I’m not a big Hurricane Katrina remembrance person. Like a lot of people from the places affected by the storm, I usually unplug from social media on the days leading up to August 29th. It’s not that I want to forget or pretend it never happened. That’s impossible considering ten years later I can drive through New Orleans and find many houses still marked with the “X” codes left by search and rescue teams signifying the number of people, dead and living, found inside; some because people refused to paint over it – Katrina war scars – others because they have been abandoned and never reclaimed. It’s because the damages, the wounds, are still so present, so fresh, that when the stories start pouring in it becomes overwhelming.
I’ve never seen Spike Lee’s much lauded documentary, When The Levees Broke, because just the thought of Katrina news footage – houses under water, people on roofs waiting, hoping, praying to be rescued, people wading through waist deep water trying to find food and clean water – makes me involuntarily clench my teeth and have difficulty swallowing. It’s sadness for the many people who died during and after the storm, but, more so, it’s anger for how poorly government officials handled the crisis, and how people, mostly poor and black, literally had to scream for help to the news cameras that dispassionately documented their struggles as my city descended into lawlessness.
When I think about Hurricane Katrina, two words come to mind: loss and erasure. I didn’t lose any family members or friends thankfully, but so many did that the loss feels communal. Once at the doctor’s office where I was being treated for rheumatoid arthritis, a disease that took over my body only months after the storm hit, another patient, an older man, was telling me about how his wife died after the storm and he just wished to die too but he held on because he had to take care of the dog his wife loved. His story is so different from mine, but I understood his loss and felt it like it was my own.
Late one night as I was drifting off to sleep my phone chirped, alerting me I had a text message. The message was from my older brother, a perpetual bachelor, and it said, “I think I just fell back in love.” I blinked a few times and squinted at the text to make sure I was reading it right then decided it was too late at night to launch into that madness. Early the next morning I got another text message that said, “With reading.” It turned out he sent the text before completing it, or so he claims (I’m side-eyeing you, bro). We had a good laugh about it but it got me thinking about my life with books.
My dad taught me how to read using The Berenstein Bears books. We sat in my bed with me literally sweating over the words until I could read them on my own without help. There was one line from The Berenstein Bears Learn About Manners, (thirty years later and I still remember the exact title!) that was particularly troublesome that I kept stumbling over and rushing through. My dad would retell this story using my five-year-old voice well into my adult years. “And she reached across the table…”
That moment though was The Moment for me. Learning to read was like the single shot from the starter pistol; I took off running and never looked back. I was fascinated with words. I read everything: cereal boxes, signs, billboards, if it had words on it, I wanted to know what they said. I remember once at a hardware store with my dad, there was one word on a sign I kept twisting around in my head, trying to decipher it. When I figured it out I tugged on my dad’s arm and pointed to it, triumphant. “Baba, auto. That sign says auto.”
Because we are free women.
born of free women,
who are born of free women,
back as time begins,
we celebrate your freedom.
Because we are wise women,
born of wise women,
who are born of wise women,
we celebrate your wisdom.
A friend once told me when I was going through a tough time that nothing is permanent. As a person of faith I know not even death is permanent. That piece of advice has helped me when I stumble into fits of melancholy. I remind myself when I’m having one of those days where despite my best efforts, sadness or frustration or anger keeps blocking my path, that this day won’t last forever. But one thing I have also learned is that once you lose someone, the grief over that loss never leaves.
After my mother died, I was sad, of course. The permanence of her absence made me feel hollow. I had never really known how to talk to my mother, but suddenly that was all I wanted to do. I yearned for just one more conversation, just one more time to hear one of her rambling stories that never seemed to have any beginning or end. I would really listen this time. I would ask the right questions that would reveal something of who she was before the nervous breakdown that changed her permanently. I grieved over what was too late, what could not be brought back.
I have seen this grief that lives in me take on many forms. Sometimes it’s gentle as a sleeping baby’s breath on your neck. Its warmth tickles me, a remembrance of the way she girlishly covered her mouth when she smiled or the way she ended every phone call with, “All the best in the world to you.” Sometimes it’s invasive like a fist in my throat, fighting to breathe, pain touching every nerve in my body. Most of the time it passes through like an unexpected summer breeze but sometimes it stays on long past its welcome and I have to shoo it out the door.
Editor’s Note: Please welcome our newest writer Ambata Kazi-Nance whose monthly column Not Without Love will appear the fourth Wednesday of every month!
It’s late at night, or maybe the wee hours of the morning before dawn. It’s quiet, the kind of quiet where you can hear the breathing patterns of everyone in the house and the creaks in walls and ceilings like invisible footsteps. Soft, yellow light glows like a halo around my crib. I am crying. I can’t hear myself crying but I must be because then she appears. I can’t see or hear her, her face is a blur, but in the thick fog of memory I can feel the tender notes of her voice, as soothing as honey for a sore throat.
There is the clink, clink, clink, of something being wound up, then the tinkling of music, like the kind that comes out of those music boxes with the ballerinas inside. This isn’t a box though; it’s a teddy bear with soft, chocolate brown fur. I imagine the bear is new, although I can’t picture it. Only the old bear with matted fur and scuffed plastic brown eyes and a black nose round like a mushroom top threatening to fall off. The wind-up key in the back can’t turn more than a half inch before springing back and stopped playing music decades ago.
Little do I know I will spend more of my life with that bear than with she who gave it to me.