It’s been nine years since Hurricane Katrina, and one New Orleanian, forced out by broken levees and rising water, still longs for home.
by Sandra McCollum
As I drove down the flooded street looking for Momma, suddenly, Chili, my four-pound Pomeranian, jumped out of the car window. I couldn’t see him in the dimly lit street. I opened the door on the driver’s side and put my hand in the water moving it back and forth trying to feel for him and rescue him from the murky water. I called out to him, “Chili”. Then, I awakened. It was only a dream. Since the storm, I dream repeatedly of being in water trapped in an abyss of a deafening absence of sound, amidst terrifying roof tops hanging precariously in trees. I am smothering in a cubist landscape of shattered, formerly valuable belongings.
Before our storm, Momma told me of a bad storm she experienced as a child. She was with her grandmother Cecelia whom she described as a tiny woman not much taller than she at the time. The dining room had a large table high enough for them to sit on foot stools underneath it. At night when gentlemen callers came to court Aunt Te and Aunt Etta, she and her grandmother would sit underneath the dining room table in the dark and spy upon the unsuspecting suitors in the living room.
On the night of the storm, she said she and her grandmother sat on stools underneath the dining room table as the storm whistled and blew around them. The house sat upon piers and was lifted by the wind. It shifted to the left and groaned; and they could feel themselves sliding when suddenly the wind changed directions and righted the house directly back atop the brick piers.
That didn’t happen to us. No winds of providence blew us back. Our world of the familiar is but an ephemeral memory. We have not been able to right ourselves since. Life is in a foreign land with strange people whose rhythm does not match mine. I am a colorful anachronism alone in a colorless world of the ordinary. In the dark, the ghosts of my ancestors whisper to me in ancient voices. “Come home,” they say.
After our storm, man’s shoddy workmanship unleashed massive tons of water that killed and disrupted the lives of thousands of us. It gagged my mother’s naturally loquacious and enthusiastic spirit until she was completely silent; except at night when we were all asleep, she awakened us with terrifying shouts of, NEW ORLEANS! She drowned in the sorrow of losing her place in the world. Just as she reached the denouement of her life story, an unforeseen climax turned it into an insurmountable cliff hanger of indifference and malevolence by the powerful. It was the water that killed my mother. It broke her heart.
Over time, the festering legacy of germs and virulent bacteria left in the storm’s wake killed my brother. Chili died on the road from New Orleans to Houston and Chicago still pining for his own grassy yard.
Nine years later, the Crescent City is glistening in new paint and new people. The porch lights are on. The key still fits the lock. I open the door and the aromas and memories of the past titillate me with joy. I am gorged with food and adoring friends. Yet, the dark side of me is still wounded.
In my dreams, I am haunted by the scenes of 2005. I become one with the gray chalky world of Katrina’s aftermath. An ashy film covers the trees, the bushes, the houses and the sounds. I strain to hear the melodious cacophony of the known world. Where are the birds? Where are the barking dogs and the children playing in the street? Gone are the drum beats and blowing horns which musically propel the undulating second liners as they dance behind a dead stranger easing his other worldly journey.
Oh New Orleans! How I long for your arms to enfold me.
How can I explain to my ancestors why I live in exile?
How can I go home when I fear the water?
Sandra McCollum is a part of the Hurricane Katrina New Orleans Diaspora. She lives in Chicago, Ill. Despite the fear of water, New Orleans will always be her home.