Going Back to Joplin to Move Forward: My Memories of May 22, 2011
“Remember when we first brought her, how hard that was," says Leslie, my mom.
My mom, my brother, and I stand in an empty lot on Moffet Street in Joplin. It probably doesn’t seem like a particularly sentimental scene: a man in a ball cap is mowing the grass, the sun is shining; We’re just three people standing there in our shorts, shading our eyes from the sun.
“We left her here and she kept saying, ‘when are you going to come back," mom remembers.
Six years ago, we moved our 85-year-old Aunt Geneva from our home in Joplin to a nursing home called Greenbrier.
And five years ago, on May 22, an EF-5 tornado ripped through Joplin—turning the Greenbrier Nursing home into an indistinguishable pile of rubble. Our Aunt Geneva lost her life.
“It still makes me so sad,” says my mom.
Now, all that’s left is a desolate, empty lot. But there are still traces of the building here—as my brother, Mitchell, points out.
“You can actually see some of the rooms right here…the hallway behind me…”
Moving Aunt Gen out of our home and into the nursing home was a strange and sad experience. One year prior, Aunt Gen had been diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, and since then her body and brain had been slowly deteriorating, but we couldn’t get used to seeing my aunt not completely full of life.
Growing up, she took countless long walks and road trips with us. She was always up for an adventure; Aunt Gen’s 80th birthday request was a ride on my dad’s motorcycle. I’ll never forget the sight of her riding away, her powdery white arms waving in the air.
As we moved her into the nursing home that day, those same powdery white arms gave my family hugs and asked when we’d come back to see her. And we did-- In the months following the move, we became regular visitors to the nursing home. So as we stand in the empty lot where it used to be, we can easily remember the building’s layout.
“So you came in, this would have been where they ate…”
Even though it’s been 5 years since the tornado, there is still some rubble and debris here:
“Old tile…yeah its some sort of a tile…it seems like there was tile on the wall.”
Then, we remember—there were blue tiled walls in the nursing home’s activities room, a place where my brother and I would bring our violins and play music for my aunt and the rest of the residents.
“There was a piano here.”
As we played for the residents, Aunt Geneva would sit off to the side in her wheelchair, her blue eyes shining. The proud and radiant look on her face was one I had seen many times growing up. Aunt Gen never missed a birthday party, a dance performance, or a violin recital.
Just as she was always there for us, we continued accepting her requests to go back to the nursing home and spend time with her. Everyone seemed surprised that Aunt Gen was living so long past her terminal cancer diagnosis. My family and I weren’t surprised. This was our Aunt Gen, after all.
As time went on, Aunt Gen’s health plateaued and our family’s life got busier. My family and I started commuting to work and activities outside of Joplin. On May 22, 2011, we were all in Springfield when we got the news that a tornado had ripped up our hometown.
“It was chaotic. You watch the zombie movies now, I swear that’s what it felt like when you were walking through all that. People didn’t have shoes, they didn’t have shirts, everyone was covered in mud and dirt and debris.”
That’ Jennifer Aguilar. She was the Greenbrier’s culinary manager at the time. She arrived at the nursing home right after the tornado hit, but didn’t recognize the pile of rubble at first.
“I got to Greenbrier and I walked passed. I drove there for three or four years every day, I walked past it, one of the nurses said…Jennifer…that’s it. It was probably one of the worst experiences ever.”
Aguilar says there were bodies everywhere, being pulled from the wreckage, strewn along the nursing home’s parking lot.
“There were people digging out my cook from the rubble and you could hear her screaming.”
Aguilar says it’s something she’ll never forget.
“I remember one of the ladies I argued with forever that morning over the eggs that I made for her, she told me they were horrible so I had to remake them a couple of times, and I do remember us pulling her out of the building. We’d just argued four hours ago,” says Aguilar.
While the staff knew who each resident was, Aguilar says the process of identifying each one and figuring out who to contact was very difficult. Through these efforts, my aunt’s brother, my Papa Richard, was contacted.
“They took my DNA so that they would know for sure that we were finding the right person for the right loved one.” Papa Richard explained.
When Aunt Gen’s body was thought to be found, he was called in to identify it.
“Her hair—it was gray, and long, and it had fallen over her neck.”
KATHRYN: “But her face was recognizable?”
“Yes, no doubt. No doubt….I was so concentrated on making sure it was her.”
I’ll never forget the night we found out that the tornado had taken Aunt Gen’s life. I sat alone on my bed, tears streaming down my face. My mind went back to that day, so many years ago, when we moved Aunt Gen into Greenbrier. When she kept asking us to come back, we did.
And we still do. We think back: to her silly, quirky sayings and still quote them from time to time. And we go back, like we did to the lot where the tornado destroyed her nursing home.
The day after we visited the former Greenbrier lot, we saw my grandparents for mother’s day. With Aunt Gen still on my mind, I hugged my grandparents a little tighter and laughed with them a little more. Sometimes I think it’s almost more respectful to stay sad, but I don’t think that’s what Aunt Geneva would have wanted.
It was only in going back that I realized how important it is to move forward.
For KSMU news, I’m Kathryn Eutsler.