By Cheryl Celestin
The Afternoon of August 29, 2005
I had been on the phone all day with my mother who chose not to leave home following the warnings to evacuate due to Hurricane Katrina. “You can’t run from God,” was all she said.
Finally, when we thought the worse was over, I ended the phone conversation. “Ok Ma”, I said. “Take care. I’ll call you in the morning.”
“Check ya later” was the last thing she said to me.
I lost my mother to Hurricane Katrina.
“We found grandma,” my niece told us four days later. “She’s in Baton Rouge. “
Mama was rescued by her neighbors who assisted her in walking in chest deep water for approximately 7 blocks to Baptist Hospital. Armed with the clothes on her back and her identification, the 80 year old survived the water. But we lost her in the flood.
When we arrived in Baton Rouge, my mother laid in bed, clutching her identification, wearing donated clothes and looking weary. She didn’t speak very much, just slept and stared.
The area of Baton Rouge that housed Katrina survivors held an eerie resemblance to the “Land of the Lost.” People were walking around with blank confused stares.
We gathered by mother and my daddy and began the trek to Michigan.
Life in Michigan
Mama’s first few days in her new environment were lively. People were dropping by, bringing clothes, and welcoming her to Michigan. She talked about her experience but not about her “feelings” about the experience.
My mama was dubbed the “Queen” because for the first month, she treated my home like a bed and breakfast. She arrived at the table for her meals. She engaged the children and the dogs, but her posture was clear, she was a visitor. She was not here to stay.
Her constant conversation was what she lost in Katrina. With each recollection, I didn’t realize it but we were losing her again. After the first month, we tried to show her the city, grocery stores, talk about public transportation, churches, etc. She showed little interest in venturing out. We were losing her some more.
Mama loved to cook. I made daily trips to the grocery store for jowls, sausage, cabbage and the foods that she loved to prepare.
“Darn it”, she blurted out one day, “I can’t get used of this electric stove. My stove in New Orleans was gas.”
Losing her again. Eventually, my mother lost all interest in cooking because she couldn’t adjust to the electric stove.
My mother loved shopping but there was no Macy’s, Dillard’s or Lord & Taylor in our city. Losing her again.
The stores weren’t the same, the colors weren’t the same, and the quality wasn’t the same. She reminisced of the days of Krauss, trips to Hancock’s and the better stores in New Orleans. So, like most southern fashionistas, when you can’t find it in the store you have it tailor made. For a brief period my mother became consumed in the fabric and pattern selection for her new church clothes. I breathed a sigh of relief, she’s coming back. After the beautiful dresses were made, her interest waned and so did the plans to attend church, basketball games and road trips. Lost her again.
One day my mama took a trip to the neighborhood Walgreens. It was just like the one she walked to weekly in New Orleans. Though normally limited in her walking due to arthritis, she took off in Walgreens like there was a race to be won and a prize to be gained. After that trip, she never visited Walgreens again. Losing her.
We helped Mama gather phone numbers of her friends in New Orleans. She seemed to enjoy their long conversations about the past, city gossip and the plans to rebuild the city. Then the calls started to lessen. She lost interest in talking on the phone. Losing her.
The Return to New Orleans: The Funeral
When the city was opened for New Orleanians to return, my mother went to survey the remains of her rented house. Moving very slowly and deliberately, my mother looked at, touched, wiped of and began picking out items what held nostalgic important value. Dishes, what-nots and pictures were the main things she was wanted to recover. Many of the mementos from deceased relatives, photographs of family members were destroyed and unsalvageable. The house was dark like a cave, the 5 foot water lines were as obvious as scary shadows in the dark. The furniture was tossed around the room from the violent waters. The smell was horrific.
My mama was not fazed by any of this. She was focused on the corpse that she was rummaging through trying to find her old life. Her only loyal companion during the hunt for her beloved treasures was her loving son Michael. He stayed with her as she searched until we deemed the exposure in the house was enough for one day. As we drove away, she was silent, somber and very sad, like the drive from the cemetery where a loved one has been buried. Losing her.
The house like my mother had sustained the waters, it was still standing but the substance of what made that house a home was lost in the flood.
Mama had a few New Orleans familiars in Michigan, my father; her former husband, lived around the corner and the Times Picayune Newspaper was delivered. Comfort food from Popeye’s was her meal 3 to 5 days a week and so was Subway. I believe Subway sandwiches reminded her of Nawlins PoBoys. So for 5 years she made herself content with the familiar. But my dad passed away and Subway lost its appeal. She even stopped reading the newspaper. Popeye’s remained pretty important but she ate less of her order when placed before her. I was losing her more each day.
One day, I realized with agitation, “That woman in there is not my Mama.” Her laughter, her love for cooking and shopping and her desire to live was gone. I realized around year 5 that I lost my mother to Katrina. She was physically here but psychologically gone.
Was it old age or the flood?
“How did I get here?” This question came out of the blue early one morning. I said, “Mama remember Katrina?” “Oh yea,” she said and she just stared into space. Losing her.
During the first 7 years Mama never talked about her feelings while walking in the chest deep flood waters for 7 blocks. One day she explained that the neighbors were on each side of her, holding her up. “I thought I was going to die,” was all she ever said.
Truth be told, although she made it safely through the waters, it seems a though she left some of herself in the flood.
Her mantra around leaving during threats of hurricanes had been, “You can’t run from God.” She later admitted, that God gives you the senses to make good decisions.
Three years ago Mama fell and fractured her foot. The injury healed in about 3 months but Mama never walked again. Her desire to walk just wasn’t there. But she would constantly remind us (and herself) of how she walked all the time in New Orleans. Today Mama lives in a nursing home. She has named many of the workers people from her old New Orleans neighborhood and her past. Donna the Bingo Lady is Mrs. Landrieu (her former landlord), the CNA is Judge Mullaly’s grandson, there’s also Viola and Francis.
Some call it dementia, some call it the aging process, I call it the residuals of the flood.
Mama, do you remember Hurricane Katrina?
As the city of New Orleans looks to remember Hurricane Katrina 10 years later, I decided to chat with Mama about Katrina. Mama remembered the water. She didn’t remember the walk from her home to Baptist Hospital. She remembered the helicopter ride. She remembered the water destroying everything. I asked how did that made her feel, she said sad because, “I wanted to stay in New Orleans.”
As we reflect on the 10 years since Hurricane Katrina, there are stories of loss, pain and devastation. For me Hurricane Katrina will always be a reminder that there were many who survived the water but they are still losing to the flood.
This article was printed in the September 6, 2015 - September 19, 2015 edition.