I am itching to get to the present since I’ve truly learned to live right here, where we all belong, but I also want this to have as much impact as possible. That keeps me writing in the past, attempting to give a full view of my world from the ‘start’ of my second life to where I am today. For that reason, the next natural step is to write about what was happening 13 years ago at this moment. This happens to be (don’t you love when we act like things are accidental, but truly we know there is a much bigger source directing our actions) where the last article left off.
When we were attempting to be “normal” again, there was a swarm of lawyers and journalists calling and showing up at our door. To our surprise, there was a gathering of other affected families working on a lawsuit against the Corps of Engineers. You may think the same thing I did when I heard, which was, “HOW IGNORANT! We were all there by our own will, and this was a natural disaster. How can anyone, much less the government, play any part in this?”
We refused to listen, knowing our history with Albert Pike and feeling this was nothing but an attempt by what some would call “ambulance chasers” to make money and gain fame from the tragedy of others. A good friend of mine was (and still is) an incredible attorney, and I gave in, asking him to look into it for me. He is very much against frivolous lawsuits and will always let me know the hard truth, which I appreciate. He read it and immediately called me, Clark, and my stepdad to his office to go over the suit the next day. I knew at that point there were things I had been missing.
When Clark and I discussed it that night, we started remembering some things the rescuers said to us in the flood’s aftermath. One told us he was so sorry they didn’t do more. Confused, I asked how in the world they could have that on their shoulders. They confessed they knew the area was in a flood plain, that the storm warning systems were not in working order, and that they saw the storm coming in time to warn the officials who could notify the campers. But no one came. I was engulfed in my grief and couldn’t understand what those words meant. As we thought about the next day’s meeting with our friend, who normally has to schedule even free time weeks in advance, the weight of those words hit me.
I have struggled to know how forward I should be with the details of this piece, but there has been a vast conflict in opinion about the current and future state of Albert Pike. I respect all opinions and have my own, which may surprise you, but I urge you to read this lawsuit. The synopsis (without forcing myself to read it again, risking my current peace) is this:
The Corp was given money to repair the warning signals that were in place since there was no cell service in the area. That money was spent elsewhere, and the signals were still not working.
The Corp had been given money again to use for repairs but decided instead to build more campsites which campers would pay to use. In preparation for the expansion, they had experts come to do soil tests and more. They found that because of its location and with water flowing in multiple directions to the section of the river where the campsites were to be built, this would cause–in their exact words– “loss of lives.” They also discovered the area couldn’t withstand construction and the 100-year floodplain would become a fatal flash flood waiting to happen.
These findings were disregarded, and campsites were built anyway. Additional experts stated this would be a fatal choice, but again, campsites were built, and the delicate area was greatly disturbed. None of us knew this, of course, and we assumed we would be safe simply by taking our own precautions. I’m not blaming anyone for what happened. I’m just stating the findings at the time. There were those who adamantly stood against building new sites and their stance on the allowance of camping in that area.
In normal circumstances, there is a law that no one can sue the government unless there is clear proof of gross negligence; it’s almost impossible unless multiple people and systems fail to do what should be done, and it causes egregious damage. A clear indication of what a momentous catastrophe this was, as far as government oversight, is to explain that when this case was sent to the Supreme Court, they ruled that with the available evidence, the lawsuit could proceed. That means the Supreme Court realized this particular government agency had royally screwed up.
To be clear, this lawsuit was not to get money or notoriety (we already had plenty of that, unfortunately). The goal was simply to let others know the dangers and to hopefully get it fixed. There was such a fight to reopen Albert Pike to overnight stays I truly felt people should be informed. I kept my involvement in the lawsuit private. I wasn’t proud to be involved in a lawsuit, and, honestly, it was a minuscule part of my life at that point. Because of my own stubborn thoughts towards lawsuits in general and my worry about the judgment of others, I was the last of the families to join the suit. At the end of the day, I knew it was the right thing to do.
Unfortunately, it became public; just enough information was given to cause a stir, but not enough to tell the public the whole truth. Most of us don’t do our due diligence to investigate these things further before making judgments or commenting online. It wasn’t until recently that I happened to mention some of the details, and the people listening (even people I had known for years) had absolutely no idea. It was the shock on their faces that finally encouraged me to talk about this.
You might wonder what part airing these details has to do with my healing, and the shortest answer is I held on to a great deal of anger because of this. It’s not just because of all that could have been done to stop it. It’s not just because they were told over and over that this was going to be the outcome. It’s because so many judged us all on our choices that day, and no one really knows a sliver of the story. They weren’t there to see the sun shining or the beauty of the day and the almost non-existent threat of what was to come. They don’t understand that this outcome was predicted, and many ignored it, allowing 20 people with families and lives to be destroyed without a thought. It has haunted me, if I’m being honest, and my gosh, isn’t that the entire reason I’m writing about all of this?
During the investigation and lawsuit, we were working on getting to our new normal: work, home, silence, food, sadness, boredom, emptiness, drugs (prescribed and not), bed, and then the next day, it started all over. I have been asked many times if there was anything specific that someone did that made a difference. There are so many who struggle through similar situations, and honestly, there has been no good answer. My therapist and I have discussed the hilarity of the normal things people say, like: “This is God’s plan.”; “If you need anything, let me know.”; “They’re in a better place.”; “How are you doing?”; “There’s a reason for everything.”; “I know how you feel.”; and so on. Please don’t beat yourself up if you’ve said these things. None of us really knows what to say, and honestly, there’s not much hurting people can hear that will help. They are all just words on a tongue and really nothing more when you have a pain so deep words can’t penetrate.
Everyone, and I mean EVERYONE, was there initially. But the thing was, after the smoke cleared, I was so alone. There were times when I just couldn’t do things I used to do, and that really bothered me but admitting that became a new rip at the hole in my heart. Going to birthday parties, especially for my friend’s children who I had watched grow up since birth, became impossible. These were children Kylee and I had been in contact with daily since they were born, but seeing them just reminded me of what I no longer had. Every birthday was a reminder of the birthdays I was missing. Every Christmas dinner was a reminder of the empty seats at my table, and, worse yet, I couldn’t tell them why. I just stopped. That meant that they eventually stopped asking. There were those select few friends who never stopped talking to me, but their lives had to go on, and when you can’t be involved with things like that, you miss out on most of the friendship. The shock wore off, and eventually, everyone moved on but me.
When my therapist asked what helped me in the beginning, I thought it was most important for him, or anyone for that matter, to know what NOT to do. The lesson I learned from those I’ve encountered since is simple. It’s great to be there in the beginning, but that’s when everyone is there. Be the person who is going to be there two years later when it’s your child’s birthday, and you can’t get out of bed. I needed someone to remember me, to remember my mom and Kylee. I need someone to remember everything that happened and to not let my inability to act like my old self be a deterrent. That’s easier said than done, right? However, if we can be honest about what we need, others can work towards it. After all, it’s progress, not perfection, that can make a difference.
Out of all the words spoken in the days, weeks, and months following, one particular conversation stands out, and Clark and I remember it to this day. One of Clark’s bosses at the time, to whom I give a huge amount of credit, will never understand what an impact he had when he sat us both down to share his story and caution us about what he had been through. Today, we live his advice as a mantra.
He told us about the night his sister and several friends were in high school and were having a sleepover in their backyard. They were staying in his parent’s camper, and something happened with the propane heat that caused an explosion, and he lost his sister and her friends that night. He told us that story with pain, hurt, fear, and tears in his eyes. He said that the pain from that tragedy drove his parents apart, and he made us promise to do one thing—rise and fall together. He said one of us would start to fall, and the other had to be there. They may not can lift the other up, but they can kneel down and just be with them. “Get through this together.” Even though we felt isolated, we had to remember we had a partner feeling the same things we were feeling, and that had to be the thing that kept us standing. He encouraged us to lean on each other for support, not blame. Don’t chastise or isolate as so many do in marriages, with or without a tragedy like ours. I’m sure I’m not doing justice to the exact words he said, but they hit us both so deeply that sometimes we spoke them to each other daily, and they continue to be a theme throughout our marriage and our lives.
I’ve attached details of the lawsuit if anyone is interested, but please just know it’s there for information only. I’m not advocating for anything at this moment—I don’t know that I even have the capacity to do so on that matter. I am, however, advocating for each of us to give our all to others so we don’t feel alone with our hurt. That’s all Clark, and I have tried to do for the last 13 years. We had each other’s backs through this tragedy, through the miracles, through it all. Obviously, I can’t promise that we will never fall apart, but I can tell you that as you read these articles, one thing is constant—our promise to hold each other up no matter what.
Stay tuned for more about the next 13 years. I’ll speed it up from now on and get to the healing part. I can give you a spoiler, though. I’m still standing! Tall. Proud. Blessed! That has been dependent on a few things: therapy, specialized treatment, and, most importantly, God’s Grace.