Winds of change

By Angela Wilson

Standing in the kitchen, on this early October day, thighs leaning against the bench, hands wrist deep in warm soapy water. Have grown accustomed to this ritual since our dishwasher broke 6 months earlier, this time is now used to daydream, ponder on life and let thoughts take me away. Manicured grass and thick dark green bush land fill my view making washing dishes much easier to handle. On a good day the kookaburras put on a show. Their patience, keen eye and accurate swooping always retrieving an unsuspecting worm, still make me revel in the fact I live in such a majestic, hidden pocket of the Dandenong Ranges, Menzies Creek.

It had been an oddly wet start to Spring yet the last two days we tasted the sunshine and smelt the sweet fresh flowers. Content with the hint of Spring that still lingers behind the thick white clouds, today’s choice of leggings, singlet and a light denim jacket were easy to make. A small smile crept over my face at the thought of the family being home all together on this beautiful Sunday. My husband, Adam, having given his motorbike adventure a miss, now tinkering in the garage is lost in his thoughts too.

My eldest daughter, Alexis, 8, contently plays in her bedroom, alternating between reading on her bed, sifting through Lego and belting out a tune from her Spotify playlist. While my youngest, Portia, 5, was off doing her usual, I am not too sure what to call it, getting out anything and everything, sort of playing then moving on to the next. The open plan kitchen/living area is filled with a rich aroma of mouthwatering freshly baked chocolate cake, cooling on the rack next to me. Expecting company, my sister is being whisked out for lunch while I look after her two young children.

Adam abruptly interrupts my daydreaming when he whizzes past the kitchen window. His urgency identified by his long stride, forward head and eyes fixed on something in the distance. Only moments later reappearing to mouth the words,

“Come see this”.

Wiping my hands on the blue striped tea towel, curious as to what it may be, I hastily make my way towards the laundry door. Opening it I see through a framed window, lying dormant, only a few metres from our house, a ginormous gum tree with its green bushy leaves and wiry brown limbs. Slowly stepping out onto the back deck, mouth agape, a small laugh of disbelief escapes from my throat. My gaze turns up to the towering trees left standing. The wind’s fairly gusty, nothing I hadn’t seen before. There is one rule living in Menzies Creek, on a windy day its best not to look up. The tall skinny trees can bend further than imaginably possible. What was different about today? Wondering if it was safe to venture off the deck, I gamely took cautious steps alongside the damage. Hunting for signs of the entangled bright blue, red and yellow steel playground trapped within the foliage. Standing at the base of the tree, the shallow root system cleanly ripped from the earth, stood as high as my head. From this vantage point it was evident that one tree had fallen, knocking 2 others like dominoes along the way.

Our neighbor came over for a closer inspection and looked as puzzled as us. Something over my right shoulder caught my eye and I turned to watch another big gum crunching his chicken shed to smithereens. Without a word he bolts to rescue his chooks. Setting off an alarm within my system, something’s not right. Automatically heading towards the house, my sister and her family came around the corner.

Within minutes of them arriving the howling of the trees began to get louder, the force of the gusts seemed to pick up a notch. Debris started to fly about. Thinking it was safer inside the 8 of us retreated into the lounge room as my sister told the unsettling story of the drive to our house. Trees were whipping back and forth, branches and leaves exploding covering the roads from the ‘scary winds’. I could tell from their anxious and worried state they weren’t sure what to do next, leave or stay? Sitting on the dark grey lounge suite, watching the children play, I decided this was not the time to panic.

Adam sat on the red kitchen stool facing the lounge with his arms folded and one ankle crossed over the other, telling the story of what had happened moments before their arrival. A dark shadow interrupted the light streaming in from the row of windows above the bedrooms, making us all turn to look. Time stood still as we heard scratching of finger nails down the black board. My head whipped back to Adam, his eyes and voice deepened, echoing through my body,

“GET OUT!”

The earth moved from under us as instinct took over. Scooping up the nearest child, I bolted for the door with my one year old niece on my hip. It wasn’t until my feet were on the cool grass and the light of day flooded my eyes that I felt my children run to my legs. Hysterically crying they buried their heads into my body. The shrieks of children grew louder as the roar of the wind now rolled in like tidal waves. Each gust taking our breath away as their sweaty hands griped tighter on my skin. Rubbing their backs and holding them closer I reassured them it was ok.

Not a word was said as we made our way around the back. Exposed for the world to see were sharp roots as high as the house, sticking out like claws and the thick wide trunk disappearing around the corner where the rest of the damage lay in wait. Just like the chicken shed next door, the hauntingly silent gum tree had flattened the three bedrooms in an instant, as if they were made of toothpicks. A long slender limb pierced the lounge room we had just been sitting in like a sword, letting daylight stream in through the gaping gash in the plaster.

‘On no the cars’.

Changing direction with three kids, one on my hip and two still clinging to my legs, we somehow made our way around the front. Dark green filled the space where 3 cars were smothered by the canopy of the humongous gum, their roofs buckling under the intense pressure. Standing there stunned amongst the chaos, silence fell within as I consciously chose to breathe.

This 1 in 5 year wind storm was news to me. At 1:32pm, the same time the tree landed on our house, the severe warning of damaging 120km winds spread across the internet. Menzies Creek Facebook page was binging with new posts. Trees had come down all over the place, power was out and distressed residents were communicating about closed roads. I reluctantly posted a tree had hit our house. Floods of support and condolences followed from friends, family and the school principle. They were both heartfelt and overwhelming. We weren’t sure what we needed or how anyone could help. We were only able to think about what was in front of us, the children, the house cut open and the rain on its way.

While standing there looking at the damage, a sense of trust washed over me- everything was going to be ok. Mother Nature handed me a wake-up call and instantly brought me back to life. I wasn’t sad, I wasn’t angry, I wasn’t scared. The winds of change blew through me and I welcomed them.

Within minutes Adam had a tarp big enough to cover the damage and men on their way to help secure it down safety. The children were still quite frightened as each time the forceful winds picked up they covered their sensitive ears. Not knowing where the best place to shelter them from the raging storm, my sister and I opted for the garage. At least once the thick heavy glass doors were closed it seemed to drown out some of the howling. Standing there in the garage, children finally able to leave my side I took a moment to collect myself. The haunting winds banged against the roller doors, trying to get in, making my skin shiver. Cracking and snapping drew my eyes to the distance, the towering trees left standing were being violently thrashed around like rag dolls.

The wind took our freedom to drive our family away from the devastation. There was no way to escape, we could only listen to each gust pounding and expecting another tree to fall. Each powerful blow followed by screams of children who came back to bury their heads deeper into my body. It had our attention and held our lives in its hands for the next few hours.

While I managed myself between the house and the garage, the first lot of help emerged from the bush land out the front. The group of men, both family and friends, got straight to the task of climbing up ladders to tarp the roof. Holding onto the corners of the strong, waterproof sheeting was no easy feat as the wind kept coming from under them and blowing it out of their fingers. It took mighty strength, lots of rope and man power to get the roof secure. Then came the retrieval of personal items from the rooms. Pockets of daylight between the rubble framed the devastation. Caved in ceilings replaced the flooring and hanging wires filled the spaces. How could anything be salvageable? Two men bravely maneuvered within the compressed debris, emerging head to toe in white dust with many of our children’s loved belongings and dragged them safely in the lounge room. Relief was short lived by the dooming task to empty mine and Adam’s room. My heart pounded in my throat as I forced open the bedroom door scraping along the carpet. Sunlight poured in through the wall that had been ripped open, exposing the yellow fluffy installation and silver sisalation paper, creaking noises followed each step making my breathing quick and shallow. Scooping up as many things possible, I piled the contents high on the dining table.

Updates about the community kept binging from the phone in my pocket. The school was hit, then the kinder. The windstorm damaged everything we knew. To be at the mercy of Mother Nature is one experience I will never forget. For someone who had lived a life of careful planning, meticulous preparation and avoidance of any theme park ride. This was way out of my usual comfort zone yet I had it together. There was no way we could’ve predicted or taken back the change the wind had brought. Going with it was the only thing I could do.

When the wind slowly died down around 6pm so did the children. Sitting in the front seat of my car, Wilo, for the last time, my heart racing as I prayed she could hold the weight of the gigantic gum on her back. There was nothing more to do but empty the memories into a white plastic bag. As for us, after many offers, we decided to stay at my father-in-laws warm, big place off the mountain.

Near to midnight, with nothing more to do, I flopped into bed. Finally allowing my body and mind to relax, I began to process what had really happened. Etched on my eyelids, the image of Alexis’ crushed bed still stuck under the tree, sent shivers down my spine. So many what ifs jolted through my mind, what if she was still lying on that bed, what if it was night time when the tree fell, what if…what if…what if. The more I focused on my breathing, the more I melted into sleep, letting this day slowly fade away, trusting in the winds of change that had just swept through my life.

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