By Lisa Shattuck
I didn't lie this time. Sometimes in my struggle to answer my kids in an age appropriate manner, I might lie: if I want to shelter them from another depressing situation or someone's violent urge. But since our home city was in ruins all around us, it seemed foolish to hide anything.
We were discussing plans for Christmas—we'd come back to New Orleans just in time for the holidays. I explained that what I preferred to celebrate was the blessing of being together with family. "But its Jesus' birthday, mom?" my five year old daughter, Aja, exclaimed. This mention of Jesus brought forth a volley of tricky questions, from her brother Rio, age three. I began my honest answers: Yes, I thought he was very important to a lot of people. No, I didn't believe Jesus was magic. No, I didn't believe Jesus died and came back to life.
Then, making eye contact with me through the rear view mirror, Rio announced that it was because of the blood on his face. He informed us that. He got blood on his face and then died but then he was okay.
"No, Rio, we're not talking about Daddy!" Aja interjected.
"But Daddy had blood on his face!"Rio continued.
My heart sagged to the brake pedal. This sudden shift from Jesus to Daddy illustrated how easily confused Rio was—which illuminated to me, yet again, how shaky our whole reality was, at this vulnerable time of re-entry into a devastated New Orleans. What were we talking about? Whose city was this? What had happened, anyway?
We had begun evacuating the day before Hurricane Katrina but were stalled by an unfortunate hospitalization taken by my husband, Buster. He had fallen 10 feet, to land directly on concrete. As he had lain unresponsive in an oozing puddle of his own blood, I screamed—while holding one naked child in each arm. Thankfully, my scream drew attention and the help of an ambulance.
"Rio," I said, "Aja and I were talking about Jesus, not Daddy."
"But?" Rio started.
"You already have a butt." Aja whispered.
"But he fell and he died." Rio tried to explain.
"Daddy had a very bad fall when we were trying to leave New Orleans but he's ok. He didn't die. He just got hurt really badly." I clarified again.
"He didn't die, Rio! And we were talking about Jesus. Is our Daddy named Jesus? NO!" Aja yelled exasperated.
My children had been on edge ever since we got back to New Orleans a few days ago. We had spent the last three displaced months in a cousin's beach house in South Carolina. Aja had nightmares that at first she wouldn't tell me about because she said she didn't want to scare me. One night, however, she decided I was brave enough.
"I'm scared Mommy!" Aja sobbed.
Her dreams revealed she was afraid of dying.
"But that won't happen for a very long time. You'll have lots of time to do many wonderful things before that happens." I offered, holding fast to my idling tears. "But it will happen and I'm scared because I won't be able to do anything again, or play or see my Mommy or Daddy ever again. I don't want to die so I can't do anything again, I want to be back in your belly!" she cried.
She had seen images of corpses floating in our neighborhood in a magazine. She thought she had seen her father die. And she was still upset that I hadn't let her go to my grandfather's funeral.
My grandfather died several months before the Hurricane. I am relieved that he didn't have to experience the devastation of his home. His was the first funeral I ever attended. I was terrified to touch his hand, resting in his velvet casket. Just the thought of linking the memory of cool skin over finger bones to my Gramps gave me the eeriest sensation I have ever imagined.
"Where's my Lisa?" he would bellow when we visited.
His love echoed deeply in his laughter and through hundreds of big Gramps hugs. He was the one who soothed my fears of death when he joked about not buying green bananas anymore. Even so, it was so difficult to be with him in his last months.
Being back home in New Orleans feels similar to visiting my dying grandfather: I feel such deep love but I am terrified by his state. Loving a wounded city is not so foreign to me. Before Katrina I used to turn a corner and grab my breath through a nasal cloud of beer and urine. I would sigh when I saw an old African-American man address a white boy as "Boss." But this, now, in the aftermath, is unreal. I had looked away from the TV in the ICU waiting room where we had spent our first week in exile, while Buster recovered from his fall. I had chosen not to watch the horrific images of the place where I was born and lived.
Now we are home again but everything is weird, everyone is wounded. Even so, sitting on top of a pile of debris is a trumpet-playing boy, and spray paint on the house next to him says, "We are staying!" T-shirts worn by people walking by read "Make Levees not War" and "Lemons2Lemonade." The pride here is as contagious as the Katrina Crud Cough. Months later, Aja and I still stay up talking about death. We talk about how happy we are that Daddy is ok, and how all the people who died in the Hurricane are still alive in their families' hearts.
"Just like Gramps is still around and when we remember a joke he told us, it's like he's whispering it in our ears and when we remember a song he sang it's like he's there singing it with us." I add.
"I wish he was here so I could play with him and he could protect over me." Aja whispers. "Do you remember the song he sang to you Aja, about the little dog?"
"Mom, we never, ever remember it!" Aja laughs.
There is a pause.
"I had a little dog and his name was Fido. Had him since he was a pup. He could stand up on his hinds legs, if you hold his front legs up."
"Mom, we did it, we remembered it!"
Aja told me that she is going to die on August 3rd, 2100, her one-hundredth birthday. She said she would like to be holding a seed in her hand when her body is put underground so she could make a beautiful tree grow. Then she asked me why I was crying.
Since that day we haven't talked much about death. We spend our time trying to get our lives going again. And as we ride our bikes through the raggedy streets of New Orleans, Aja yells out when it's a good spot, and we plant a magnolia seed
Lisa Shattuck shares her life with Aja (5), Rio (3) and Buster (42) in their lucky home in New Orleans. They are happy to be home.