Strength

Image courtesy of Victor Habbick / FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of Victor Habbick / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Today is the anniversaries of both Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Isaac, two storms that wreaked complete havoc in my state. Isaac less than Katrina, but still enough that lives and properties were lost and many things have still not been regained or re-established. Lots of people are posting remembrances today, but it’s a little more difficult for me to broach the subject. I was there, for work. With my husband, as he also worked for the same agency I did, and with my thin blue line family. Here is the short version I posted to my Facebook friends:

“8 years ago today I was on the front lines of one of the nation’s biggest disasters. Everything went to shit then got better. Trust that it’s something I won’t forget. The end.”

There is no way to describe the situation other than to say everything was terrible. If you’ve never experienced a natural disaster of that magnitude (which many folks around our planet have), then it’s hard to explain the feeling of loss that accompanies witnessing your entire life taken in as many minutes as years you’ve lived. Your town is gone. Your home is gone. Maybe your job is gone. And for the least fortunate people, your family members and friends are gone.

Image courtesy of Danilo Rizzuti / FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of Danilo Rizzuti / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

I feel fortunate. Not because today I will be experiencing the most severe PTSD ever, but because of what has been gained post-K. I’ve got a new home, new stuff, some of the old stuff that was salvageable( albeit a small amount), but most importantly I’ve gained a sense of what is most meaningful-the people I still have in my life. I was fortunate that I didn’t lose any family, even my cat and dog survived. The snake was lost, but I’m sure she slithered away in the water and is enjoying life in the woods somewhere living the life a corn snake deserves. I had a roof over my head, even though for some time that roof was that of the Cajun Queen, a paddle boat meant for short tours up and down the Mississippi River (Nothing like taking a shower with a hose on the deck of a boat in mid-October to wake you up!), and later a decommissioned ferry-boat where my husband and I shared bunk beds in an 8X8 cabin.

Trailer we lived in post-K from 2005-2007.
Trailer we lived in post-K from 2005-2007. We moved on up from the boat accommodations.
Me at the trailer in which we worked for many, many months post-K
Me at the trailer in which we worked for many, many months post-K

My thoughts and prayers and moments of silence go most to the less fortunate who did lose family members-some lost many in a moment, the people who couldn’t bear the burden that comes following such a travesty and took their own lives, those who weren’t able to recover and pined away for what was, and those who lived horrors worse than I and that I cannot even fathom. This empathy is not reserved for victims of Katrina or Isaac or any one particular thing. So many terrible events occur around the planet, and I agree with John Donne who wrote the words “No man is an island.”

I forget what's going on here, but it's something.
I forget what’s going on here, but it’s something.

I’ve long tried to accept the proverbial phrase “less is more”, and nothing has taught me to do that like Hurricane Katrina. What is stuff but meaningless collections of mass that can be lost in a matter of seconds? Katrina taught me what is most important to survival-physically, psychologically, and spiritually. My old home is gone, but I have a new home now. Man, am I thankful for that! I have food on my plate everyday. I have lots of great friends and family who are always there to help me, especially during the difficult times we more recently experienced after RB was diagnosed at 2 years old with brain cancer. Here is another short summary I shared on Facebook of what I was doing last year during Hurricane Isaac:

“A year ago today I was in Children’s Hospital, where we’d been for 8 months by then, during Isaac, in the dark going between trying to get weather updates on my phone and comforting RB who was still going through chemotherapy treatments at the time. Now we’re home, again things got better eventually. The end.”

Things have gotten better. RB is making progress everyday, and his scans have been stable for nearly a year. His next MRI is in September. There are no signs yet of the expected regression caused by the radiation and chemotherapy. He will soon get a homebound teacher and therapists who will come to our home and take over what I’ve been working on since February. He’s getting a stander and braces to help straighten his legs. We’re traveling down a very long path here, but there is an exit, and at this time, it is bathed in light.

RB in the physical therapy gym at CHNOLA. He will he receive a stander similar to this one.
RB in the physical therapy gym at CHNOLA. He will he receive a stander similar to this one.

So while today will be a day of reflection and bad memories, I would rather look forward than back. I would like to focus not on what was lost, but what has been gained, on what we’ve overcome and on our strength.

Hurricane Katrina Memorial  St Bernard, La. Photo by Edward via NOLA.com (http://photos.nola.com/photogallery/2010/08/st_bernard_parish_katrina_memo.html)
Hurricane Katrina Memorial
Yscloskey St Bernard, La.
Photo by Edward via NOLA.com (http://photos.nola.com/photogallery/2010/08/st_bernard_parish_katrina_memo.html)

The Kindness of Strangers

“I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.” 
 Tennessee Williams, A Streetcar Named Desire

Not always. But most certainly in the last ten months, and sometimes from the most unexpected of people.

Tonight my husband and I had our night out, when my mom stays at the hospital and we go out for a meal together. For Christmas, most of our family and friends gifted us with restaurant gift cards. Probably assuming we needed a break from hospital food, and boy are they correct. For tonight’s date, we chose from one of the restaurants near home. A newish establishment, to us anyway, having been away for nearly the last year. I would like to paraphrase our initial conversation with our waitress:

Waitress: “Is this your first time here?”

My husband and I, in unison: “At this location.”

Waitress: “Do you live around here?”

Us: “Yes.”

Waitress, in a teasing tone: “We’ve been here for a year now, why are you just coming to see us now?”

Me: “We spend a lot of time in New Orleans.”

Waitress: “Do you work in the city?”

My husband: “In St. Bernard.”

Me: “Also our son’s been in Children’s for a while.”

Waitress: “Oh, my daughter was in Children’s last March. How long has he been there?”

Us, again in unison: “Since last March.”

Of course, like most people who don’t know, she was surprised to learn we’ve been living at Children’s for the last ten months. She commented that her daughter was in the hospital for a week and how it was a terrible experience just seeing her baby suffer and being away from home. She empathized with us and said she didn’t know how we’ve been surviving for almost a year.

We talked for several minutes, mostly she and I. I’ve discovered as I get older, I not only am becoming my mother in appearance, but I have adopted her ease in engaging in conversation with complete strangers. The waitress and I discovered we’d both had bad experiences at a local hospital through which our pediatricians work, and we both decided Children’s Hospital was the better choice when our children had to revisit the emergency room. Coincidentally, our kids are the same age. After our conversation, she took our order and left the table.

Our appetizer came, and then our meals. The waitress refilled our drinks and asked if everything was satisfactory. I noticed her friendliness with the table beside ours, and I smiled. I’ve worked in food service. I’ve waited tables. It’s not glamorous, it certainly won’t make you rich, and many customers are, quite frankly, assholes.

Later as we were finishing our meal, the waitress returned and asked again how things were going. We talked a little more about our kids’ health conditions, and she revealed her daughter has had several surgeries since she was just one year old. The waitress said something then to which I completely relate. She said she asks herself why is her child sick when so many others are healthy. She said she blames herself, that she feels like she’s done something wrong. I agreed with her that I felt the same way. I explained to her that I’d just been telling my husband two days ago how I felt, and that I felt responsible for RB’s illness. Tonight he said the same thing to both of us that he said the other night to me, “Some things just happen. You can’t prevent things like that.”

He’s right, of course. But I felt emancipated in that moment. It was freeing to hear another woman, another mother, admit her feelings to me that way. That her feelings were the same as mine, without my having mentioned it first.

Not only was our waitress kind, friendly, and empathetic to our situation with RB, she must have talked to her manager about us, because our appetizer was comped by the restaurant. “Because we deserve a break,” the waitress said.

It was a touching and moving experience. But tonight has certainly not been the first time a stranger showed us kindness during these difficult times. Besides all the people mentioned in my previous post Just Another Year in Review, and those who helped us whom I haven’t mentioned because there were so many I would have to sit down and make a detailed list, there have been other incidents like tonight where a complete stranger has reached out to us.

About two weeks ago, I decided it was time for a haircut. I went to a local economy salon (and got a surprisingly great haircut, by the way!). I described to the stylist what I wanted, that I wanted it as short as possible where I could let the curls take over and still look decent when I didn’t have time to prime and prep myself. She suggested using a flat iron. I explained to her that I have one, and then I explained why I needed a  more feasible and convenient haircut. She asked a few questions about RB’s condition and his age. I answered her questions, and then she put down all of her tools and said a prayer aloud for God to bless RB and to heal him. Although I’m not overtly religious, I bowed my head out of respect for this stranger and her intention of doing something beneficial for my son and my family. It was moving. I believe in a higher power, and although I don’t follow my Catholic religion or rituals, I feel I am a spiritual person, and I respect anyone who believes in a God-or whatever word you’d like to insert here to describe Him, Her, It-that is supposed to promote peace and love and respect for our fellow humans. (Mind you, I don’t always have love and respect for my fellow humans, but I’m trying. I really am.)

Had she been Hindu or Buddhist or of any religion which teaches inner peace and love, I would have still bowed my head to her prayer. I don’t adhere to any one religion. I don’t believe it’s what God-insert your own name for your entity of choice here-would want. I don’t believe we are meant to fight each other over whose spiritual being is better.

“I watched the glee while your kings and queens fought for ten decades for the Gods they made.” Sympathy for the Devil, Rolling Stones, (Jagger, Richards)

If you know the song, you will get the reference. But I digress…

The point of the post is to commemorate these strangers who have added hope to our lives and have made this most difficult of situations just a little easier to endure. When we got home, there was this card waiting for us:

Image
A Thank You/Get Well card from the Radiation Oncology Team at Touro Hospital, personally signed by the doctors, nurses, and technicians.