Nineteen Hours

by Catherine Kenwell 4 days ago in ptsd

Surviving a Storm and its Life-changing Impact

Nineteen Hours
Cars, cows, houses, and horses were picked up and scattered that day.

May 31, 1985

4:15 p.m. – THE BEFORE

“Need a lift home?”

“That’d be great,” Patti said. “I’d rather not walk home in the…clamminess of this weird weather.”

“I just have to stop by the newspaper office first. Just in case I have an assignment tonight or tomorrow,” I explained. “I’ll just be a sec.”

I held two jobs. My career job was the newspaper, but my other job was working with Patti, co-managing a one-of-a-kind clothing store that specialized in trendy new-wave fashions.

I’d been working at the store until the power started flickering and we closed up shop. My plan was to stop by the newspaper office on my way home to pick up any last-minute assignments before the full-time editorial staff left for the weekend.

The weather had been strange and stagnant. There was nothing but stillness in the air, the draggy muted colors of weather-in-waiting. That morning, I’d woken to a dreamlike atmosphere dense with a slippery heat. There was no breeze, no birds singing—just a heaviness, like the belly feels after great overindulgence.

4:30 p.m.

Driving across town, Patti and I chatted idly while I concentrated on the sudden onset of indigo-grey rain pounding the windshield. Now, all of the traffic lights were dark, and reduced visibility made it impossible for drivers to navigate four-way stops.

The newspaper office was dark when I pulled into the drive, and it looked like everyone had left. No assignments, or maybe I’ll find my own, I thought as I dodged back from the building. In two seconds, I’d been soaked to the skin.

“Wow, this is ridiculous,” I sighed as Patti prepared to dash from the car to her apartment door. “I think I’ll take the highway around the city, so that I can avoid all the idiots in the intersections. I’ll see you sometime tomorrow.”

4:37 p.m. – THE PRESENT

“Unbelievable!” I muttered to myself as I switched off the car radio. Vehicles on the onramp to the highway were crawling a somber death march. “My god, the windshield wipers can’t even keep up!”

I steeled myself to concentrating on the road ahead. Both hands on the steering wheel, jaws clenched. Man, what a storm, I thought. Finally, my exit appeared. Brake lights were popping out in all lanes in front of me. Thank goodness I knew this road, having driven it almost every day for the past five years. The car can almost find its own way home, I sighed.

I braked, waiting for the oily red lights to move further along, away from me. Everything looked greasy, psychedelic in the pounding torrent. I blinked hard, trying to clear my vision.


4:39 p.m.

My god. It’s not rain. It’s stuff. Stuff! Brake, hit the brake, my foot’s on the brake, why am I moving when my foot’s on the brake?

Fuck, ouch, what the hell, what is happening? Oh my god. Get down get down get down GET DOWN…but what…

Something hard, dense, smashes through the window to my left, punches me in the cheekbone. Cracks it. Knocks me down. I’m whipped across the front seat onto the driver’s side. Landing on my camera. Protecting it now, like it’s my child, my arms circling its case. My foot’s still on the brake.

What the fuck just hit me?!?

Something just hit me. Something just HIT ME.

I reach above my head and put the car in park. I’m not going anywhere without a fight. Rocking, rocking, foot still hard on the brake, and somehow the car is still moving. Like a clumsy giant’s dinky toy, tumbling free-fall through a whirling sandbox.

I’m assaulted. Unknown. Black. Wet. Glass shards torpedo into the back of my head, my arms, my hands. My back. The noise, unbearable, a black-hole blender roaring on overdrive.

Here is death, sucking me up suddenly, with no warning, it’s goodbye. This is how. I’m dying now. Goodbye.

Silence. A vacuum of no-sound. Noise has been sucked through a straw. Milliseconds pass. I wait. If I lie dormant, it won’t notice I’m still here. The clumsy giant. The world-ender.

Is it over? Will it start again? The angry ogre’s temper tantrum, will it take me this time?

I inhale. The combination of earth, blood, water, and cold air feels refreshingly, shockingly clean.

My foot is still glued to the brake pedal.

A noise. To my left. A woman’s voice. “You ok?”

I turn my head, not abandoning my fetal roll. My eyes feel like they’re awash with sandpaper and bleeding as I squint towards the sound.

It’s my neighbor, Trisha. I used to baby-sit her. When I was alive, before. What’s she doing here?

“Trish…yeah. I’m…yeah, I’m…”

She runs to the next car before I complete my thought.

Sirens, in the distance, coming closer. I can hear them, I think, but my ears are screaming with whiny buzzing. It’s hard to tell if any of this is real.

I quickly perform a mental body inventory. Toes. Feet. Hands. Arms. Legs. There is something hard against my right leg. Hard and cold, metallic. I have to fold and lift my leg over it before I move anything else. I will eventually discover it was construction pipe, driven through the grill and the engine area with such a force that it was about three inches away from impaling me in the abdomen.

I right myself to seated and try the door handle. It won’t open. Eventually I leverage my body, kick the door with both feet, hard. Nothing. I end up crawling through the glassless windshield, over the crumpled car hood. I roll to the ground and stand.

I reach back in through the driver’s side empty window. Grab my purse and my camera. Everything else is gone. The factories, guardrails, racetrack…everything. The horizon is transformed into a junkyard, scarred with art nouveau pieces of scrap-heap materials.

Where is my family? I don’t see them here. Why would they be here? There is a horse here. Do horses fly now? Is my house still standing? How much is gone? What’s left? I need to get home. Can I walk? I can stumble. But I feel like I might have to walk forever to find something familiar. I don’t want to stop. The rhythm is what keeps me going, like a child’s doll that walks when its string is pulled.

4:47 p.m.

Gradually, my eyes focus. I notice cars, hundreds of them, tangled like toys strewn along the highway. People are screaming, crying…silent. Slow motioned, I walk back to the car. Grab the car blanket out of the glass-frosted back seat. They say to cover people in shock, I remember. Keep them warm.

I wander several cars back and watch a middle-aged woman stagger from her car. Dreamily, I want to ask her, “you didn’t get down, did you?” And now her nose is hanging down on her top lip. “Didn’t you realize?” I imagine my query continuing. “Your nose is falling off, and all because you paused one second too long….” Instead, I tell her she’ll be fine, and put the tissue I somehow had in my hand into hers and raise her hand to her nose. “Just hold right there, just like that,” I say, “and help will be here soon.”

I continue, with my camera and purse flung over one shoulder, carrying the blanket in my glass-injected arms. Sirens, closer now. Firefighters, rescuers, zombie victims, dancing together in a slow-motion, syncopated, spasmodic waltz.

In months previous, we’d been bombarded with nuclear apocalypse stories—made-for-TV movies like The Day After. Is that what this is? Are we the walking dead? The aftermath? I think…I’m dead.

5:01 p.m.

A tall, dark-haired man is sitting on a post that once framed a guardrail. My blanket. He needs it. He’s in shock. I can tell. How? I don’t know. I walk over. “Are you ok there?”

“Whuwa,” he mumbles. “Look down there.”

I follow his gaze and strain to see over the roadside embankment. There’s a car, a car-been, a car-has-been, a car-was. Just metal now. “That’s my Cavalier,” he explains.

I stand beside him, wrapping my glass-sheared blanket around his shoulders. I don’t even consider that I am cutting him. He grimaces. I feel for his shoulder, but it’s not where it should be, and his arm is hanging limply. I don’t know what else I can do.

Over there, by the side of the road. Two people are bending down to road level, covering up a third person with a blanket. Shock, that’s right. Keep the injured warm. I begin taking my camera out of its case, to immortalize their heroism. I stop when they start to pull the blanket over the head.

Somehow, vehicles are snaking through and around debris-polluted lanes. It’s a Friday evening; cottage-goers are heading for cottage country.

I sense someone is following me as I walk. I hear a faint ‘hello’ and turn. A middle-aged couple stop and get out of their car. The woman is holding a fresh hand towel and pushes it in my direction.

“What happened?” she exclaims. “Were you in it? Are you ok? You’re not ok. Here.”

I take the towel to appease her and wipe my face. Clearly it was a trick; she had concealed tiny knives in the fabric. My cheeks and forehead were being torn with each touch. I pull the towel away and offer it back to her. She just shakes her head, and the two return to their car.

I suddenly become fearless. I am the walking dead, and I nothing can kill me now. I walk through swampy fields where factory floors are the only reminders of the moments-before industrial workday. The dark water is up to my knees in some places. The volunteer firefighters I walk with are looking for bodies, I think. It’s a grisly treasure hunt; we’re all looking to discover something no one else has ever even thought of.

I wander, taking pictures to remember my death, for that’s what it must be. After. After something. After life. The landscape is foreign, and landmarks have vanished. I click and click and click. My photos will be exhibited and win awards. I am not afraid of anything. My fears were stripped away like the layers of skin I have yet to notice are gone. I will show everything I see.

Later, I don’t know when, my friend Brenda spots me. She lives not far from where this happened, and she insists I return home with her. She thinks I should take a shower. I’m dirty from all the debris, I assume. Brenda makes warm, sugary tea while I take the flashlight into the bathroom and undress. In the dark, I can’t see the blood.

In the midnight-shaded bathroom, I step into the shower and tug the curtain closed. I turn the faucet and pull it to shower mode. I yelp. Instantly, I’m hopping and writhing in pain. The water’s force pushes thousands of glass shards deeper into my face, my head, my body. My back is on fire. Even in the dark, I can see the water turning pink as it trails down the drain.

Brenda gives me clothes to put on. They are graciously large and cozy and light, and they rest gently upon my broken skin. My left jaw is swollen and black, and the rear of my head is already itchy with dried gore.

Later that night, once the phone lines are restored, my father convinces a police officer friend to allow him through the roadblocks. He and my brother take me home. My house is standing. My family lives. I lie down on the dewy and cool front lawn and try to discern the north star. I still can’t find my bearings.

I don’t sleep, but I take up night-time residence in the basement, a habit that will continue for weeks. There is no electricity so my eyes squint to make out familiar shapes in the dark, something, at least, to provide a little comfort.

The next afternoon, my mother stokes the wood stove and fries an egg sandwich for me. I realize I haven’t eaten in almost twenty hours. When I take my first bite, I realize it is the best sandwich I will ever eat.

2020 – THE AFTER

I was wearing some of my favorite clothes that day. A brand-new Psychedelic Furs t-shirt, dark tailored pencil-leg Levis, and the coolest pair of pointed-toe red flat shoes—a cherished purchase from my trip to Scotland. I still pine for those shoes.

I never saw any of those clothes again, despite my repeated asking for them. Everyone stopped silent when I brought up the subject.


Almost thirty years later, my Dad told me my parents took me to the hospital. I argued that it never happened. I remember saying that there were people much more injured than I, and that I didn’t need the medical attention. Apparently, they dragged me there anyway. I discovered (years later) that doctors had extracted hundreds of glass shards from my back. I’m assuming I have a roadmap of tiny potholes on my shoulders.

The emergency doctors didn’t check for a brain injury—it wasn’t part of the overall protocol back then. I’m not sure why they would. The physical injuries were striking enough. I had a huge whack of a bruise and a gash on the left side of my face. We also picked out tiny slivers of glass from my skull for about five years after the tornado. My brain had clearly been knocked about (for the first of what would be many injuries) and it took years for me to understand the impact of that day.

We also didn’t know much about post-traumatic stress back then. I couldn’t explain my paralysis whenever I heard a train or a loud noise, or when I couldn’t drive in rainstorms. Inside my head, my flashbacks crackled with terror. Thankfully those around me didn’t think twice when I headed for the basement at the first clap of thunder, but eventually the emotional and physical scars associated with PTSD and post-concussion syndrome played a significant role in the breakup of my first marriage, hurt my career, and cost me some friendships.

Since the storm, I've sustained three additional traumatic brain injuries, plus I contracted meningitis; the third concussion almost killed me and I live with mild aphasia as well as permanent hearing and cognitive losses.

Today, I don’t focus on my injuries from the tornado, or the things it took away; rather, I am more grateful for the life I learned to live because of it. Except…I sure would like to have those red shoes, wherever they are.

Catherine Kenwell
Catherine Kenwell
Read next: Never In the Cover of Night
Catherine Kenwell
See all posts by Catherine Kenwell