It’s always hard to ignore the Katrina-versary, but this year, it’s inescapable. We all know it’s been five years now, half of a decade, but the way that time is viewed and measured is radically different from person to person. Yes, thanks to that maddening catchy song from Rent and the magic of multiplication, we all know it’s been (roughly) 2,628,000 minutes since the levees failed. But how do you measure five years?
At Ruby’s day care, that five years is the lifetime of many of her classmates, all of whom marched off to kindergarten last week on their sturdy little legs, clutching primary-colored plastic lunchboxes. For the past three years, I’ve heard these kids’ birth/Katrina stories at party after party: One mom went into labor in evacuation traffic, another gave birth with an unfamiliar OB in an unfamiliar hospital in Houston, another evacuated to Memphis with a week-old baby. And then there’s the younger set of Katrina babies: the ones who were conceived during evacuation, as a reaction to the horror or the boredom or the stress or all of the above.
I’ve watched these kids grow from infants to people. They have no concept of a pre-Katrina world, though none of them is ignorant of it; all of them will tell you, solemnly, “Katrina was a big, bad storm.” Katrina doesn’t seem that long ago to me, but it’s the lifetime of someone who has already mastered the potty, learned the alphabet, amassed closets full of toys and clothes.
In Ruby’s case, though, her conception was inspired more by tequila than Katrina, so watching her grow is amazing but unrelated. The way I personally can tell that time is passing from Katrina, then, is this: I took the last of my Katrina Klonopins last week. Yes, I took 5-year-old prescription medication. No, I’m not sorry. It doesn’t age like a fine wine or anything, but it’s been nice to have on hand.
In the days leading up to Katrina, when I was still living in Missouri, I was being screened for something that doctors thought might be lupus, multiple sclerosis, Lyme disease or a thyroid disorder. I was completely falling apart as they ran test after test and did three MRIs. In the meantime, my mom was scheduled for exploratory surgery on the morning of Monday, Aug. 29, to determine if she had ovarian cancer. I wasn’t eating. I wasn’t sleeping. I weighed 92 pounds. I was in a hospital waiting room the morning of Katrina, watching the destruction of my hometown on CNN; pacing; crying; shredding Kleenex; fretting about my father, who was still in New Orleans; panicking about my mother, who was still in surgery. The phone rang in the waiting room, and the surgeon came in to tell me it was benign, that my mother was fine. By the time I got up to my mom’s recovery room, the levees had broken. My mom was OK . I wouldn’t hear from my dad for another five days.
Somewhere in the haze of all of that, some kind soul with a medical degree wrote me a prescription for a lot of Klonopin, and I took them like candy. I’m normally very cautious about pills, but not these, not then. I’d take a few at a time and wash them down with wine or whiskey. If I read a news story about Katrina, it was Klonopin time. If I heard Randy Newman’s “Louisiana 1927,” it was Klonopin time. If I got in touch with an old friend and heard his or her Katrina story, it was Klonopin time. Hell, my husband broke my favorite baking dish, and I had to take a Klonopin. It was not a stable time for me.
But by Christmas 2005, I’d weaned myself off of them. My mom was healed, recovered, cancer-free. My dad was safe in Mississippi. My mysterious ailment had been diagnosed as something very treatable, a serious vitamin deficiency caused by a gene mutation. Things weren’t great, but I could face them unmedicated.
I still had a handful of the pills left at that point, and I took them every so often: a few in the days after my miscarriage, one before an international flight, a couple when my daughter was in the hospital, several during Gustav while at my in-laws’ house in St. Louis with my mother and five enormous dogs. They were long-since expired, but they took the edge off.
And then last week, I brought out a box of Ruby’s old baby clothes, meaning to sort through them and set them aside for my best friend, Amy, who is expecting a baby girl in November. Baby clothes make me a bit emotional anyway –– Was she really that little? Will I ever have another? Where did the time go? –– but when I came across all of the baby clothes my sister had sent Ruby, I burst into tears. I had never thanked her properly, never sent her pictures of Ruby wearing the clothes, and Ruby would never receive another gift from her, would never meet her, would never have a chance to give her a gift in return. Guilt and sadness washed over me, churning up nostalgia and regret and shame, a perfect storm of pain and loss.
I’d already put Ruby to bed, so I had no real reason to keep it together, and I just let the tears flow, crying myself breathless, wiping great handfuls of snot on my sweatpants. When I was all cried out, I got up and went into the bathroom to wash my face. “One of those Katrina Klonopins would be delicious right about now,” I thought, and I took the bottle out of the cabinet and shook the very last little pink pill into my hand. “Wow,” I thought. “The last of my emergency stash is finally gone.”
The past five years of my life have been filled with joy and pain and love and loss and sorrow –– just like everyone else’s. Along the way, we’ve made babies, had babies, raised babies, buried loved ones. And we all got through it the best way we knew how, whether it was wine or prayer or chocolate or therapy or pills or yoga.
And so here we are, five years out. The Katrina babies are off to kindergarten. My daughter is almost 4. My sister is dead. I’m out of Klonopin. The city is still here. It’s still hurricane season. The Saints are playing tonight.
How have you marked the passage of the past five years? What got you through?
And how sick to death are you of Katrina retrospectives?