My son was born in Durham Regional Hospital three summers ago. Two months after his birthday, Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans.
I met my wife while living in Louisiana in 1999. The national disaster of Hurricane Katrina seemed a little less distant because of our time there. We followed the immediate news while learning to cope with less sleep and the price of diapers. I sent in my name to a nonprofit group organizing volunteers for Gulf Coast relief, but those plans fell through. I needed to be home. We checked up on a former co-worker who had been the librarian at the Baton Rouge middle school where my wife and I had taught. Our friend was now a high school principal. At her home a daughter and grandchildren had taken refuge from their devastated house in Biloxi. At work, she was trying to shoulder a sudden influx of new students from New Orleans. We e-mailed our condolences and a picture of our new arrival. She was very happy for us.
The weather got colder and the Katrina story became less about the terrible number of people who had died and more about a future place America would be forced to recognize. For a long while we thought daily about the events that had hurt and ruined so much. And like most everyone else we were outraged and sad. In our home, hundreds of miles away from the recovery zone, the sharpness of these feelings faded as a few months turned into multiple seasons. Our family's hustle swept us into strict but wonderful routines. We had another beautiful child. Corners of our living room and den collected plastic toys, stuffed creatures and shelves of board books. Nap times, meal times, bath times and play times came to rule our days.
For me life is busier now than it was three years ago. I have found myself thinking of Louisiana and the Gulf Coast outside the context of Katrina. This is probably because I have not been there.
Not long ago my mind's eye made the journey by way of a news article. It told of a large FEMA trailer camp just north of Baton Rouge that had closed this summer. A lot of people, who had started out there with no place to go after the storm, were now having a hard time finding a way to live. They wanted jobs and they needed a plan. It broke my heart. On a bed in an unfurnished townhome in New Orleans, a tired mother sat for a photograph with her 3-year-old boy on her lap. I knew how it felt to hold a son like that, but I did not know what it was like to be her. I wanted to help, and there are ways that I could. But beyond donations, prayers and time, I also wanted something else to find this woman. I wanted forgetfulness to wake up around her, in a room painted with colors she had chosen. That was my wish, along with a selfish want for my guilt and that photographer to go away like the memory of Katrina has for too many of us not in her boat.