and every event
of every man’s life on earth
plants something in his soul.
~ Thomas Merton ~
In less than a month in the waning days of a sultry Louisiana summer in 2005, the state was hit by two Category 3 hurricanes: Katrina on August 29th (2000 deaths and $100 billion in damages) and Rita on September 24th (120 deaths and $12 billion in damages). Rita’s storm surge worsened the affects of Katrina by inundating low-lying communities near the southwest coast of Louisiana. When I volunteered for a month after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, my second 2 week deployment was in a town directly in the path of Rita’s destruction.
This is a story from that time.
The heat and humidity were almost unbearable in this small town that had been hit by both hurricanes. Katrina had made landfall 3 months ago and Rita 2 months, but the land was still littered with the debris of the storms that played havoc with Louisiana. Telephone poles were broken like match sticks, cars were on top of flattened buildings, tanker trucks lay on their sides next to overturned shrimping boats, and a school lay open to the elements. Seaweed and sand were piled where there had been streets, hundreds of yards from the water’s edge.
The silence was eerie – not even the birds had returned – as the three of us drove past the destruction to an area further inland. My fellow volunteers stopped to take pictures, but I stayed in the air-conditioned rental car for comfort. Besides, it seemed almost sacrilegious to take pictures of someone else’s loss and suffering. The scenes of such vast and complete destruction were better left in my imagination than in print.
We had a list of homeowners who had applied to the Red Cross for financial relief, and it was our job to visit these folks and activate credit cards with much-needed funds. Two of the volunteers represented financial aid, while I was along as a mental health professional to offer emotional comfort and support. Two of us tried our best to navigate for the driver – try finding addresses where streets were impassable and signs didn’t exist. A challenge, to say the least.
We had one more family to visit and our 12-hour day would be done. Today had been particularly difficult, as government relief had been either painfully slow or non-existent to these folks, and tempers were easily ruffled by the tiniest perceived slight. The conditions we visited reminded us, however, of how blessed we were to be able to return to a church that night and have hot food and a shower before sleeping on our cots.
We found the last family’s trailer and gingerly picked our way through the debris field that must have been their front yard. If we weren’t picking our way through boards with nails sticking up, we were side-stepping mini-ponds filled with water at least 6 inches deep. No matter how much we tried to avoid it, our shoes remained soaking wet and covered with mud.
Our knock was answered almost immediately by a young woman named Emeline holding a baby about 4 months old. The woman’s hair was damp from the heat, and the huge dark circles under her eyes gave some indication of her weariness, but her smile was welcoming. She warned us to be careful, as there were some holes in the living room floor where you could see to the muddy ground outside. Katrina had caused minor damage to the trailer, but Rita left holes in the roof and a foot of water inside. They still had no electricity or running water and were waiting to hear from FEMA in order to get a temporary trailer to set up beside this one. Their home was all they had, and there were no relatives close enough for them to stay with.
She introduced her husband, Jean-Pierre, who looked as determined and protective of his family as she looked weary. In fact, with his jet black hair and dark eyes, he reminded me of the pirate drawings in children’s books. Stereotypical, but true. He led us through the small trailer into the back bedroom, where mold covered the entire back wall up to the ceiling. The room used as the baby’s nursery was even worse – mold on all the walls – and I could feel my lungs struggling to breathe even though I had only been there less than 5 minutes. Jean-Pierre lifted new plywood from the nursery floor, showing us the torn up floor that opened to the outside. He told us not to worry – he had killed the four snakes that had made the trailer their home along with the foot of water.
Now I felt myself struggling for breath, but for an entirely different reason. Four snakes? In Belle’s nursery? Along with the mold covering the walls? And these nice folks still lived here, patiently waiting for aid.
If they were complaining about being forgotten, they didn’t do it with us. As the other two volunteers explained the now activated credit card that would provide them some immediate relief, I held Belle in my arms. She slept soundly, oblivious to the goings-on around her. Even without running water, I could smell Johnson’s Baby Shampoo in her downy hair and Ivory soap on her clean clothing. That she was loved and well taken care of was evident.
When Emeline was handed the credit card, she couldn’t speak for the tears in her eyes. While saying he didn’t know how to thank us, Jean-Pierre suddenly got a twinkle in his eyes and asked us to stay where we were as he rushed to the back of the trailer. He returned carrying a small accordion, his smile huge.
“Maybe I can thank you with some Zydeco.”
He explained that Zydeco’s rural beginnings and the economic conditions in Louisiana at its inception heavily influenced the style of music. It was a synthesis of traditional Creole music, some Cajun influence, and African-American traditions.
With a flourish, Jean-Pierre tapped his foot on the plywood, fingered the accordion and broke into a song that sounded like jazz, blues, gospel and R&B, with maybe some funk and hip-hop thrown in. Though unfamiliar, the tune was catchy and you just couldn’t sit still. Emeline took Belle so I could tap my feet in time with the music that Jean-Pierre so seamlessly wove into something unlike anything I ever heard before. By the third song of our impromptu concert, I was standing swaying to the music, hoping I didn’t fall through the weakened floor onto the muddy ground below.
Here – in Southwestern Louisiana, seated in a trailer filled with mold, holes in the floor, no running water or electricity, and humidity like a steam bath – I pushed away thoughts of snakes and asthma and lost myself to the music. There was nothing else but this man who wanted to thank us somehow; a man who, looking around at his home, had nothing. But looking around at his loving wife and daughter, had everything. There was hope here.
The smiles in that room were blinding. At that moment, there was no place in the world I would rather be.
If these were the people of Louisiana, I wasn’t worried. They would survive. And even beyond that, they would thrive in the coming years of difficult recovery. Because they had heart and soul. And they had love…
“The only people for me are the mad ones,
the ones who are mad to live,
mad to talk, mad to be saved,
desirous of everything at the same time,
the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing,
but burn, burn, burn
like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding
like spiders across the stars.”
– Jack Kerouac –
I’ve said it before – at times, my naiveté astounds me.
Everyone grieves differently. It depends on your relationship with that person; if you’ve lost someone before; whether their death was far too quick, with no time to say good-by or agonizingly slow, with unbearable suffering; expected or unexpected; natural or by suicide; your age; and, whether you’re male (like to take action) or female (want someone to listen). The list goes on… There’s no set “process,” per se – no time frame or stages that must be followed in the correct order. Some people act like nothing has happened, while others are prostrate with grief. Shock, denial, bargaining, depression, anger with lots of people (including God), until hopefully – finally – some measure of acceptance.
My patients often ask when they will have “closure,” and I answer honestly there is no such thing as closure, only survival. They will survive.
My head knows this. My heart struggles to keep pace.
Mom’s death was 6 months after her breast cancer diagnosis, after having suffered through a modified radical mastectomy, chemotherapy, surgery, and a 29-day hospital stay. The fact that she was only 59 years old and my close friend made her torment agonizing to watch; so much so, that I actually asked her physician if I could end her suffering (and mine) by just letting her drift away with extra morphine. He shot that option down quickly.
Dad’s death at almost 87 years old was sudden. Two weeks before he died, on Father’s Day, we noticed he was slurring his words. We took him to the doctor, got him a bright red 3-wheel walker and made plans to either move him downstairs in his home (one floor, no steps) or to have him move in with my sister. That was all underway when I got the call that Dad passed away. He was walking down his driveway to get his newspaper, a morning ritual, when he collapsed. The neighbor called 911 when she saw him lying there, but he died “instantly.” (Do doctors tell that to everyone to ease their suffering? Just wondering…)
The shock of Mom’s death shook me to my core. Admittedly, after 25 years, I still light a candle every day in her memory. I don’t know how long Dad’s death will sit so fresh and raw; it’s been less than a year.
But this I do know – I was totally unprepared for the separate grief that comes with no longer having a “parental unit.” It’s unique – it’s different – it’s terrible – it’s lonely – it’s frightening.
I feel abandoned, lost, adrift, disoriented, incomplete. There’s no one to watch my back or to be my cheering section or to give me a safe place to fall.
Where is my anchor? Who will advise me, guide me, forgive me, support me, challenge me, love me unconditionally? Who will comfort the little girl in me, the lost child, as only my parents could?
I once told Dad when he was really missing Mom (which was for the entire 25 years) that he and Mom had given me everything I needed to be a success, that I had “stood on the shoulders of giants.” They were my giants.
“If I have seen further…it is by
standing upon the shoulders of giants.”
~ Sir Isaac Newton
He liked the thought of that and remembered with gratitude all those who helped him along the way.
I shared with him something I felt while at the Baccalaureate service the night before my grad school Commencement. While I sat immersed in the joyous music that filled the cathedral, I could almost sense two lines of ancestors standing behind me. They were in pairs, from my shoulders, back and up, until I lost sight of them. Without turning around, I could visualize them. Somehow I knew that one line included Mom, my maternal grandparents and the rest of her family, while the other line was my paternal grandparents…on and on and on. They were all shapes and sizes and colors, all dressed in different clothing that gave a clue to their work, some younger than others, some faces lined while others were smooth. They were all smiling. Generation after generation after generation.
I have been schooled well.
The best psychotherapists are those who have been through pain. Henri Nouwen, a Catholic priest and author (1932 – 1996), reminds us that “in our own woundedness, we can become a source of life for others.”
Who better to sit with you in the darkness than a wounded healer?
I have sat with people who have lost their child (the worst loss), spouse, parent, sibling, friend, grandparent, married lover, colleague – but never someone who was grieving the loss of both parents as a “unit.” How is that possible?
But now, as is always the case, I will be able to sit with someone who no longer has parents – as one person said to me, “Welcome to the Orphan’s Club” – and empathize with their longing for wholeness.
But a broken heart empties us of all that we might hang on to, often too long, so that it might be filled up with something greater and more wondrous that we could ever imagine or think ourselves deserving of. When I am tired enough of struggling, I will once again accept Your glorious grace. I will once again accept the plans You have for me. I know You understand.
Help me to be Your Counselor, Defender, Teacher, Listener, Instrument, Vessel, Comforter, Starfish Thrower (thank you, Diana), Harvester, Secret Keeper (bless you, T), Heartsong, Wellspring.
“Much is expected from those to whom much has been given.”
~ Luke 12:49
Dad’s favorite saying, as well as the way he always signed off on a letter or in a card – “Keep the Faith.” I’m doing my best, Dad, but I still miss both of you more than I ever thought possible.
Like I said, I have stood on the shoulders of giants – Mom and Dad the biggest and most important of all. They lifted me up so I could soar.
Your Circles of Grace – those Circles of Compassion – widen.
Let me not pray to be sheltered from dangers
but to be fearless in facing them.
Let me not beg for the stilling of my pain
but for the heart to conquer it.
Let me not look for allies in life’s battlefield
but to my own strength.
Let me not crave in anxious fear to be saved
but hope for the patience to win my freedom.
Grant me that I may not be a coward,
feeling your mercy in my success alone;
but let me find the grasp of your hand
in my failure.
~ Rabindranath Tagore ~
Cast of Characters:
Katrina: hurricane that hit the Gulf Coast on August 29, 2005 causing more than $100 billion in damage and taking almost 2,000 lives
Luc: evacuee at Houma Terrebonne Civic Center, Houma, Louisiana
Theresa: Luc’s deceased Godmother
Teresa: volunteer social worker
St. Therese: “Little Flower”
On September 11, 2005, I flew into Baton Rouge, Louisiana for my first Red Cross volunteer deployment as a mental health professional. Those of us who offered to go were given 48 hours notice prior to our departure and were warned that this location would present “hardships” to the volunteers. After having watched the television coverage of Katrina and what looked like a third world country, I was certain that no hardship I experienced could touch that of the people in the ravaged Gulf Coast.
I was assigned to the Houma Terrebonne Civic Center in Houma, Louisiana (slightly south-west of New Orleans), where 3 mental health volunteers (a social worker, a marriage & family therapist, and I) provided services to the fluctuating 800-1,200 Katrina victims who were housed there. We three were also responsible for the mental health of all the Red Cross workers in the staff shelter where we stayed (160 of us), along with the National Guard unit stationed at the Civic Center.
The evacuees at the Civic Center were primarily from the Lower 9th Ward of New Orleans, those folks who didn’t have the money or transportation needed to evacuate. Many of them somehow got through the water that flooded the Lower 9th Ward when the levies broke, got onto the overpass, waited in the Superdome, then were brought to Houma. These were the poorest of the poor. They ranged in age from 1 month old to around 95 years old, with perhaps 20 Caucasian, 6 Asian, the rest African-American.
The Houma Terrebonne Civic Center, normally home to cultural and athletic events, graduations, trade shows, and concerts, now housed the evacuees
in an area of 37,000 square feet of open floor space (Hall A & Hall B, below right). It was a sea of cots, blankets, pillows, clothing and people with very little room to move around.
Although hard to imagine, when volunteering for two weeks for this many evacuees as one of three mental health professionals, you got to know the names of a lot of the people who were staying there. I circulated around Halls A & B all day, talking with people, getting them clothing, answering questions, hearing their stories and doing my best to keep them calm. It was common to hear “Miss Theresa” as I walked through, always polite, always scared. The hours spent and the subsequent emotional rollercoaster took their toll on even the most seasoned of volunteers.
One day, one of the women from the Southern Baptist Convention responsible for meals took me by the arm and brought me to the loading dock, put a heaping plate of food on top of the cases of canned corn and said firmly, “You need to eat something, and take a rest.” I sat on another pile of canned goods and thankfully ate, my mind blank. It wasn’t long before I heard a quiet “Miss Theresa.” I turned to see one of the evacuees standing near-by.
“There’s a man who sleeps next to me that I’m worried about. He cries an awful lot and last night was mumbling about not having a reason to live.”
I stood up. “Where is he? Take me to him.”
We walked through the arena to the far right corner, where a man was seated on the floor, looking down. I thanked the young man and introduced myself to Luc and asked if I could join him. His dark eyes met mine, intelligent and filled with pain, as he nodded his assent.
“Tell me how I can help.”
With that, Luc’s words poured out. In the mass exodus from New Orleans, Luc had been separated from his two brothers. He spent a few days in the Superdome, where the situation had steadily deteriorated with no electricity, suffocating heat, gangs running around in packs, women giving birth on the floor. Tears ran down Luc’s face as he described the primitive conditions, which he finally escaped by leaving.
From a list kept on a legal pad by an unknown official, he was told his brothers had gone to Texas. Luc took one of the same busses outside the Superdome that took Louisiana evacuees to Texas, only to be told that his brothers had been seen in the Houma Terrebonne Civic Center. So, he turned around and came back to Louisiana. The Civic Center, struggling to keep track of the comings and goings of all people who streamed through, had no record of his brothers having been here. Exhausted (only sleeping a few hours in the past few days), having failed to find his brothers – the only family he had left – and having lost all of his belongings, Luc was ready to give up. He was not only thinking about suicide, he already had a plan and the means to carry it out. It was simply a matter of doing it.
Concerned about Luc’s safety, I asked if he would consider spending the night in our “medical wing,” which was actually a narrow hallway outside the arena event area. It housed 2 rows of beds with people who were being monitored by volunteer medical people who staffed our makeshift infirmary and pharmacy. He agreed.
As we walked out, I noticed how tall and muscled Luc was, his gait almost panther-like. A handsome face, even with his two front teeth missing. A boxer? Construction worker? Tracker? Prisoner? I had no idea, only that he was a man in deep emotional pain who was all out of hope.
Luc was assigned to a bed at the far end of the hall and given something to help him sleep. As he settled in for the night, having promised that he would not take any action of self-harm, Luc looked up at me, his eyelids already drooping from the medication.
“My Godmother’s name was Theresa. I think she must be looking out for me, by sending you here.” I smiled. “Will you be here in the morning when I wake up?” he asked quietly, so fragile a feeling in so strong a body.
“Yes, Luc, I promise,” already trying to figure out the logistics in my head.
Early the next morning found me seated on a stool next to Luc’s bed in the medical hallway, its 10 beds slowly coming to life. I heard a woman’s soft Southern drawl from behind me.
“Look up, Miss Theresa. You look so sad. Always remember to look up; God is there.” Tamika, staying with her father-in-law whose high blood pressure was almost under control, smiled and pointed up. Support from someone I was supposed to help, coming from the most unlikely of places. I smiled and nodded at her reminder that all would be well with Luc, if I only had faith.
Later that day, I told Brother Seraphim, one of the Franciscans who provided pastoral care at the Civic Center, about Luc’s despair and hopelessness and asked him for his prayers. Hands joined with Luc and me, Brother Seraphim prayed that St. Therese, the Little Flower, help Luc to find his brothers. Head bowed, thinking of St. Therese, Luc’s godmother Theresa and myself, I couldn’t help but feel goosebumps – or “God bumps,” as I call them, trusting in the knowledge that our prayers would be answered.
Throughout that day and evening, Luc’s mood improved as he interacted with others in the medical hall. He even found a ride to a near-by Wal Mart that re-opened. Sleep, prayer, support and good food all brought him comfort and hope.
When saying my good-nights, the medical hall was always last in my routine before I left for the evening. When I came to Luc, he was smiling, one hand behind his back. “I have something for you,” he said shyly. In his hand, he held a small box labeled, New: Red Velvet Mini Cake. “You can’t come to Louisiana and not try our Red Velvet Cake. My Godmother always made it for me; it’s my favorite.”
I smiled as I accepted Luc’s gift, unable to speak for the tears in my eyes. This man, with nothing but the clothes on his back, in the midst of his despair and loneliness, thought of someone else and found a way to say thank you. He touched my heart with a gift straight from his heart.
A man with nothing, yet who had everything.
The next morning, I was met at the back entrance by a volunteer social worker from Illinois named Teresa (what else?), jumping up and down with excitement. Having heard about Luc yesterday, she contacted some friends at a central office with computer capability and asked them to track down any information on Lucs’ brothers. Overnight, they located them in another shelter. Lucs’ brothers were alive and well in Alabama!
Teresa and I waited impatiently outside the men’s shower room for Luc to finish. Word spread rapidly through the small staff, and we couldn’t wait to tell Luc the good news. When he came out, we were smiling ear-to-ear as we told him we had a surprise. We walked into the infirmary, which was one of only three places in the entire building that had a semi-private phone. In the last few days, phone service had improved, and the medical staff was able to call in medication orders, supplies, etc. That line to the outside world was a lifesaver.
Teresa led Luc to the phone and told him to call the number written on the paper and identify himself. Dazed, Luc sat down and followed her directions. The entire infirmary staff – doctor, nurse, pharmacist, techs, Brother Seraphim, Teresa, the other 2 mental health volunteers and myself -stood silent and unobtrusive as we watched Luc speak softly into the phone. We couldn’t hear him, but his expressions told the story. Dazed – polite – patient – confused – a hesitant smile – a big smile – disbelief – sobs that shook his big shoulders – and at last, tears of joy. Luc sat, head in his hand, phone pressed against his ear, crying and talking to each of his brothers.
The only other sound in the infirmary was the rest of us quietly crying and blowing our noses.
In the midst of widespread death, destruction and crime, in the midst of hopelessness, helplessness and loss, came love and community and joy. Strangers who became extended family, interconnected in that moment in a way that could neither have been imagined nor predicted nor explained.
Katrina, Luc, Brother Seraphim, St. Therese, Godmother Theresa, Teresa and another Theresa; from Pennsylvania and Illinois to Texas, Alabama and Louisiana.
Circles of Grace.
Thank you, God, for this privilege. Thank you, Luc, for the gifts of you and my Red Velvet Cake; I still have the box that it came in.
I wish you blessings, good health, happiness, love and family all the days of your life. I hope one day – somewhere, somehow – to meet again.
Sacred Ground. Holiness and Angels Unaware.
When you find that your soul, your heart,
every wisp of inspiration,
every speck of the cast blue sky
and its shining star-blossoms,
the mountains, the earth,
the whippoorwill, and the bluebells
are all tied together with
one cord of rhythm,
one cord of joy,
one cord of unity,
one cord of Spirit,
then you shall know
that all are but waves
in His cosmic sea.
~ Paramahansa Yogananda ~
Love – Gratitude
The agony is so great…
and yet I will stand it.
Had I not loved so very much
I would not hurt so much.
But goodness knows I would not
want to diminish that precious love
by one fraction of an ounce.
I will hurt,
and I will be grateful to the hurt
for it bares witness to
the depth of our meanings,
and for that I will be
by Shirley Holzer Jeffrey
Death: The Final Stage of Growth
Elisabeth Kubler-Ross (1975)
Enlightened means awakening to the basic goodness that is here,
at the heart of our humanity.
Society is the natural expression of that goodness.
It manifests as a natural connection
between beings that is experienced as kindness.
Thus, an enlightened society is an
awake and friendly association with others.
~ Sakyong Jampal Trinley Dradul ~
I would like to beg you to have patience
with everything unresolved in your heart
and try to love the questions themselves
as if they were locked rooms
or books written in a foreign language.
Don’t search for the answers,
which could not be given to you now,
because you would not be able to live them.
And the point is, to live everything.
Live the questions now.
Perhaps then, someday far in the future,
you will gradually,
without even noticing it,
live your way into the answer.
~ Rainer Maria Rilke ~
“The tragedy in life doesn’t lie in not reaching your goal.
The tragedy lies in having no goal to reach.
It isn’t a calamity to die with dreams unfulfilled,
but it is a calamity not to dream.”
~ Benjamin Mays (1894-1984) ~
American minister and educator
This I Promise You…
For those who are alone, I will sit with you.
For those who have no voice, I will speak for you.
For those who feel invisible, I will see you.
For those who are afraid, I will protect you.
For those who know hunger, I will feed you.
For those who need help, I will offer aid.
For those who suffer emotionally, I will help ease it.
For those who go unheard, I will listen.
For those who mourn, I will comfort you.
For those who know sickness, I will nurture you.
For those who know hate, I will love you.
For those who are dying, I will help you to live.
For those who crave human touch, I will reach out to you.
For those who are blind, I will see for you.
For those in pain, I will bring relief.
For those who cannot walk, I will journey for you.
For those who are lost, I will find you.
For those in despair, I will hold hope for you.
For those who weep, I will dry your tears.
For those with no place called home, I will shelter you.
For those who are wounded, I will bring healing.
For those who wait in darkness, I will be your Light.
This I Promise You… ~ Theresa