On the evening of October 4, 1968, I found love twice. It began with an exchange of wedding vows to Michael Lynn Burnett, my soulmate and best friend. The day ended with my first encounter with New Orleans, Louisiana, a magical place that immediately caught my fancy and burrowed into my heart just as Mike had done. For forty seven years now I have found bliss with Mike again and again, especially in the most difficult times. I have also returned to New Orleans over and over and never tire of the feeling of being in a place that somehow speaks to my very soul. I will always be a die hard native of Houston but if I ever needed a second home I suspect that I would feel as comfortable in New Orleans as I do in my place of birth.
From its very beginnings New Orleans has been a special place that is different from almost every other city in the United States. There is an other worldly feeling to it and a sense of history and culture. When I walk along the streets I can almost hear the voices of the people who once traveled the same byways. I understand why artists like Ernest Hemingway and Tennessee Williams and, more recently, Brad Pitt have been drawn to this place. It is vibrant and filled with stories of humanity. The food, the music, the architecture, the history, the blending of multiple cultures, the people have created a uniqueness that is alluring. I fall under the spell of New Orleans each time that I return. I suspect that it is because it is the place that is most like Mike, free spirited and unconcerned with judgement and opinions.
There was once a time when Mike became ill with a fungal disease that had the potential to end his life. There were no guarantees that the treatment would cure him and the doctors prepared us for the possibility that he might not make it. I remember feeling devastated and lost but Mike assumed the quiet strength that he has always had and endured a painful series of chemo-therapy over the course of many months. He wasted away and literally resembled a skeleton. With a stoicism that few would be able to muster he did whatever he had to do to come back home to me and his girls. He eventually beat the odds and his doctors pronounced that he was cured. With little fanfare he went back to the job of caring for us and he has been our rock ever since.
Ten years ago on September 29, the unthinkable happened in New Orleans. The swelling of the waters caused by hurricane Katrina overwhelmed the city’s system of levees and pumps. When the walls collapsed creating breeches in the fortifications eighty percent of the city filled with flood waters. The images of homes sitting ten feet deep in muddy miasmas were devastating. I remember crying for the city that I so loved. Mike and I were hypnotized by the news coverage that stretched on and on for weeks. We worried over suggestions that New Orleans might never rise again and perhaps shouldn’t even try. We watched our own city fill with people from NOLA who were frightened and utterly lost. It was like a nightmare that would not go away even when we were awake.
Mostly there was the human toll of hurricane Katrina. So many souls became like Moses wandering in the desert without homes and sometimes without hope. Their stories were unique but always shared the commonality of being utterly in love with the city that now seemed to be no more. There was Ed who was a bonafide super fan of the New Orleans Saints football team. He had worked in one of the city’s high schools and he came to Houston looking for refuge. He found a job at the middle school where I worked and for me he became the face of the New Orleans tragedy. For a time his life literally fell apart but he possessed the spirit of a survivor and in the ten years that have passed since the hurricane destroyed virtually everything that he had known he has found love and new friends and a modicum of peace. Nonetheless a part of his heart still resides in New Orleans and always will. He is ever the biggest New Orleans Saints fan on planet earth.
Then there was Ann, a beloved Calculus teacher at a prestigious New Orleans private school. She had been born in New Orleans. Her family was well known in the city. She lived with her pets and rode her horse in competitions. In the summers she traveled the world with colleagues and friends. She had a lovely home and she was happy and content. When she loaded her horse into a trailer and headed inland ten years ago she never dreamed that a few days later the world that she had known would be in a shambles. Her home was totally destroyed. The school where she worked struggled to stay open. She and her fellow teachers lived in FEMA trailers in the parking lot. The city around her was filled with debris and stench. It was overwhelming. When her former headmaster offered her a job in Houston she came and set down new roots among people who never really understood just how much she had lost.
There were students like Danisha and Tenene who relocated to Houston with their families but never really lost the love for New Orleans that was etched on their souls. At the school where I was working over four hundred children enrolled in the days and weeks after the disaster. They were filled with a bizarre mix of emotions. They were frightened and angry and sad. One boy was haunted by flashbacks of the time he and his family spent on a freeway overpass waiting to be rescued. He spoke of hunger, fatigue, and admiration of those who found ways to keep everyone alive.
Those who prematurely spoke of New Orleans’ demise had underestimated its people. The citizens of that town are a resilient bunch. Somehow they have slowly but surely helped the city to revive. The spirit of New Orleans lives on just as it has for over three hundred years. Through hard work, dedication, and optimism, not to mention the support of volunteers from around the world, New Orleans is as vibrant and hopeful as ever. The traditions and neighborhoods and businesses have one by one come back home. It has been a long and sometimes impossible journey and I have watched as New Orleans slowly came back to life.
Mike and I plan to spend a couple of days in New Orleans when we return from our fall trip to Indiana. We somehow manage to make NOLA a destination along the way to wherever we may be going. Even forty seven years after I first met and fell in love with the city it retains its charm and its attraction. Each time that I visit I feel that I too am returning home and I remain in awe of the citizens who worked so hard to bring New Orleans back from the brink. May this beautiful city never again have to endure the wrath of destruction and may its people exalt in the joy of breathing new life into one of the grandest places on earth.