayers she says each day. She asks again if she can go to university, only this time she holds an acceptance letter in her hand. Her husband again says no. One morning, my mother slips out of the house and takes a three-hour train ride to the university. I am five years old. She takes me with her.
In her third life, a library replaces the kitchen, a desk replaces the stove. In this life, she reads in public, eats fish and chips for dinner, soaks lentils for my lunch in a kitchen next to eighteen-year-olds heating ramen noodles. In this incarnation, she graduates from university and moves to London. She waves her daughter off to medical school then packs her bags and heads to New York City to become a graduate student and then a professor. This avatar is a powerful woman with an apartment in Manhattan and, later, a condo in Washington, DC. She has an executive assistant, a Pilates trainer and a French tutor. She is a free woman. Free to follow her daughter to Texas. It is this life, her third life, that nearly kills my mother.
The life of a Texas tornado begins on a balmy Bermuda beach. Hot air rises over the bodies of sunbathers and floats west over the wide Sargasso Sea. Damp and thick, it drifts across Georgia and Alabama then Mississippi and Louisiana before it settles over Dallas, a heavy fugue of steam. Icy wind from Canada roars south to Texas and wraps the Caribbean air in a cold embrace. The winds dance as they collide then peel into layers of hot and cold.
The layers spin like circling figure skaters in a multistory ice rink. The dance, at first graceful, grows frenzied. The skaters crash and crumple. Cold air collapses, folding around hot currents drifting upward, the two streams intertwined like angry serpents. The serpents grow longer until their tongues taste the ground. Feeding on dirt and debris, their bellies swell so they are no longer two coils but a unified gyre, a gray umbilical cord connecting heaven and earth.
The tornado born of these serpents arrived at 6:45 p.m., the day after Christmas in Sunnyvale, a small town in eastern Dallas County. Thirteen miles to the north, my mother was sprinkling crushed pistachios onto a chocolate cake. My husband was sitting upstairs on the deck, his T-shirt stuck to his clammy skin. The dog was swatting mosquitoes with her tail.
I was sipping club soda in the rooftop bar of a Liberian hotel. It was close to midnight and I was thinking about how to tell my companion, a freelance journalist from Australia, that I was tired and needed to sleep. “Clair, I should go,” I say. “I have to get up early to spend the day with an Ebola survivor.”
My assignment for Scientific American was to report on the Liberians who had fought Ebola and won. “Go!” Clair said, taking a sip of red wine. “I’ll finish this and head home.” I pushed back my seat and stood for a second, unsure whether to hug her goodbye. We had met a week earlier, the day I landed in Monrovia. That night, we had shared a meal of fish stew and rice on the beach. This was only our second time meeting. Too soon for a hug, I decided. “See you before I leave next week?” I said. “Yeah, man, for sure.”
I walked down two flights of stairs, turned up the thermostat in my room and slipped on pajamas. My phone buzzed on the bedside table. It was my mother texting me photos of a cake she had baked to take to a party in Highland Park. “Do you think I should slice the cake or take it whole?” Mum said.
I flipped from the cake to Twitter where friends were sharing messages about a tornado watch near Dallas. The watch turned into a warning. TORNADO SPOTTED IN SUNNYVALE. TAKE COVER, GARLAND AND ROWLETT. The photo with the tweet showed a black and purple funnel cloud. I took a screenshot and texted my mother and husband. “Have you guys seen this?” “No,” they texted back. “But it’s suddenly very windy. We’re going to stay home.” “You need to shelter-in-place,” I said. “Do you know where to hide?”
They didn’t text back.
Two minutes passed.
“Mum, are you in the pantry?”
I sat upright in bed. I got out of bed. I paced the hotel room. I pulled my hair into a ponytail. I pulled my hair loose from the ponytail. I kept calling my mother and my husband but neither answered their phones. I shivered in the warm hotel room. A midnight blue cashmere sweater hung in the closet. Mum had insisted I pack it in case the Liberian nights were cool. It belonged to her and it still smelled of her. I buried my face in the scent of Clarins face cream. I logged in to our Wi-Fi home camera account, the one we use to spy on the dog when we are out. The app rewound to its last recorded scenes, filmed five minutes earlier at 6:58 p.m., Dallas time.
Mum is in the kitchen arranging a cake on a plate. Her hair is freshly styled for the party, the ends flicked out. The dog is curled into the corner of the sofa, her white fur blending into the white upholstery. She is a pathetic sight, a muscular white pit bull quivering among a pile of cushions, eyes squeezed shut. My husband is crouching next to her, pressing his forehead into her cheek, his big palms stroking her back up and down. Good, I think. They’re fine. They are just not answering their phones. I sit back on my bed and watch as the dog starts to calm down, her muscles relaxing beneath my husband’s hands. Then she sits up straight. My husband lifts his head. My mother looks up from the cake. The house turns black.
I squeezed Clair tightly and asked her to squeeze me back. “If you hug me hard it will stimulate my parasympathetic nervous system and lower my heart rate,” I said, justifying the embrace. She obliged and then one-upped my request. “How about I make you a cup of tea?” To a British person, putting on the kettle is like calling in the cavalry.
While she steeped the tea bag, I kept calling my mum and husband. It was 2 a.m. in Liberia and 9 p.m. in Dallas. They still weren’t responding to my voicemails and text messages. Friends in Dallas and DC had little time for my concern. They forced multiple platitudes into short texts and emails. “Of course they haven’t been hurt in the tornado,” one friend said in an email. “They’ve probably lost power.” Another texted: “Calm down, sweetie. What are the odds that your house would take a direct hit from a tornado?”
The odds are 1 in 4.5 million. I was more likely to lose my mother to leprosy than to have her swept away by strong winds. But I had lured her to spend six months with us in Texas. If she was dead it was because of me. I settled into Clair’s couch with the tea in my hand but each time I closed my eyes, I imagined my mum and my husband, their dusty faces poking out from beneath a pile of rubble, the dog nowhere to be seen.
“My mum’s had such a shitty life,” I said, opening my eyes and looking at Clair. “Her dad left India under the guise of settling down in England and calling his kids over. But he was having such a fab time that he left his family in the village.” It was my great-aunt who filled out the paperwork, got passports for my grandmother and her children, and sent them on a rickshaw to the airport. Clair offered no platitudes, only tea and chocolate and a fully charged iPhone. “Use it,” she said, thrusting the phone into my hands. “If your mum’s not answering, call your neighbors.”
My house sits in a loop of a dozen homes next to a lake. For our neighbors, this is their dream retirement location. For my husband and me, the four-bedroomed mansion in the suburbs was our first chance to play at being grown-ups. With no kids and one dog, we rattled around the nearly five-thousand-square-foot lake house feeling like we had made it. We were two kids from the inner city, one raised in government housing, now living in a house straight out of a music video.
The house was a lot like my husband: sturdy and reliable, modern but with deep roots. We had picked it in a hurry. On a trip from New York City, we scoured a few dozen Dallas homes within days, settling on the one that had closets as big as our entire Harlem apartment.
Now I pictured it as a pile of sticks and stones. If the neighbors with their middle-aged reliability weren’t answering their phones, then the whole neighborhood must be devastated, I thought. I put Clair’s phone on the armrest and held my face in my hands. “It’s no use, no one is answering,” I said.
It was close to 3 a.m. in Liberia and 10 p.m. in Dallas. Online reports told me the tornado had touched ground three hours earlier. As I refreshed the page on news websites, updated reports said parts of my area were inaccessible to emergency responders. Trees were down, electricity was out. Clair and I sat in silence except for the dim hum of the generator. Then her phone rang. We didn’t recognize the number. Somebody was calling from America.
When I came back from Africa, home was the Holiday Inn on Harry Hines Boulevard in downtown Dallas. I dragged my suitcase down a corridor with gray walls and stopped at a gray door. I knocked and waited. The door opened and my mother stood in the doorway, my husband and the dog behind her. She took my suitcase, held my hand, and pulled me in.