This is the 7th in a series of 10 installments chronicling my experiences on the Gulf Coast last year in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, one of the deadliest and most costly natural disasters in U.S. history.
I awoke mid-morning on Sunday, September 4, with a renewed sense of energy and purpose. Even though I had the mini-breakdown yesterday, God seemed to use it to release a great deal of pressure and emotional weight. After a good night sleep on the air matress on the floor, I felt ready to face the day. It would be a hard day, as I would be saying goodbye to my Mamaw, quite possibly to never see her again. My Uncle Fred, and my cousin Jarrod, and Jeff, the husband of my cousin Kristin were coming down to get Mamaw and take her back to Little Rock. The morning and early afternoon were spent getting her ready and making peace with goodbye. She had been such a large part of my life for so many years, I was feeling the sorrow of not seeing her when I went home for visits. My Dad came to my Mom’s house where we all were to spend a little time with his mother before he said goodbye to her as well. In her health, we knew that her trip to Little Rock would be a one-way journey, and with my Dad being disabled and not able to travel well, it would likely be the last time he would see his mother alive. It was heartbreaking.
My father had always lived in the same town as his mother, except for the one year that we moved to Picayune before my Mamaw and Papaw moved up. He was very close with her and had always taken care of her and provided for her when she and my Papaw were having hard times. They had a very special bond, and it was really hard to think that this could very well be the last time they saw each other. My mother was taking it hard, as well. Even though my parents had divorced, my mother was very close with Mamaw and always felt like she was more of a mother to her than her own mother, in many ways. They spent so much time together over the years, and loved each other very much. I remember my mother standing on the steps of her house, crying, as Mamaw was getting ready to be taken away. This whole goodbye was really breaking my heart, but it had to be done. It was absolutely what was best. But, sometimes, the best things seem like they hurt the most. The knowledge that it is for the best doesn’t really make you feel any better. It still hurts.
I was glad to see my Uncle Fred and cousin Jarrod and Jeff. It had been years since I had seen them. God really blessed me with my Aunt Linda and Uncle Fred, because I always felt loved by them. They would come down and visit and take my mother, sister, and I to New Orleans, and even on other trips. When I was twelve, I went with my aunt and uncle and cousin Jarrod on a trip up east, through Tennessee and Virginia, to Washington, D. C. It was amazing. He would take the time to teach me about history and we spent a lot of time at Civil War battlefields, learning about the past. My father became disabled when I was 7 with a seriously damaged back, and he was not able to travel. So, these trips were an incredible blessing. I’ll always be grateful for the love and care they showed me and how God used them in my life.
They came through again as they dropped everything and came to get Mamaw. When Uncle Fred got out of the car, he said, in his usual gruff manner, "Man, you’ve gotten fat!" Yep. That was my Uncle Fred. All you can do is smile and take it. I wouldn’t exactly say that I’m huge or anything, but I used to be nothing but skin and bones, and I’m definitely more than that now. But, he had a way of cutting to the chase and putting you on your heels. I actually always liked that about him and it never made me feel uncomfortable. It’s just who he is. I smiled and mumbled out something incoherent, as usual. I should have said, "Yep, I’m trying to keep up with you!" I never think of the right thing to say until after the fact. But, was I glad they came!
After catching up and talking for a while, we got everything loaded and put Mamaw in the SUV. I really tried to take everything in. I soaked up the surroundings and what was happening. Her sister, my Aunt Lois, came over and said goodbye. They had always been close. This would be the last time they would see each other, barring some unforseen miracle. I watched my Mom say goodbye, as she choked back the tears. My Dad was pretty stoic and seemed detatched, but I knew this was hard on him. I hated it. I hated this storm and everything it had stolen. My childhood home, my homeland, my family. I didn’t want to understand it. It is what it is, I told myself. You can’t do anything about it, just keep living and move on. I drove with them back to my Dad’s house to pick up some of her stuff that we had brought over yesterday, and then she was gone. As she drove off, I tried to remember every line of her face, her hands, her smile. I remember as a kid, sitting with her and holding her hand, playing with her rings, just loving being around her. She was gone now, and it was as though a big part of my heart and my past went with her.
I turned around to see my Dad’s house, the house I grew up in, in a broken down state. It seemed so big when I was a kid. The yard was a football field where great games were played that decided national championships and Super Bowls. The back porch was a basketball court where I was the hero, shooting 3’s to lead my team to victory again and again. I’ll never forget the night that I made 15 of 17 three pointers in the rain, more in the zone than I had ever been before or since. I had so many memories in that house, both good and bad. I remembered seeing my Dad, writhing on the floor in pain, not able to walk. I remember the stress of not being able to make ends meet at times, the fear we sometimes felt because my Dad couldn’t work, and the yelling that often accompanied the horrible pain he was in. I also remember times of prayer and meeting with God. How he came into my room that night when I was having severe health problems and prayed for me and God instantly healed me. The Holy Spirit fell on me in such a way that I fell back on the bed and wept and wept for almost an hour. I was so filled with the glory of God, that as a 19 year old boy, I became a man and never looked back. I remember family holidays, and my mother hiding presents for us and writing out clues so we could look for them. I remember the smells that came from the kitchen and how she always took care of us. Even though things weren’t perfect and we had some really tough times, I remember how God always got us through and how my Mom and Dad loved my sister and I. My parents weren’t perfect people, but I saw Jesus in them and that was enough for me to know He was real, that He loved me, and that He had a plan for my life. That’s really all you can ask for. All of that happened in that house, and now I didn’t know if we’d be able to save it or not.
The problem was not so much in what had happened to this point. That was fixable. The problem was in what would happen in the future once more rain came. There was a gaping hole in the master bedroom in the back part of the house with HUGE pine trees breaking through the roof. The back wall was bowed. It was torn up pretty badly. If it rained, water would just pour in and the mold would set in. The mold would spread through the house rapidly. You’d have a much bigger clean up issue than you had now, plus a lot of things would be destroyed. I knew I couldn’t do this by myself, so I turned to the guys that had been there for me my whole life.
I’ve got a circle of friends from when I was in Jr. High that I am still close with. David, Amos, Russell, Buz (Jody), and Trey are guys that I grew up with and I love very much. We were always there for each other, we hung out together incessantly, we knew their families, and we trusted one another. We went to college together and were roommates. We’ve been in each other’s weddings. We still get together about once a year, and we were supposed to be getting together that very weekend in Gulf Shores with our families. Amos is an Army Captain in Military Intelligence and is an Intelligence Company Commander in Baghdad, Iraq. He was coming home for leave and we were all supposed to get together. He was in Picayune when Katrina hit visiting with his family and had gotten stuck there, although I don’t know if stuck is the operative word.
The day after the storm, Amos and his father, Mr. Buddy went out with chain saws and started helping people. They worked from sun up to sun down for days, moving from house to house, cutting up trees and helping folks. Our friend, Russell, made it down from northern Mississippi where he lived and joined them. Amos’ brother, Jody, aka, Buz also came down from Hattiesburg to work alongside them. On Sunday afternoon, I found them at their parents house (they had some land), wielding chainsaws, driving a tractor to pull trees into a pile, and burning the debris. There was a huge billow of smoke coming from the pile. Everyone was filthy. I walked up, and without saying much shook hands and gave hugs. We just kind of looked at each other for a moment and smiled. Well, here we were again, in the middle of a mess. We spoke matter of factly about what had happened, and started cracking a few jokes. It was always great being with these guys, because whether we had seen each other a year ago, or that morning, it was always the same. We were family, and with family there is no pretense. We just are who we are. I love those guys.
I found out that David had already come to help his parents and had gone back to Lafayette, La., where he lived. I was sorry I’d missed him. I wouldn’t see Trey that trip, unfortunately. The other guys had been working hard for days. When the storm hit, they didn’t wait for someone else to take care of them. Like so many others in Mississippi and Louisana, they started taking care of themselves. Without talking with one another, Russell, Buz, and I came down to help out. We just knew instinctively it’s what we had to do. No one had to tell us, and I had no doubt that they would make it home somehow. I was glad they did.
After the Blackhawk helicopter flew overhead to check us out because of the fire they were burning (they didn’t know about the burn ban), Russell, Amos, and I went to my Dad’s house to check it out. Buz had to finish up at his parents and get going back home. I showed them the house and they were pretty overwhelmed. Amos told me that he didn’t think there was much they could do. The trees were too big and were all over the roof. It just seemed like too big a job for us. I had hoped that we would be able to work on it tomorrow and that they would help. They said that they’d love to, but they just didn’t think they could get it done. Part of me knew they were right. I resigned myself to the house getting way worse before we would be able to fix it. It was in God’s hands.
After we left my Dad’s, we went to Russell’s parents house in Hide-a-Way Lake, a gated community north of town. The whole town was obviously still without electricity and people were trying to get back on their feet. Russell’s parents home had escaped damage and I was so glad. I spent quite a bit of time there growing up. Russell lived on the lake and had a ski boat. We’d spend many summer days water skiing, tubing, and just laying on the boat as it floated out in the lake. We’d talk about everything, and listen to The Steve Miller Band, The Eagles, Led Zeppelin, etc. Even though this was the late 80’s and early 90’s, we all loved classic rock and blues, and that music was the soundtrack to our youth. The guys had a band, and they would let me sit in with them and play harmonica and tamborine. We had great times. Stephen King said in Stand By Me that you never have friends like you had when you were 12 years old. He’s right. But, I praise God that I’ve been able to keep my friends all these years. So, Russell’s house on the lake brought back a flood of memories as well. The air was thick with them.
After eating a little, we decided to take a swim in the lake to cool off. We talked about the storm, about life, and just enjoyed being together. We always found humor in life, and I learned how to tell stories from these guys. The water was warm and muddy from being stirred up from the storm, and I was dirtier when I got out that I was when I jumped in, but it didn’t matter. It was great to cool off for a little while and hang out with my friends. The sun was setting into the warm evening and I closed my eyes and floated in the lake. Peace. Rest. It seemed so far away in the tumult of yesterday, but I was able to slow down for just a moment. There was so much lost and so much that was out of my hands. God would have to take all of that now. I was His and I gave everything to Him. He’d have to work it out.
We got out of the lake just in time to see Mr. Don, Russell’s father. I always liked Don and Nancy, Russell’s parents, a great deal. They are really kind folks and would do anything in the world for you, if they knew you needed help. If you were Russell’s friend, you were like family to them. I always felt really welcomed in their home. We talked for a while, and the subject of my Dad’s house came up. We told him how it seemed impossible and were going to have to let it go. Don looked at us, and said, "Nah, we’ll take care of it." He hadn’t seen it yet, but he knew it could be done. We all looked at each other and didn’t say a word. "I’ll come by in the morning and help you guys. We’ll knock it out, little by little. Let’s meet at 7am." He had such confidence and was so sure that we could get the job done. We said, "Yes sir," just like when we were kids, and we agreed to meet at the house!
After talking a little while longer, Amos and I left Russell at his house and we went on. Somehow, we knew that we were going to get that house patched up. I learned a valuable lesson that day. Often, what hinders us in life is a defeatest mentality and a belief that we can’t do things. Sometimes we just need someone to come along and say that it can be done. We need leadership. Mr. Don, through a few words, exercised leadership by giving us the confidence to try the impossible. He instilled that in us. It was amazing. Truly, the battle to fix my father’s home was won the evening before we ever picked up a chain saw or a hammer. Suddenly, if Mr. Don said we could do it, then we could do it.
As evening encroached and Picayune faded to black, we wound our ways down the dark country roads back to Amos’ parents house. We went into the kitchen where I had eaten so many meals, cooked by Mrs. Ginger, Amos and Buz’s mother. She was like a second mom to me, and always showed me incredible love and kindness. As a kid, I’d spend the night over there night after night during the summer. We’d camp in the woods behind the house and have bottle rocket wars and play basketball and football with other kids in the area. We rode bikes, swam, and literally lived side by side. Sitting in that kitchen brought it all back. They had a generator, so there was electricity and they were eating pretty well. I joined in and we talked about the events of the past week. It was good to be home.
I left that evening and drove back to my mom’s where I spent the night. I was tired, sad, and happy, all at the same time. I had sent off my Mamaw in a very emotional goodbye, but I had reconnected with my friends. We were going to patch my Dad’s house tomorrow. God always seems to send His servants to you when you need them the most. He always seems to lift your spirits when you seem ready to slide into despair. When things seem impossible, He sends people your way to encourage you and give you the strength you need to keep going. I had said goodbye today, but through the encouragement of my friends, I was looking forward to tomorrow and the beginning of restoration and rebuilding.
Tomorrow – Katrina Remembrances Pt. 8: Gravity’s Getting Worse and Worse All the Time: 12 Hours on the Roof