I did not realize ten years ago this week that, I would never again live in New Orleans, but I am astonished that after so many years I cannot talk about this anniversary of Hurricane Katrina without my voice cracking.
That said, I am so tired of the self-congratulatory narrative that I want to scream when I hear someone say "resilience." Admittedly, today is not the time to challenge the recovery narrative flooding the worldwide airwaves. I concede that New Orleanians are entitled to mark their impressive accomplishments over the past decade as they have throughout their continuous history--with the self-absorbed feeling of entitlement and exceptionalism in the face of environmental, human, and economic challenges that have long plagued the "city that care forgot."
In deference to the best friends and the best community I ever enjoyed during my 22 years of residency, I will restrain my anger and, instead, give into the sadness. So here is my anniversary tribute: to an largely unknown, but not atypical, New Orleans' woman who loved the city and her family, who fought to make her life there, and who lost her battle to return. I have changed her name, because she would have wanted it that way.
For Lila, Katrina started out as just another one of the many forces beyond her control, which had buffeted her life. She was a lifelong New Orleans' resident and an unwavering Saints fan through the bad and not-so-good years. She was the face of both the city's strength and its shame.
Lila's life was focused on "doing well by her children" and attending to her family's needs. She was literate although not highly educated, acutely aware of the city's promise and problems, but not very active outside her children and large family of 19 brothers and sisters. There was not much time for political protest, church-based activities, or even self-pity. Welfare "reform" meant that Lila had to work multiple jobs to make ends meet. Thus, she always worked at least two jobs, none ever provided health insurance; she alone attended to the needs of her three children; and before her mama's death, Lila was one of her primary caregivers.
Lila used to enjoy following the Mardi Gras Indians around the city on Fat Tuesday, attending at least one day of Jazz Fest, and celebrating New Year's Eve in N'awlins style, fireworks but not randomly shooting guns. In recent years she confessed to being too tired to do much on these occasions. She never complained, however, not even when the Saints were at their heart-breaking worst, and everyone else was burning up the phone lines into talk radio shows and bombarding the newspaper with letters.
Lila was a diligent, dependable, and honest worker. At the restaurant she accepted double shifts and always apologized when she was late or missed work due to hours of waiting at the city's "Big Charity" hospital clinic to get health services for herself or her children. She never abused the fact that she would receive her full weekly salary even if she missed a day or two of work. Lila was proud; she did not want handouts.
Lila was a gentle and thoughtful person, who never complained about her extraordinary bad luck. Her oldest daughter had a congenital disease, an out-of-wedlock teen-age pregnancy, an accidental arrest, and a debilitating automobile accident that required extensive recuperation. Still her daughter married the husband of her children, became computer proficient, and was within a year of graduating Tulane University, when Katrina struck.
Lila's son, who looks like he could have been a model, was not so lucky. He finished high school and was set to join the army until a security guard followed him out of a drug store, falsely accused him of stealing, and then shot him. He recovered but never regained full flexibility in his arm. Despite numerous appeals, the Army refused to take him. He used part of his legal settlement from the shooting to surprise his mamma with a new car, but he fell in with the wrong crowd and wound up in jail in Texas. When his case was overturned on appeal, Lila had to hire a lawyer to force the state to free him. Two years later, the son was running a legitimate business when Louisiana decided he had not served enough time in Texas. Lila hired another lawyer, who had not succeeded in securing his release from the state prison when Katrina hit. Instead of tending to his business, her son was in Angola Prison tutoring fellow inmates preparing to take their high school equivalency exam. Lila never understood why Louisiana was so stubborn about punishment for a nonviolent crime, or why the state refused to say when they would release her son. Although her son was the tragic victim of racial stereotyping and an insensitive and biased criminal justice system, which was robbing him of his future, Lila never openly expressed outrage.
Lila saw her "baby" graduate high school. She had worked especially hard to ensure that she attended a public school where she had a chance of learning. This often meant trying different schools each year. When her daughter was entering her sophomore year, Lila had to miss several days of work to try to enroll her in a safer high school. She made fruitless trips to various schools to secure records and fill out forms, and spent countless hours calling school board offices for information. Finally, a friend helped her write a letter to the newspaper documenting her experience. It was so outrageous that the Times-Picayune published it. The next day, the Superintendent called Lila to set up a meeting with her.
In the spring before Katrina, Lila lost her voice. A clinic doctor suggested it was allergy and gave her some medicine. When she did not improve after several weeks, another doctor referred her to a specialist. Unfortunately, the appointment desk at "Big Charity" hospital never answered the phone. Eventually, a friend learning of her plight intervened with a doctor at Charity to get Lila an appointment. Soon after Lila saw the specialist she had surgery to remove the polyps on her vocal chords. Hurricane Katrina hit a week later as Lila was recovering.
Lila's brother took her to a shelter in Beaumont, Texas. Lila's daughter, who had been visiting her imprisoned brother up north when the evacuation order came, picked up her mother in Beaumont and took her to Houston.
By the time they reached Houston Lila wasn't feeling well. The first doctor she saw at the Red Cross clinic assumed the headache was due to the post surgical medicine and stress; he told her to stop taking it. Over the next several days, however, the headache got worse. Her daughter took her to an emergency room and insisted that they not send her away. The next day, doctors discovered Lila had lung cancer that had metastasized to her brain. Being in Houston meant that there was some hope that after the tests were completed she would be referred for treatment to the MD Anderson Cancer Center. But four days later, Lila died in her sleep.
It took a month for her daughters to hold a "send off" for their mamma in New Orleans. Her son was not allowed to attend.
The easiest part of Lil's forty-four years of life was her death.