“Problems cannot be solved at the same level of awareness that created them.” – Albert Einstein

My husband and I were in the car together this morning, and at 8:22 am, he turned to me and said “Happy Anniversary.”  One year and three minutes ago, our lives irrevocably changed.

This short exchange sums up almost every reason I love my husband.  He has this way of working small miracles.  He turned one of the greatest tragedies of our lives into a celebration of our ability to endure as a family.  Hardship can tear people apart, or it can knit them together inseparably in bonds of survivorship.   We are more than husband and wife, we are veterans in arms.

On 8:25 am, August 29, 2005, the eyewall of the most costly and devastating storm to hit the Gulf Coast in recent memory passed over our house.  We watched the pulsing glow of the radar from miles to the north, the miracles of modern technology making it possible to pinpoint the movement to our very street, at the very moment we became  homeless. 

By the early afternoon, still a Category 1 hurricane, Katrina tore after us into Jackson, MS.  Gathered with family around the radio in a house without power or telephone, we strained to hear any reports of our town, of our neighborhood, hoping for the best, but knowing with a unacknowledged certainty to expect the worst.  We slept that night with the windows open and the dregs of the storm winds blowing rain and leaves under the eaves.

The next day the simmering heat of August in the Delta reclaimed itself.  By that afternoon, with our two-month son sweating, listless, and unwilling to eat, we evacuated for a second time, to the last relative with the power to get the baby out of the relentless swelter.  We huddled in a packed apartment living room, staring at the grainy images on the television in disbelief as we saw our town, our entire area, dismanteled before us.  The images were too profound to process.  Casino barges heaped upon houses.  People on rooftoops.  Babies in incubators evacuated from the top of the hospital my own son was born in just two months before.  My heart broke for the mothers that watched their babies fly away without knowing where they were going, or even if they would arrive.  Finally, numb and tearless, we could watch no more.  We turned away in willful denial toward the business of waking each morning and finding a place to sleep each night.  At the time, that was enough.

We started the pattern of endless hours on hold with insurance companies and emergency agencies that would form the rythym of our lives for months to come.  Endless hours on other peoples phones, in other people’s kitchens, straining the bonds of hospitality, but with nowhere else to go.  Nowhere else to go.  We moved constantly – the apartment of yet another relative, an empty house waiting to be sold, the food court of the mall, the back of a car with the air conditioning running.  We desperately searched for a gas station with both power and gasoline, waited in gas lines for hours at a time, trying to get enough fuel to make the drive home and confirm what our hearts already knew.

We lived on the unselfish decency of acquaintances and complete strangers who sent us clothing, diapers, and when needed, cold hard cash.  We salvaged what we could from the reeking remains of our home and we took it to Baton Rouge and spread it out on the lawn of a tolerant friend to disinfect it, if not save it. We lay at night in a state somewhere between exhaustion and resignation, unable to do anything but let the events of each day lead us forward.   We let our son, with his blissful ignorance and simple needs dictated the ebb and flow of our lives.   Feed the baby.  Change the baby.  Call the insurance company.  Wash mud. Wash mud. Wash mud.

FEMA checks got misdirected.  Insurance adjusters got misdirected.  Bills mounted.  Our jobs remained in limbo as the weeks passed.   We hit rock bottom during a two-hour drive back to our veterinarian in Slidell, a saint remaining amidst chaos, because we could not bear to have a stranger put down our aged German Shepherd Dog. With no home and no resources, we could no longer care for her.  The feeling of impotence was complete.

After eight weeks on the road, we moved from a Motel 6 into a tiny one-bedroom furnished apartment in Little Rock – two adults, one baby and a dog – and we were grateful to have room to breath and space that felt like our own.  I had a whole new redefinition of luxury that consisted of having my own stove.  The lesson on the folly of materialism was not lost, and I will rarely use the term “I need” anymore.  We lived in limbo, our feet in Arkansas, our minds in Louisiana and we waited.  Waited for Kris to find out if he was one of the hundreds of people dismissed from his job in Tulane.  Waited to see if I could salvage my research program from my ravaged research center.  And somedays we just waited for nothing at all.  Not able to go back, but not sure if we could go forward. Not sure what insurance would settle.  Not sure if we could rebuild.  Neither here nor there, just lingering somewhere in-between.

As we waited, the logistics of going home became increasingly complicated.  My job wanted to keep me in Little Rock, but only until April.  His job wanted him to return to New Orleans by mid-December.  The flood compensation could not be paid until February.   Homeowner’s insurance skyrocketed.  Rentals in Louisiana were impossible to find and as the walls of our tiny apartment closed in, the thought of moving into an even smaller FEMA trailer became increasingly unbearable.  Finally, facing a Christmas of uncertainty, an unexpected phone call opened the door as all the others were being closed.  We took a breath and decided the waiting was over.  We would never go home again.  We were staying.

I lost my home three times.  The first was when the eyewall passed over it, sweeping storm surge waters to the eves of my house, lashing it with wind and fallen trees, burying it in swamp and filth.  The second time was when we made the decision that there were no more reminders of our past to reclaim and we closed the door behind us for the last time and walked away.  The third and final time was when we signed the papers over to the man who would remain and rebuild it with his hopes.  That house, the house I walked into as a new bride smelling of fresh paint, the nursery of my dreams I built for the love of my son, was no longer my home.   All the treasures of my past were washed away, but not washed clean.  The pain of their loss I will always carry with me on this date.

But I will also carry the memory of my husband’s strength, how he never faltered in his faith that we would emerge whole.  I will remember my son in his happy abandon, oblivious to loss greater than an empty stomach or a wet behind.  I will remember the outpouring of care from friends and strangers and how the outstretched hand can restore your faith in humanity.  And I will remember how, in the turmoil and the uncertainty, my family remained the solid core of my being when possession, career, and place were stripped away.  They were my constant reminder of how little we need to be truly happy, and of the redemptive power of love, of the need to celebrate life, not once a year, but in the Carnival that we awake to every day. 

 Happy Anniversary, my love.  Happy Anniversary.

August 29th, 2006 at 10:51 pm
6 Responses to “One Year”
  1. 1
    Cinnkitty Says:

    I love you guys. That’s all, it’s just that simple and there is nothing else to say. Just – I love you guys.

  2. 2
    Artie Says:

    Hey, I love you guys, too! Nothing like jumping on a band wagon here. Your essay is a testament to the strength and courage of two very special people, and their son, that I am proud to call friends. I hope that you never have to go through anything like that again, but even if you do, I know that you guys will always come out on top.

  3. 3
    Bambi Says:

    Well I’ll say it too…I love you guys!! You are both the picture of strength and grace. I admire you both and am happy to call you friends.

  4. 4
    Salih Says:

    I pray– Peace for you
    I pray–Healing for you
    You both, eximplify, steadfastness!!
    Bless you all!

  5. 5
    Christy Says:

    I’ve just met you so I can’t say that I love you but I can say that your post has me in tears. I’m not a hurricane survivor but a NICU survivor who still can’t imagine combining the terror of the two. I wrote about it on the anniversary as well but only from an outsider’s perspective. I’m glad I stumbled across your post from your comment on Amy’s blog. I write a blog for ClubMom called From the Mountaintop to the Valley Floor about raising a former 25 weeker, so though my experience is different from yours I can relate to lost dreams and rebuilding a life with the support of a loving partner.

    Thanks for sharing, Christy

  6. 6
    sam Says:

    I found you through HBM’s PPA for you.

    What an unbelievably heart wrenching story written with such grace.

    I will defintely be back!