I was seven years old when Hurricane Betsy, a category 3 storm, passed right over New Orleans. My parents had been divorced for two years and I had seen a lot of animosity building up in that time. My parents barely spoke to one another and certainly never were alone in the same room together. Like most kids, I wanted them to somehow reconcile their differences, at least to the point where they could talk to one another.
I remember that when it became clear that the hurricane was coming my mother started becoming very worried. Evacuation wasn’t really something that people did back then, or at least not in Orleans Parish. I was enough in the ‘information loop’ to sense that I should be worried too. Then a really strange thing happened. My dad came over to the house and offered to ride out the storm with us. My mother was relieved and amazingly they were civil to each other. So one storm subsided as another storm became a howling fury.
I felt a strange comfort, even though I knew that the storm could do a lot of damage. At one point in the first half of the storm a loud cracking sound enveloped the house, followed by a shaking sensation. A large pine tree had fallen on our house. My father was a picture of calmness and quiet assurance so I figured this was not a big problem. When the eye of the storm passed over our house there was a complete stillness, which was very eerie. We went outside with our flashlights and surveyed the neighborhood and talked to our neighbors. We could see the large pine tree leaning against our house.
Then the winds started to pick up as the second half of the storm began. We went inside and I felt pretty sure that everything would work out since we had made out okay for the first part of Betsy’s fury. My brother, who was only 4 years old, had been largely silent as everyone discussed the storm, finally piped up with a question. "Mom," he said in a matter of fact way, "does Betsy have a purse?"
We laughed at his question and everything was wonderful. My dad and my mom were talking and we were a regular family. Outside the winds were howling but it seemed like a minor annoyance.
Forty years later Katrina came to town and this time the city was crushed. My kids left town with my ex-wife, which was the prudent move. I tried to leave town, but I left too late and had to return. Somehow I think I was destined to ride out that storm. I won’t lie and tell you that I wasn’t scared, even though I was in a very sturdy building with storm windows that were designed to withstand 140 mile an hour winds. As the winds started to howl I remembered that the thing to do in a storm was to find a way to be calm. At 2:00 am the really fury started. I was tired and anxious, and I knew that I was going to have to endure 12 hours of lashing winds before it would be over.
So I found a safe comfortable place in my dad’s condo and I laid down and started breathing slowly and rhythmically. I became calm and peaceful. I could hear the agonizing shriek of metal being twisted and flung around. The power was out and I had no idea where the storm was headed or if it had weakened as it moved ashore. I knew that I might die, although I figured that it was unlikely (we always believe that death is unlikely, don’t we?).
I had a lot of time to think as I lay there breathing. I didn’t make any promises to become a different person if ‘God let me live’. I just tried to be respectful and quiet, and I tried to pay attention to the unique experience that I was having. I’m glad that I was in New Orleans during the storm and I’m sure that something about my experience will be useful to me. I’m not sure what it is, but I don’t need to know everything and I don’t need to know what the future holds. I don’t control the future any more than I control the forces of nature.
The only thing I control is my attitude and my outlook. I think I’m very fortunate. I have great family and great friends and they are all still here on this large green planet. They’re not all in the same place and so I’ll have to make an effort to visit them, but that’s not a big deal. Eventually, nature will take us all. Death is certain, but the time of its arrival is not.
I’m going to keep living my life and I’m going to try to remember that death is always out there, stalking me. Stalking each of us. Time is running out, but you can’t worry about that. You can only remain calm and steady and help those around you and be
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