First of three parts
RALEIGH — Since April, Allison Miller has lugged around a backpack stuffed full of details she needs to make her family whole.
Its contents - binders full of receipts and insurance forms and paint swatches - capture every step of the Miller family's journey since tornadoes upended their lives. But, the weight of it, heavy enough now that Miller's jaw clenches as she lifts it onto her shoulder, shows how a tragedy like this can consume a life.
"I have lost six months of my life ... worst part is that I have no one to blame, no one to yell at," said Miller, a 38-year-old critical care nurse at Rex Hospital.
A tornado tore through North King Charles Road on April 16, ripping up the stately oak trees that had shaded the Miller family for decades. The rains rushed through the gaping holes in their roofs, soaking everything the Millers had collected in the 32 years they made a life in this East Raleigh neighborhood.
Paul and Ruby Miller, Allison's parents, had to tear down their home and start fresh; Allison's, across the street, had to be stripped to its bones and made new. They have hunkered down in an apartment complex on the other side of Raleigh while they wait for the construction to end.
The last six months brought a merciless list of tasks that have absorbed every second of Allison's waking hours. She has learned to be a contract negotiator, an interior decorator, a chauffeur and a caretaker to parents whose declining health has been sped by the strain of this year.
Paul Miller's mind had started to slip before the storm; since then, his body has failed, too. Arthritis is attacking his spine, rendering him unable to walk some days. Both he, 73, and Ruby, 67, are leaning on their daughter for help with tasks they could manage just a few months ago.
"I'm literally watching my parents age every day," Allison said. "It's hard to see."
At a Kohl's department store earlier this month, she turned her head to hide a yawn. It was her day off from work, but she had fretted all weekend about her parents staying warm in the cool fall air. They had grabbed few warm clothes when they left their homes in April.
At the store, Ruby found a bench while Allison lapped the racks, grabbing matronly sweat suits. In the shoe department, she kneeled before her father, pressing her thumb against the toe of a pair of new sneakers.
At the register, Paul realized he had forgotten to bring his wallet. Without a word, Allison handed the cashier her credit card.
As they walked to the parking lot, she whispered, almost to convince herself: "I'm keeping it together. I have to. I'm the glue here."
No normal spring day
April 16 began like many spring Saturdays for Allison Miller.
She and her parents bought tomatoes and flowers to plant in their yards. As the sky turned dark, she retreated inside.
She dismissed her mother's urgings to come across the street and join the rest of her family in their basement to wait out approaching storms. A paramedic for years, Miller specialized in emergencies and figured she would be fine.
Then, Miller heard the chugging of a train. She hunkered in the hallway with her dog and cat. She prayed out loud.
A tree crashed onto her roof, and Miller looked up to see sky. Then, she remembered her parents, taking cover down in their basement. From her front door, she could see the wreckage. Hundred-year-old oaks had piled onto their home, crushing the carport and the living room and blocking the door.
Now, six months later, Miller can't shake that image. At least once a week now, she wakes in the night, confused, the image of her parents' destroyed home frozen in her mind. She struggles to rouse herself and remember that her parents made it out alive.
The bad dreams came furiously after the storm.
Nightmares of floods and falling trees plagued her most nights. Miller saw her niece being swept off a bridge in New York by a tsunamilike wave. She heard the crackle of calls on the emergency radio she monitored during shifts as a paramedic.
She knew exactly what they were: flashbacks triggered by stress after a major trauma.
Miller first experienced them in 2005, when her fiancé, firefighter Todd Blanchard, died in a freak accident months before their wedding. A burning tree had fallen on him during a call, killing him instantly.
She had worked as a paramedic that night and heard the desperate call come across the radio. She saw him lifeless on the stretcher in the emergency room and watched doctors work to bring him back.
A doctor has coached her on how to redirect her flashbacks. Before the storm, the nightmares about Blanchard had faded from four a week to just one.
This time, she's finding it a bit easier to redirect her thoughts. Her to-do list stretches across pages.
Some days, though, Miller feels as if she is sleepwalking through her tasks.
Earlier this month, she stared at a row of washing machines at hhgregg, trying to understand the difference between front loading and top loading machines. Later, before a wall of new televisions, Miller's eyes glazedover as the clerk explained the difference between LED and LCD televisions.
She wanted to crawl into bed for a nap.
This fatigue and frustration is unfamiliar. She's naturally upbeat, the first with a joke or an encouraging word. Even now, in the rare moment she complains, she quickly wipes it away with an assurance that this trial is for a larger purpose.
Privately, she dreams of February and March and the quiet and calm the new year promises. She expects that her parents will be settled in their new home by then, as will she. She plans to sneak away for a weekend, just her, a nice bed and a stretch of hours without any chores.
'A break from reality'
Work is Miller's respite. As a critical care nurse, she rides in the back of an elaborate ambulance, monitoring patients who need machines to breathe and keep their heart functioning during rides between hospitals and other care facilities.
Here, she locks onto the patient's problems. Earlier this month, she fretted over a patient's cold feet and assured her son that they would have her comfortable within minutes.
"Work is a break from reality," she said. "I don't have to talk to [coworkers] about the house and the paint colors. And, my patients have no idea about my life outside of here. I can be who I was."
Sometimes she forgets who that was.
One day in late summer, Miller and her mother stood in Belk's housewares department, scanning every item they would buy to replace those ruined during the storm: casserole dishes, salt and pepper shakers and paper towel racks.
She giggled with her mother as they scanned holiday dishes to add to their registry.
Miller had done this once before, in 2005, when she was about to marry Blanchard.
And, just as it had then, the computerized system printed a copy of her registry, automatically programmed to capture a bride and groom. This time, the bold letters at the top read: "For the wedding of Allison Miller and house."
Later, she scratched through the word wedding and tried to forget again.
Tomorrow: In Sanford, businesses struggle to reopen.