A Toast to New Orleans

by Jill Wilbur Smith

My husband, Gary, marvels that I recognize the anniversary dates of the death of my loved ones. When November 15, rolls around, the day my father’s heart gave out while he was hunting with his best friend, Gary is always mildly surprised that I want to recognize the day. On the anniversary of my father’s death, I often raise a toast to him with whomever I happen to be with on that day, whether they knew him or not.

Gary, Emily and Sarah on the Riverwalk in November 2004.

Gary, Emily and Sarah on the Riverwalk in November 2004.

But I’m finding it difficult to do the same for New Orleans on this 10-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. Maybe it’s because New Orleans still exists. Unlike my father, who only lives now in my memory, New Orleans is still there, just altered. Although the wound of Katrina has healed with time, remembering it is painful. Every tweet and news story pokes at my scarred flesh until if spews fresh blood.

My dad had an infectious laugh.

My dad had an infectious laugh.

So I’m trying to think about why I remember my dad on the day he died. I don’t relive that moment when Gary hands me the phone in our Minnesota home, ashen face, mouthing the words “your dad died”. But rather I think about my father’s infectious laugh, replay our conversations around the kitchen table where he taught me by example what it means to be a generous human being, remember the look of love in his eyes the first time he held his granddaughters.

And so, that’s how I’ll try to live this day. I’ll not dwell on the image of the Superdome I watched endlessly from my home in Minnesota, my heart breaking for the displaced and frightened souls huddling on the bridge that connects it to the office tower where I once worked. I’ll remember instead that place on a brighter day, picture me sitting in the sun on a bench with a co-worker, enjoying the company and the sound of the city around us.

My in-laws' New Orleans home, before the flood.

My in-laws’ New Orleans home, before the flood.

I’ll erase from my mind the vision of my in-law’s home covered in water, the Google map image Gary came across days after the storm that showed the rooftop of his parents’ house bobbing in a neighborhood of water; the look of disbelief and shock on his face as he tried to choke back his tears. Instead, I’ll think of the Sunday dinners held there when we were newlyweds, how we brought Emily there to meet her grandparents, our visit only months before the storm for Thanksgiving when Sarah helped her Grammy organize her linen closet. I’ll try to forget Sarah three days after Katrina hits and the city is filling with water. How I was trapped in my bedroom in my suburban Minnesota home glued to the television with the drapes drawn, paralyzed by grief; the tap on my bedroom door and 9-year-old Sarah entering carrying a tray. How on the tray was a cup of hot coffee, a piece of toast with butter and jelly, and some wildflowers in a vase. “I know you’re sad, mommy,” she said. “I thought this might cheer you up.” I’ll remember instead how I turned off the TV and opened my arms to her, how her warm body snuggled into me as she reached up to wipe the tears from my cheek. I’ll think about how I reminded myself that my life hadn’t been damaged, that I was secure in my home with my children and husband.

My father-in-law playing the piano with Emily and Sarah.

My father-in-law playing the piano with Emily and Sarah.

I won’t think of my mother-in-law sitting in a hotel room in Northern Louisiana, watching the same footage I watched as the only place she’d ever known was washed away. I won’t recall my husband grieving for the loss of his hometown. At least I’ll try. Perhaps if we still lived in New Orleans the pain would be less. But I suspect not. I suspect that once a place is gone it’s gone for good. The new construction and cleared lots won’t ever return the city to the place we once loved. The magical place where we fell in love, got married and brought our beautiful daughter into the world.

My father-in-law, Sarah, my mother-in-law and Emily during our last visit to New Orleans before Katrina.

My father-in-law, Sarah, my mother-in-law and Emily during our last visit to New Orleans before Katrina.

And so as we mark this anniversary, I try to remember the good things that existed and still exist in New Orleans. The memories of the good times we had there can never be taken away. Only altered. Just like I’ll never again be able to sit across the table from my father and hear his booming laugh, we’ll never again visit the New Orleans we once loved. Instead, we’ll have to take comfort in the memories we made there. We’ll raise our glasses in toast to the city we loved.

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