As usual, a cigarette is dangling from our friend Smokey’s lips as she pulls up in front of our house with a load of spare plywood. “Be Nice or Leave,” it says on the rear window of her weathered old pickup truck, and “New Orleans, proud to crawl home.” It’s early Sunday morning, August 28, and clouds are moving quickly across the sky. Overnight, Hurricane Katrina powered up to a Category 5, and our neighborhood is alive with last-minute preparations. Smokey helps unload the plywood, gives me an evacuation map and a kiss, then hurries home to pick up her hip boots; she knows there’s going to be water. Lots and lots of water. Then she drives to Tulane Hospital, where she will spend the next four days preparing meals around the clock for dozens of doctors, nurses, patients, policemen, and firemen.
As Katrina draws near, on our block and throughout the city, neighbors are helping neighbors. Brothers Mark and Mike take time from their own preparations to help Din and Carolyn cover up their windows. Din and Carolyn drove through the night to pick up their cats; now they’re too tired to evacuate, so Todd and Dann, our neighbors on the south, offer them shelter, cats and all. It’s wonderful to observe so many acts of kindness in the teeth of an impending disaster.
My focus is on our beloved twelve-year-old dog, Daisy, who cannot move. She had spinal surgery five days ago and was recuperating at the vet’s when we retrieved her late last night. We couldn’t bear the thought of going through this, whatever is to come, without her near. Forty-eight hours from now we’ll realize this was the smartest decision we’ve ever made.
My wife, Shannon, and I run around the house, frantically doing what should have been done yesterday, fueled by a kind of nervous, giddy exhilaration. It’s as if the fabric of our lives is being ripped to confront us with the great unknown that always lurks underneath. I feel like I’m seeing the fragile contingency of life; how, at any minute, it can turn on a dime. But I’m not really. Not yet.
Even though Daisy is still heavily sedated, showing whites where her brown eyes should be, our disjointed preparations are making her anxious. She won’t stop yelping. It’s awful; her voice is strange and hoarse. It’s not until I carry her down the stairs and slide her into the back seat of our car that she finally settles down. We say our good-byes to our wonderful friends on the street. No tears. We all think we’ll be seeing each other in a day or two.
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