Grace Aneiza Ali was one of several writers invited to respond to the notion of survival in the “TORN-ADO” exhibition on view at Southern Virginia University (March 21 — April 3, 2017).
I was fourteen years old when our family of five came to America. Growing up in Guyana, as we watched the American news programs beamed to our television sets, one thing seemed constant: America was a place of thunderstorms, hurricanes, and tornadoes. When I arrived with questions about the frequency of weather disasters in the DC/Maryland area where my family settled, I was reassured then, in 1995, how rare they were in the Northeast.
A tornado made landfall in 2001, my sophomore year of college at the University of Maryland in College Park. I was in an American Literature class on the south side of the campus. No tornado warning sirens blared, no alarms sounded. The lights in the building flickered, the wind howled outside, we forged on. After we emerged from the building the news began to break. A F3 tornado carved its way through parts of our campus, taking the lives of two sisters. My greatest fear about living in America, the thing I was told was rare, had materialized. And yet, I was not rattled. I was not shaken in the way I expected I would be. Another American storm had long descended on my life.
Three months after my family arrived as new immigrants ready to take on the toil and hard labor of making a life for ourselves in a new land, disaster knocked at our front door. A kind police officer came to our apartment late one night to tell my mother to get to the hospital immediately. My father’s unconscious body had been found. On his way home from the job he’d only been at for a week, he was robbed, severely beaten, and left for dead in torrential rain. That night a major thunderstorm swept through the area.
My greatest fear about living in America, the thing I was told was rare, had materialized. And yet, I was not rattled. Another American storm had long descended on my life.
My father survived the violence and the storm. He lived. But he emerged from a coma with traumatic brain injuries and physical disabilities that forever changed the course of our American experience. He could not walk or speak. He was wheel chair-ridden, his speech was indecipherable, his memory shot to pieces. That one night would lead to volatile years of hospital visits, recovery and rehabilitation programs, therapy, depression, bouts of suicidal thoughts, and endless medical bills.
The toll on our family during those dark years seemed insurmountable. In one stormy night, America had rendered my mother — already daunted by her status as an immigrant who’d only been in the country for three months and with only a minimum-wage job at her disposal — a single-mother of three, a caretaker to a disabled husband, and poor.
We grappled with the irony: Is this the America we dreamed of?
I marvel at the word “survival,” how even in the way it sounds it makes a bombastic show of strength. Yet, for many, survival is lived quietly. Throughout those years entrenched in the deep despair of what had happened to our family, we never used the word “survival.” We had no language for what we were doing as we clawed our way through and out of the abyss. No alarms sounded, no trumpets blared. The storm raged on; we fought on.
We survived, but we never called it that.