I first met Nancy in the dining room of the Red Cross shelter. I was about to be interviewed by a TV reporter, and just as the interview was set to begin, this woman approached. She didn’t say anything. She stood there smiling at me. By looking at her color-coded wristband, I knew she was a resident of the shelter, someone who lost her home in the tornado.
Not having the option of ignoring this woman, I asked how I could help. She said, “I want to talk to the reporter.” Being a public affairs officer, I knew from experience that those most eager to talk with the media are people who typically want to air a complaint. With the reporter listening, I inquired what was on her mind. Still smiling, she replied, “I want to tell her how great the Red Cross is and how much we appreciate what you are doing here for us.”
After the reporter finished talking with me, she interviewed this woman and let her tell her story.
Later, after the media left, I talked with the woman and learned that her name was Nancy. She told me even more of her story. She was widowed. She and her daughter had survived the storm together. Her daughter had even looked upward into the eye of the tornado after the twister ripped off the roof of their house.
During the next several days, I saw Nancy around the shelter. I would ask how she was doing, and she would share a few more details about her experience. Once, with tears in her eyes, she said, “I know that God will never give us more than we can bear, but I am struggling with that concept right now.” She was very authentic as she spoke. From every conversation we had, I knew that she was a woman with deep spiritual roots. A flame of faith flickered inside her, a flame that even the strongest winds of the tornado could never extinguish.
One day as I went through the shelter’s lunch line, I stood looking for a place to sit. Nancy motioned for me to join her. “Come sit here with me,” she said. As we talked, she shared her belief that everything happens for a reason. She described what she had lost, including the wedding band given to her by her late husband. Reaching to find the silver lining of the dark cloud, she said, “I hope my ring will someday be found by someone who will use it. I hope it will again symbolize the marriage commitment that it once did with me.” Though the likelihood of that actually happening is probably small, I was impressed. She trusted that something good would come from her loss.
Nancy’s optimism inspired me. I was usually at a loss to know what to say, so I would simply comment, “I can’t imagine what you are going through.” She never wallowed in her sorrows, but always held on to a hope that better days would come.
One afternoon she walked up to me and said, “I’ve found a place to stay, and I want to thank you for all you’ve done. I came to say goodbye.”
As I tried to say “Goodbye” I was surprised when no words would come from my mouth. I tried to talk, but a huge lump in my throat rendered me unable to speak. I had not seen that coming. I was blindsided by an emotional connection I didn’t know was there.
Though I’ll probably never see Nancy again, in a very real way she will forever be part of the mosaic of memories I took from Joplin. Nancy inspired me. I went to Joplin so I could help people like her, but in the end, she helped me more than I did her.