Dark skies loomed in the west as we drove home from camp yesterday. Halfway home, big drops hit the windshield and I switched the wipers from intermittent to fast. The radio was on and I heard the staccato attention signal of the Emergency Broadcast System. I looked at my radio, wondering why it wasn’t issuing a warning. Then I realized the attention signal was coming from my phone. (I know. I’m dating myself here.)
When we got to a red light, I grabbed my phone and looked at the alert. “Tornado Warning in your area,” it said, “Take shelter immediately.”
“Tornado? Shit,” I murmured. We were five minutes from home and I had workmen there waiting for a check. I kept driving. By the time we got home, dark skies cloaked the neighborhood. I gave my six-year-old daughter the house key and told her to get her little brother inside. The workmen were waiting in their truck at the end of my driveway. I went out to talk to them.
My three-year-old son didn’t want to follow his sister so he came out to the truck. As I grabbed his hand a loud thunderclap hit and released a deluge. I asked the workmen if they wanted to wait out the storm inside but they refused. They did agree to move to the garage to conduct business. I wrote the check and they left.
I got my son inside and turned on the TV to see if the alert was accurate. I mean, who knows with these newfangled mobile phones, right? Our county glowed red on the weatherman’s map. I told the kids we’d go to the basement.
“Can I bring my [stuffed] animals?” my daughter said.
I knew they’d comfort her. “One or two. Run up and get them now.”
My son asked, “Can I bring my pillow?”
He takes significantly longer to navigate the stairs. “No. We have pillows downstairs,” I said as my daughter dragged her pillow pet down to us. We descended the stairs to the basement.
“Do you wanna play pool?” I said, wanting to change the tone to fun time in the basement.
“I’m too scared,” my daughter said.
Shit. My son takes his cues from her, so now he was scared too.
“Are we gonna have a tornado?” my daughter asked, wide-eyed.
I was pretty sure I never said “tornado,” but I must have. Or the TV did. Or something. I knew that what I said next would set the tone for our sequester and subsequent storms.
“No, Honey,” I said. “Tornadoes don’t happen very often, but we’re here just in case.”
“I’m scared.” Shit.
What to say? What to say? I’d just gotten them over their fear of thunderstorms. I’d even gotten them to like watching them.
“You don’t have to be scared.” How could I explain the statistical improbability of a tornado hitting our house? I held my arms wide, “When they have a tornado warning, it covers this much – It’s a big area.” I pinched my thumb and forefinger together and placed it in the space. “But if there is a tornado, and they don’t happen very often, it’s only in this much space.”
She stared at me, saucer-eyed. Then she looked down, like she was about to cry.
“Honey,” I said. “Don’t worry.” I looked at my phone. “The warning is over in ten minutes, and then we can go back upstairs.”
“I wanna pillow!” my son whined.
“You can have mine,” my daughter said, pushing the pillow to him.
Oh God, she was being nice to her brother. This was serious.
“I wanna blanket!” my son said.
Ah, good, something to focus on. I got him a blanket; got one for my daughter and they lay on the floor.
“Is it over yet, Mommy?” my daughter asked.
I checked my phone. “Five more minutes.” I thought of something. “Did I ever tell you that once I went on vacation to chase tornadoes?”
Her brow furrowed, “You DID?”
“Yeah, the ground is flat in Texas — where I went — so you can see the tornadoes coming and which way they’re moving, so you can keep away from them, but still watch them.”
“Did you see them?”
“Um, no, unfortunately. We did see some cool storms, though, like this one and the one we watched the other night.”
“There was lightning and hail and the sky turned green. It was awesome.” I glanced at my phone. “Hey, we can go upstairs now.”
“Okay,” she said, as she and her brother got up.
“Maybe we can still watch some of the storm,” I said, looking at the TV. “See that red spot? That was the spot they were worried about.” I pointed to the map on TV. “This is where we live, and the storm’s past us.” I swept my hand eastward, “They move this way. It’s over the Bay now, so we’re safe.” I frowned. “I don’t see any more storms coming, though, so I guess we won’t have anything to watch.”
“Can we watch TV?” she said.
“Sure,” I said, flipping channels.
I don’t know how I did in the basement. I don’t know if I assuaged their fear, if I made it worse, if I had any effect at all. In the moment, it was so hard to think of what to say. Maybe if we lived in, say, Oklahoma, I’d have a tornado speech in my hip pocket. I’m sure there are all sorts of guides somewhere but I had to do my thinking on the fly.
Thinking like that, to me, is the hardest part of parenting. I can read discipline books and health articles and education blogs and learn all sorts of ways to raise my kids, but, faced with something completely unexpected, I’m not prepared. And yes, I know there are disaster preparation books and web guides and whatnot but that’s not the point. The point is that there are gonna be times like this. Times when we’re not prepared – times when the stakes are high and we have to pull something out of our asses. And we won’t know — we won’t know whether we’ve helped or hurt at the time, but we’ll have no choice. I did what I could in the moment. You’ll do what you can in similar situations. You’ll do it, I’ll do it and we’ll do the best we can, and that’s the best we can do.
So what have you pulled out on the fly? I’d love to hear it, and I’m sure everyone else would too.