Charles Thompson's mother remembers the days when she fell to her knees and prayed for strength.
She found it in angels.
Willie Jean Yarbrough amassed an enormous collection of angel figurines, many of which she named for her six children, 27 grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.
Yarbrough looks to her angels for peace. She talks to them and prays with them. When a child or grandchild gets into trouble, Yarbrough finds it therapeutic to scold his or her angel.
More than 24 years ago, when her son and former University of Oklahoma quarterback fought through the personal and public demons that brought down his career and a football program, his angel provided resolve and serenity for Yarbrough.
But the latest of her trials and tribulations stole much of that collection from her.
An EF5 tornado destroyed Yarbrough's southwest Oklahoma City home May 20. A few days later, another storm ripped off the roof of the storage units containing what few possessions remained. The two disasters shattered more than half of her 300 precious angels.
Her faith, though? Stronger than ever.
“God has brought me through some terrible times,” said Yarbrough, 68. “But I'm still alive, so God saved me for a purpose.”
‘It went flying past me'
In the early afternoon on May 20, Yarbrough left her home near SW 149 and S Santa Fe Avenue to pick up two of her grandchildren from school — 9-year-old Makynzie and 7-year-old Kade.
The light rain pelting her car turned into small hail, then giant, softball-size hail. Yarbrough put on a brave face for the youngsters but was terrified while frantically searching for an alternate, less-congested route home.
“I didn't want the kids to see that I was scared,” she said.
She finally arrived at her home and triggered the garage-door opener.
“Get out; get out,” she told her grandchildren. “Get in the house.”
About that time, a neighbor yelled at Yarbrough from across the street, “Get in the house right now and get in the bathroom, because here comes a tornado, and it's gonna be a big one.”
Kade and Mackenzie joined their 6-month-old sister, Kambria, and their aunt — Yarbrough's daughter Yolanda McCrary, who also lived there — in the bathroom near the middle of the house.
Yarbrough came in through the garage and didn't hear the normal ruckus she associates with tornadoes. So she walked to the back of her house to look outside.
“When I opened the patio door, I could see the tornado coming right at me,” she said.
As large debris flew past Yarbrough, she sprinted toward the bathroom.
“I had time to slam the door and try to get over to the bathroom,” she remembered. “Glass started breaking. I had a big-screen TV; it went flying past me. I barely made it into the bathroom and shut the door.”
Yarbrough, McCrary and the children hunkered down, listening for several minutes as the tornado destroyed everything around them.
When it finally quieted down, the family tried forcing open the bathroom door, which was blocked by piles of debris.
“We were hollering, ‘Help, help, help,'” Yarbrough said. “We hollered for probably about 15 or 20 minutes. We finally heard somebody say, ‘We're coming. We're coming.'
“They were at the front door and they were trying to bust it down.”
When help finally arrived, they emerged from the bathroom and were stunned by the damage.
Charles Thompson, whose nearby home wasn't affected, briefly made contact with his mother on the phone and only heard screaming.
“I was trying to ask if they were OK, and the phone just went dead,” Thompson said. “I really got scared because I thought I may not see my mother again.”