Ft. Lauderdale Airport. 24 Hours Later. A Mother’s Worst Nightmare

I’m sitting in my car writing this. I got very little sleep last night playing over the events in my head. All the possibilities. The could haves. The what ifs. My child, my dear sweet boy ending up in the wrong place at the wrong time.

He was so close and yet, fate intervened.

Yesterday morning I dropped Jared off at the airport. Specifically, the Delta terminal. Despite my objections, he was going ahead anyway with a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Egypt and Abu Dhabi. As a mother, I hated the idea of it — Egypt not being exactly the safest of places these days. But as a fellow wanderlust, the idea of seeing the pyramids, Giza, the Nile, the Valley of the Kings … I would have loved to have gone along. And if he had asked, maybe I would have. But he didn’t. (Probably because he claims I embarrass him. What the hell does he know?)

The plane, at this point, was on time, so there was no need for me to hang around. So off I went about my day, expecting to get a text early the next morning advising that he’d arrived safely. However, not more than two hours later, the poop hit the fan.

Like everyone else, I watched the events unraveling. I was glued to the TV, the tweets and everything else streaming in pieces of the details, freaking out, wondering, worrying, praying — all those things as a parent you can’t help but do — until word comes. Which it did.

“I’m still on the plane,” he texted. “But I’m safe. So don’t worry.” (Yeah. Right. As if I had a fucking choice in the matter). From there, in small data bits, he revealed his confusion and hints of fear as he watched lots of people, luggage in hand, running out of the terminal across the tarmac to avoid getting shot. There were rumors of a second shooter. That’s when more people spilled out of the terminal, turning the scene into one of bedlam where five people died, eight injured and another forty suffered an array of sprains, bruises and broken bones rushing to evacuate after the attack.

Fleeing Delta Terminal (photo credit: Wilfredo Lee)

Fleeing Delta Terminal (photo credit: Wilfredo Lee)

According to reports, one witness said: “the attacker gunned down his victims without a word and kept shooting until he ran out of ammunition from his handgun, forcing people to hide in bathroom stalls or crouch behind cars of anything else they could find.”

Another said: “he and his wife were in the baggage claim area when the shooting began. All of a sudden we kind of heard three quick cracks.” The initial thought was they were firecrackers, then he realized there was a shooting in progress. He hurriedly got his wife out of the building and then went back to see if he could help. At this point, the gunman had been taken into custody. So he started checking on people and came upon a woman who was shot in the shoulder and bleeding profusely. A few feet away her husband, Michael Oehme, was lying lifeless on the ground.

For eight hours my son and his fellow passengers remained on that plane. A plane that didn’t go anywhere because the airport immediately went into lockdown mode. No flights in or out. Throughout the day we exchanged a flurry of texts and calls. And while I felt relieved on the surface knowing he was okay, deep down … wow … I never felt more frightened in my whole life. Reminded how life can change on a dime.

The world at a standstill (photo credit: Lynne Sladk)

The world at a standstill (photo credit: Lynne Sladk)

I’m profoundly saddened that the shooter had lost his footing in life and saw no alternative. I’m saddened a volunteer fireman from Virginia Beach will never reach that next birthday. I’m saddened by what has become of us. That nothing is sacred anymore or safe. That our outrage, though never forgotten, eventually moves on.

Until something else happens.

The thing is, tragedies such as these have become an all-too common occurrence. Yes, through experience we’ve changed tactics. But the truth is no matter how much you beef up security, change your game plan, a disease is still a disease. Tough to eradicate. Because it will do what all diseases do. Fester and spread. Ooze from underneath a Bandaid that cannot contain it.

However, despite knowing that this is sometimes an uphill battle, I don’t think for one moment we should ever stop trying to change things. To look for the signs of a person in mental or emotional danger before it’s too late. That’s what I think. That’s what I believe. We’re all in this bowl of humanity together folks. And if we were meant to walk this crazy road alone, then we wouldn’t love as hard as we do.

So don’t just stand there. Go hug your child. Hug yourself. Kiss your dog. Call a friend. Let them know the door is ALWAYS open.

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 800-273-8255

National Alliance on Mental Illness 800-950-6264

Domestic Violence 800-799-7233

Families Anonymous 800-736-9805

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Touring Across North Carolina. The Good. The Bad. And the Ugly.

As the year draws to an end, as I realize I’ve been somewhat amiss with my blogging for which I apologize in advance, I suppose now is as good a time as any to share with you what I’ve been up to for the past two months.

October 11th I was deployed to North Carolina to help the survivors of Hurricane Matthew. Like all deployments before there is a heightened sense of adrenaline making myself ready to dig in for a big job. But that pumped up feeling is now gone. I feel drained from top to bottom, happy to be back home where I’ve put my game face back on the shelf until the next time. While I love what I do, it’s hard, hard work.

At the beginning of each deployment while everything is still in critical mode, we’re working twelve hour days. Seven days a week. We’re up before the sun. And once the waters have crested and subsided (if it’s a flood disaster), we’re out there in the field knocking on doors, in the mud, in the heat, in the rain, fighting flies, and sometimes you’re even up against folks who are not at all happy to see you. These are people who live so far off the grid, along back dirt roads with their guard dogs, “No Trespassing” signs and KKK flags flying high that you’d be an idiot not to think twice before stepping onto their turf, especially me with my “Levine” badge roped around my neck for all to see.

But this is the job. This is what I signed up for. And even though I’m aware of the danger every time I knock on a door, my thoughts are much more focused on helping someone who might have otherwise fallen through the cracks. That is why I do what I do. I want to make a difference to someone because it makes me feel good. Makes me feel like I am doing something important. Something authentic while living each day congruently with the values I hold dear.

For me working with FEMA has been a dream fulfilled. And beyond the hard days and pockets of devastation that penetrates the experience, I know each and every time I will come home with a new treasure trove of life lessons that I wouldn’t trade for the world.

I get to travel to places and see things I wouldn’t normally.

This was my first trip to North Carolina. For the time of year, it was unusually warm and yet Fall somehow showed its face. And what a glorious face it was. Cotton never felt softer than it does when still young and bursting from its pod. Streams teaming with trout and glittering like diamonds against the afternoon sun just as I caught this shot. And the frying pan and ice cream truck … well those were just added bonuses. Perked up my day like you wouldn’t believe!

 

 

 

I get to meet new friends.

 

Some might just be passing through, but some are more. Much more. With each deployment, like an old woman gathering acorns in her basket, I have found the most remarkable people I now call “friends.” People who have enriched my life and under different circumstances I might never have spoken to for one reason or another.

A James Cromwell (Green Mile movie) tall wisp of a man who shared my passion for writing. A tiny redhead from Puerto Rico I met during Hurricane Sandy who became my voice of reason. A guy with the last name Jimenez that didn’t speak a lick of Spanish and made me laugh at moments when I wanted to cry. A bald as a cue ball, ex-biker with an earring and tattoos up the yin yang who held me captive in the car every day forcing me to work by his side while he talked about the paranormal and whatever else he felt like discussing for the day. The list of those people who have come into my life through FEMA goes on and on. I am so grateful that our paths have crossed. That they dared to open their hearts to me. And never moreso grateful that I had enough sense to pay attention to that old adage, “Never judge a book by its cover.”

Shit happens.

I’ve been fortunate when I go out on deployment. Other than falling here and there, I’ve never gotten hurt on the job. And I’ve never been in an accident of any kind. Well, this deployment certainly changed all that for me. Less than two weeks into it, while driving, I was hit by an 18-wheeler. The front left side of their car was crushed like a pancake. And four weeks after that, the second rental was again demolished when I hit a dog on the highway. I can’t begin to express all the things going through my mind during that two-second clip from the time I saw the dog stopping in the middle of the road as I came barreling down upon it at 75 miles per hour, other than I broke in two.

Patience is a virtue I’ve yet to master.

I’m constantly reminded of this. And sometimes I wonder if I ever will.

My first month of deployment I was saddled with a crew lead who not only didn’t know what the hell she was doing, she like many aging people, kept repeating herself. Oh my God. Talk about torture. But I kept thinking about my mother. I kept thinking about the fact she’s losing her words, she’s no longer connected to a chain of conversation for any length of time and I must do better. For her. And for me I suppose knowing it’s only a matter of time before I too ride that choo-choo into La La Land.

Your health is all you’ve got.

I’m not one to make resolutions, but for 2017 I’m making an exception. When deployed, I tend to do all the wrong things. Eat the wrong things and not take care of myself like I should. Not because I want to. But because the job forces the situation. That and I think we get lazy riding around a car all day, out in the boonies where we’re lucky to find a McDonald’s or Hardees. So we grab what we can, when we can.

Which was my exact thought when I found this little kiosk. Was this luck or what?

As I look back on my time in North Carolina, there were many days my heart was heavy. For the families who’d lost everything, and their whole world was left piled out on the street in one soggy heap for all to see. For the animals left abandoned, abused, their limbs quivering as we drew near wondering if we were going to pet them or beat them. I can’t wipe those images from my mind. But I can counting my blessings. Every single one of them. Especially this beautiful one I know is waiting for me when I get home.

As I push through all these thoughts, I can’t help but wonder are the choices we make in our lives fated. Are we truly the masters of our domain? I like to think we are. That nothing in this crazy world of ours is set in stone. And that the best has yet to happen.

On that note, I will end with much thanks. Thanks for reading. And thanks for letting me share my thoughts with all of you.

Peace and love.

 

 

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The Wrath of Mother Nature

I’m writing this sitting in front of my favorite place in the whole house, the living room window. Much of what I’d pulled away, the research folders, the chapters from my next book, the desk, the printer I didn’t want to get wet, are now back in place.

For the past five days, Florida had been in hurricane preparedness mode and I, the veteran rodeo-rider, was as well. Over the years I’d learned to keep my house stocked at all time with plenty of water, canned goods, candles, flashlights and batteries. So when the entire coast went into a tailspin and raided every Publix, Walmart and Home Depot this side of the Mississippi, I simply kicked back on that craziness and just waited.

I think it’s the waiting that kills me the most. Prepared or not. Veteran or not. Time does have a way of wreaking havoc on one’s brain especially if you’re of the same school as me where neurotic habits rule the world. It’s painful. It’s frustrating. It’s sometimes even crippling to not be able to have that type of control, like being on a runaway train with no conductor at the brake.

However, despite my inadequacies, I’m also old enough (sixty-three I believe qualifies me for that perch even though Medicare doesn’t) to know that poop happens. And you better be ready to deal with it.

So after the heartbreaking devastation in Haiti, I sat here expecting a hurricane of dangerous proportion, while wondering where the hell they come up with all these names, Lauren never being one of them? But thankfully, and as luck would have it because that IS the only name of this game—Luck—Matthew passed us by. However, not before leaving us with some signs he’d been here, signs which would remind us fear comes in all sorts of disguises.

Hurricane Matthew

Was I scared silly staring out into the pitch black as rain pelted the glass, and gusts of wind forced the tree in front of my house into a yoga bend even I wouldn’t attempt to do? You bet! I’ve experienced far too many things not to be.

I moved to Mexico just after one of their biggest earthquakes which left parts of Mexico City in ruin. California had Northridge. Another devastating earthquake that I also luckily just missed by the skin of my teeth. But my seven-year stay did provide many instances which left me clinging to the furniture or underneath the furniture. Then there’s Florida. The place where I measure Mother Nature at her best and cruelest, where storms named Bertha, Dennis, Erin and Andrew have stained the terrain, have left me with memories of cars being thrown around like beach balls, glass and trees exploding from their roots, homes destroyed and oh so many lives lost.

Hurricane Andrew

That’s what I think about every year as hurricane season comes into play. Be prepared to hunker down. To batten my hatches, hold my head up high, and brace myself unto myself for I am all that I have as I plow full speed ahead.

But like I said … we were lucky this time around. The sun came out. Little Orphan Annie sang her song. All the old people in my development are now back on their bikes, doing aerobics in the pool, and me?

I’m ready for a nap.

 

 

 

Photo credit: bbc.com AP

Photo credit: The Associated Press

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