Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Painting Through Katrina

Last year, a few weeks from now, I was driving my husband to the airport. He had a backpack, loaded with insect repellant, changes of shorts, flashlights, sunscreen,hand sanitizer, t-shirts, and various items the Red Cross suggested he bring with him on his way south. They arranged his flight down to Houston and gave him a "credit card" with a $500.00 balance for food and anything else he might need to help. They said to get cash at the airport with it, as it would be next to impossible to find a working cash machine once they made it into Louisiana. He had a badge, a Red Cross vest and his enthusiasm to get there and get the job done.

I remember our goodbye hug being extra tight, not like the year before when he left for Florida during the hurricane aftermath. I remeber the lump in my throat that I deny lives there constantly becasue of the work that he does, it wasn't going to be hibernating to it's place anytime soon. I remember looking at the faces of other people travelling or dropping off loved ones on that day, wondering how they could be carrying on with regular life when the worst human tragedy was about to unfold before our very eyes (but then, we didn't know that yet, did we?).

The hurricane had made landfall when Brett left, but was still raging up and down the Gulf Coast. He called me from Houston, and thought he might be headed to the Astrodome to assist in shelter operations there, but he wasn't sure. He described the inland areas as "not that bad", but then, the levees hadn't broken yet. His voice sounded strong, capable and ready to tackle what was to come.

I busied myself with painting over the hideous yellow, sunflower-themed paint in our master bedroom that had me wearing blinders in the middle of the night, glued to CNN, MSNBC and FOX news while I held a roller in one hand and balanced myself on my ladder with the other. I did not sleep. I watched that tv, pretending to paint, as the country stumbled, fell and ignored the people shouting from rooftops and swimming in water so dirty you wouldn't dare touch it if you had a choice. I watched the young, old and fragile souls sweltering in the heat, petrified what the next hour would bring, if they'd live to see the next hour.

Brett called again, it was only the day after and he was being asked to help out in a shelter in Baton Rouge where several violent prisoners were said to be headed. They needed "big strong guys" to help out. He must've raised his hand. I pushed that lump back down in my throat and said that he'd be fine. I knew that he could handle it, and everything was fine at home. "Don't worry about us, we're just fine", "please be careful and call when you can. I love you." I turned to the tv again, I watched the chaos, I felt helpless. I painted.

Another day rolled by, people were still shouting and waving flags from their rooftops. Families were lost, children were lost, people were stranded in hospitals, this seemed unreal. Police Officers had evacuated, yet to return. The President FLEW over the devastation, looking helpless, not a single tear was shed by him. Condoleeza Rice was buying shoes, it was reported. Celebrities were trying to organize, Kanye West made a statement, truck drivers were gathering water from Costco and driving it down there, if only to give a thirty Louisiana resident a drink. Fema was fumbling. The Army Corps of Engineers was absent, the police chief was trying to hold it together, but couldn't. People were dying.

Brett called after he had reached Baton Rouge. There were no prisoners after all. The shelter was at a church with no air conditioning, but seemed to be okay. He was sleeping in the back of a truck, it was hot, it was humid, there were bugs. He was safe. His voice was distant. It is hard to get a clear picture of what was running through his mind at this point and I knew that I had to be patient, he would share it all with me when he came home. I told him that I was "up to something, a surprise" in order to distract him from what he was seeing every second of every day around him. I painted and watched the tv some more. I pushed that undeniable lump a little farther down my throat. I prayed (I am not a "religious" person).

The days passed. Brett was able to call about every other day so that I could tell him a funny story about the kids and hear his voice, forever changed by the stories he was hearing from the people in the shelter. He would tell me how hot it was, how stinky he was, how warm and welcoming the people were and how he had a haircut in a Baton Rouge barbershop. He was certain that he was the first "white" haircut this fella had ever given, and it was one of the best cuts Brett had ever received (even if he had a little shaved line along his hairline, you know, to "define" where his skin ends and his hair begins just in case it wasn't crystal clear). His spirits were good, he was staying hydrated, fed and the shelter was operating pretty well, considering.

I painted and watched more tv. I read the newspaper and became intimate with Anderson Cooper and Mr. Scarborough. Frustration does not begin to scratch the surface of the feelings I was having last September, the feelings that I still have, nearly a year later with another hurricane deployment a possibility in my husband's future. I cannot imagine the betrayal, emptiness, loss and disgust that residents of Louisiana must feel about their government, our government. There is no way for any of us, who did not live through it ourselves, to cast blame on the people whose lives this disaster has affected, to really grasp what they've been through. There is no way.

I want this country to admit it's failures, mistakes and take the necessary steps to make it right. I want our country to do everything in it's so-called "power" to assure the people of the Gulf Coast that they will be protected, taken care of, and treated like people instead of like animals. I want Lousiana to receive compensation for the drilling of oil off it's shores (even if it is 3 miles out). I want the wetlands restored so that a natural barrier will help, granted this is not the only solution, protect the inland from storm surges.

I wish that our government would show us that it cares more for the people than political and economic interests. I want my children to grow up in a country that supports all of its citizens and does not refer to them as "refugees" when they are forced out of their homes, either by evacuation or rescue, and relocated elsewhere. I wish it were different and all I can do is hope and support leaders that I believe in. And cross my fingers that they mean what they say.

Brett came home 10 days after Hurricane Katrina made landfall. The kids and I met him at the airport. As his tanned, strong face made it's way to us, I knew that he was full of so much. I knew that little by little it would come out and he would share and good and the bad with me. He held onto our children tight, tighter than usual when he has been away for some time. The look that passed between us was a mixture of "god, I am glad to see you" and "we are so damn lucky". He entertained us on the way home with stories of the strange foods he ate (grits, prepared smothered, scattered, covered and slathered) and the people he met. He was a favorite among a group of older baptist women who "praised the lord" every time he walked by, he laughed at this and knew we'd always have a place to visit if we travelled to Baton Rouge.

After the kids were in bed, and we were laying facing eachother, talking more about how the shelter worked, how hot it really was and what the people were doing to pass the time and keep their spirits up, he let go of the sadness just a little. He would continue to share the heartbreak that was undeniable each time he met a familie's needs at the shelter throughout the next week or so, until it was all out of his system. I listened and felt that all too familiar lump retreat some more. He talked about going back, but he'd already had to scramble to get his shifts covered at the fire station during the time he was gone. I wished that we could both go back, but we had 2 kids birthdays coming up, Halloween and Thanksgiving. Normal life needed to come back to us for a little while.

Normal life, something I take for granted every day that I spend shuffling kids to soccer practice and taekwondo, to preschool orientations and the zoo. Something that I hope one day will be found again by the people who lost everything, EVERYTHING.

Brett loved the new paint in our room, "fingerleaf" by Benjamin Moore, satin. It is so much calmer than that sunflower yellow excuse for bedroom paint the previous owners thought would be nice to wake up to. I bet if I lived in Louisiana, I wouldn't care what color the paint was, would I? So long as I had paint to call my own.


LindaJ said...

We all prayed for his safe return and watched the news in awe and shock of what was going on and waiting with bated breath for the hope of maybe getting a glimpse of him on the news doing what he set out to do, make a difference.
I knew when he was there, anyone he was in contact with would be just as thankful as we are to have him in our lives.

BTW The bedroom does look 100% better.

Mamacita Tina said...

It was horrifying to watch and learn of what happened, I can't imagine the worry you felt. A great post, very heartfelt, thanks for sharing.

Lisa said...

I can't imagine what it was like to live there during that time or even be there to help out. My hubby's family lives in New Orleans area. (My MIL was visiting her family during the storm. And she ended up leaving N.O. with a few of her fam to go to Baton Rouge.) Most of them are pretty well off. So most have moved into their homes as of late. (Each one had serious damage to their homes.) But a few of his family members don't have money. They aren't so lucky and are in poor health. And I worry about them constantly.

Nut's mom said...

hmmmm... Bear and I watched the hurricane coverage on TV as though it was crack and we were hooked. but, to sum up what we thought of it, this news guy made an amazing speech. I found the text for you to read

it's worth it.

and having just written and published a book on art therapy, you art was definatly theraputic for you . :P

Mel said...

What a wonderful, wonderful post.
And thank your husband for me; he's another of the unspoken heroes who worked so hard to help those in need down there.
My BIL was deployed to LA almost immediately after getting home from Iraq; the tales he told are just heartbreaking. He even said that he saw worse things in New Orleans than he ever saw in Baghdad.

sunshine scribe said...

This is a really poignant post. Thank you for writing it.

Your husband is good man.

Becky said...

that whole event was so tragic. and its already almost been a whole year. crazy. being here in houston---we still have people here that haven't been able to go back yet.

Mommy off the Record said...

This was such a touching post. Your husband is a good man for helping down there.

I just happened to watch a PBS broadcast last night about how things are going in New Orleans. The person reporting was a resident doing a mini-documentary. He talked about how broken the people are. How high the suicide rate is. But in the end, he also pointed something good--how people feel more bonded and more connected to each other. I guess that is one positive amongst a lot of heartache.

Kevin Charnas said...

you both rock. period. and i'm proud of you both...and inspired...and i do believe that those are tears that have weld up in my eyes, tears of gratefulness to know that you both are out there, safe and obviously sound.

Angry Dad said...

Fascinating, and your husband should be commended for the excellent work he did. And it woudn't be even more special without the support of his beautiful wife! Well done to both of you.

Left Coast Sister said...

Just found your blog... Sounds like your FF does a good job of talking out his work stuff... mine is learning... This is a great post... thanks for sharing...