“Your life can change in an instant. That instant can last forever.”
I was crouched next to my two brothers and our parents in the little room under the stairwell in our house in Urbana, Illinois. The wind was howling loudly but, with no windows, it was impossible to know how much damage and destruction might be occurring from the spinning, funnel-shaped cloud hovering over our neighborhood. That crawl space was typically home to our vacuum cleaner, mops and cleaning supplies. However, the minute the sirens rang, it became my family’s refuge.
Sometimes, if there was adequate warning, we would flee to our neighbors’ basement. On this occasion the storm came too quickly, and time was not on our side. To make it worse, it had been an extremely wet spring, which invariably brought bugs into the crevices of our house. “Argh, Daddy—I think I just felt a cockroach crawl across my foot! I think there’s more than one!” “Meg, shush—I am trying to listen!” He had been relying on his transistor radio for storm updates.
Only minutes prior, my brothers and I had been playing outside in our front-yard. All of a sudden, the wind picked up and the sky turned an eerie shade of green. I have heard that the sky turns that color due to the hail in the thunderstorm that allows more of the green spectrum to get through the clouds. I once asked my friend’s grandfather why the sky changed to such a strange hue. He answered matter-of-factly, “That’s easy. The sky turns green because a twister sucks frogs and grasshoppers into the sky.” Hmmm…..Although this was not our first, nor would it be our last tornado while living in that house, we thankfully never experienced any extensive damage, injury or loss. Other than a lingering fear and disgust of cockroaches, the storm left me unscathed and my body unchanged.
Stephanie Decker, 36, was at home with her two children when her husband texted that a tornado was heading towards their home in Henryville, Indiana. Swiftly, Decker placed blankets over her kids in an effort to protect them. When the brunt of the storm arrived, massive debris began to hit Decker’s back. Instinctively, Decker lay on top of her children to shield them. When the tornado stopped, Decker realized that her legs had been gashed and nearly severed. In the process of saving the lives of both her children, Decker lost both her legs.
And so, Stephanie Decker, who only the day before was presumably consumed with her typical daily mommy routine, now found her life irrevocably altered, changed forever. When interviewed by Matt Lauer on Today just days after the storm, Decker said she was not a hero. Rather, she told Matt, “I was simply a Mother Bear acting on instinct, and the simple title of Mom fits [me] just fine.”
Hero or not, after the press has departed and reality sinks in, Stephanie will begin a very different life. People will inevitably stare when she enters a room. Nearly every day she will be forced to decide how much or how little she wants to deal with people’s questions. Her experience is an important reminder that we all could just as easily be one step away from a life changing experience that makes us different.
In my article, “It’s Okay to Stare” (Parents, December 2011), I encouraged natural curiosity to govern–to let your child embarrass you at the sight of someone that looks different, rather than whisking them away, sending even the unintentional message that difference should be feared. Although I still stand by my advice, Decker’s experience reminds me that when you meet the Meg Zuckers or the Stephanie Deckers of the world, though our unique difference is readily apparent, our individual tales are not. More importantly, I appreciate that not everyone might have had years of experience dealing with public scrutiny, as I have. Not everyone is comfortable or ready to share their story. That said, legs or no legs, beyond the initial national attention, I think Stephanie Decker will welcome natural curiosity and prefer the continued opportunity to tell her story; to be regarded as a “someone,” and not a “something.” I’m confident she will manage perfectly well in her new reality and with her different body. If she doesn’t feel like a hero now, she soon will.