We knew we were in trouble when the shoes floated down the hallway. My brother was the first to notice water leaking through the floor of our garage. He and my parents managed to heft the really valuable furniture, my deceased grandmother’s china closet and buffet, on top of my mattress, where they would be saved from the ravages of the flood. Even so, my family wasn’t prepared for how fast the water spread throughout the house, rising to six inches, enough to make buoys out of the sandals I kept under my bed.
Of course, I wasn’t there. I was in Oklahoma, at graduate school. I wasn’t at home for the first storm either, the big one, the one that everyone asks me about and, I imagine, will ask me about for the rest of my life. In 2005, my freshman year in college, I holed up in a new dorm in Mobile, Alabama, with all the other kids who didn’t evacuate. Outside the trees lashed about like their trunks had turned to rubber. I watched through the windproof windows and decided to drop calculus. We were there for, I think, three days, during which I learned to play Stratego, subsisted on Red Delicious apples and prepackaged peanut butter, and teetered between boredom and fear. My journal from those days contains statements like, “Lord, this is tedious. I wonder if I still have a house.”
We did still have a house. Our town, LaPlace, is right in between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, and we had nothing but wind damage, some cudgeled fence posts and fallen trees. So yes, we still had a house, but here’s what we didn’t have: we didn’t have a Brocato’s, the century-old spumoni parlor my dad took us to when we were little. We didn’t have an Ursuline Academy, my beautiful and beloved high school, with its flowered courtyard and gargoyles. We didn’t have an Audubon Zoo, or an Aquarium of the Americas, or a St. Charles streetcar line. We didn’t have thousands of people, either displaced or dead.
What you have to understand about me is that I make jokes at inappropriate times. On September 11, as we left our gathering in the high school chapel, I saw someone trip in the hallway and I laughed. It wasn’t even funny, but I laughed because I had just read Something Wicked This Way Comes and at the end of that book Ray Bradbury says, “Damn it, Willy, all this, all these, Mr. Dark and his sort, they like crying, my God, they love tears! Jesus God, the more you bawl the more they drink the salt off your chin. Jump around! Whoop and holler! Shout, Will, sing but most of all laugh, you got that, laugh!”
So when the storm was over and I again had access to a working computer, I emailed a friend and I said something like, “Well I’ve been holed up without air conditioning or hot food or showers for days, but I learned to play Stratego so something good came out of it.”
And she emailed me back: “My mom’s house was destroyed. I’m glad that something good came out of it for you.”
My chest imploded. I emailed her again and told her I was sorry about her mom’s house and sorry if I came across as flippant in my last email: that was just my way of whistling in the dark.
I’ve been thinking about those days, and how could I not when seven years later Isaac came back and finished Katrina’s job? Once again my home was in jeopardy and I was not there to help. My mom called me and asked me, was there anything near the ground in my room that I wanted her to try and save. I told her to rescue my books and notebooks. Later she called again. “We called 911,” she said, “and they’re coming to get us.”
But nobody did come and get them. They, my mom and my dad and my brother, stayed in that house for three days, until the water finally went down. And then the ants came, so many ants that you stopped brushing them off of your skin because there were too many of them. And all the while there was the heat and the stench and everything ruined.
And after that? After that we waded through the wreckage. Ripped up our carpet. Dragged all our furniture to the curb. Watched as the contractor demolished the new granite countertop so he could replace sheetrock. Found humor wherever we could and clung to it like a raft. My mom called me and said, “Beth, did you know there’s a bucket of petrified Halloween candy from 1992 in your closet?”
I did not.
“Well, the ants know,” she said, and burst out laughing.
My mom teaches sixth-grade religion. She wondered what she would do in class once school started up again. A waggish friend of the family said, “How about the biblical story of Isaac?”
This is the biblical story of Isaac: Abraham and Sarah were old and childless. A visitor from God told Abraham that Sarah would conceive a child in her old age, and Sarah found that so hard to believe that she laughed. So when she did conceive and bear a son, she named him Isaac — laugh.
Isaac means laugh. And sometimes that’s all you can do.