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The Grief That Knows No Home

By Lonnae O'Neal Parker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 5, 2005

Eighth in a series chronicling the Larches of New Orleans as they rebuild their lives in the Washington area

On the drive to New Orleans, Todd Larche ordered two dozen roses, yellow and red, friendship and love, for his wife. Michele had called him as he headed down Interstate 95 last week, needing him to understand how badly she wanted to make the trip, how upset she was that she couldn't because of the baby. Needing him to get that she aches, physically aches, for all the things she had back home.

For Todd, driving on adrenaline from his in-laws' house in Silver Spring, trying to prepare for what he was about to see, it was like this: She couldn't make the trip so she had to stop upsetting herself, and him and maybe their unborn child. He'd gotten short with her, so he sent flowers to smooth things out.

"I'm sorry it's such tough going, but together we can get through anything. Hang in there. Love, Todd," the card had said.

"I thought the flowers would make everything better," he said when he got back. "I guess there's nothing that can make this better."

When Todd returned Sunday afternoon, he didn't want to talk about lost things, moldy things, dead and decayed things. He didn't want to show his wife the video he'd made or say anything to upset her. They had already cried together when he called from New Orleans to say their Rottweiler had died and most everything in their house was gone. He wanted to leave it at that, and Michele didn't press him. But the next day, he started talking about his rescued hat and watch and his beer memorabilia, and she had questions:

Where was the disc with Kristen's baby pictures?

Did you look inside the gentleman's chest?

Why does it seem you retrieved only your things but nothing that meant the world to me?

Todd got defensive. "You have no idea what I've been through," he yelled.

Michele got angry. "That's because you're not telling me anything," she yelled back.

With only his father and her mother in the house, the Larches argued with all their pent-up hurricane emotions.

Then Todd took a shower. Michele cried so hard her nose bled.

Later he apologized, said he'd been wrong to get angry, and they talked. But there weren't enough words to cool her obsessions.

Sitting in the front room of her sister's home yesterday, Michele is tired from all the questions in her head. She's nine months and nesting. She knows nearly everything is gone, but still, you know, who knows? Maybe she could have found her grandmother's glassware. Maybe she could have saved her class ring. Maybe there are still salvageable parts of her life she could have reclaimed.

"I know where everything is; he doesn't," she says. She lived there before they started dating. She knows places treasures might hide and she wants to go, right now, and dig them up. But "I can't go now," she says. "Then I'm thinking after the baby I can't go down because what am I going to do with the baby? I can't take him into a moldy house. I feel stuck. I feel so stuck."

She starts to cry and her 5-year-old reaches her fingers to her mother's eyes. "Mommy, you're giving me a headache! No more," Kristen says.

"No more," Michele says, wiping her eyes.

In the driveway, Todd rifles through the moldy New Orleans things, crawling with flies, still loaded in the back of his pickup. He had done his best to grab what he could from the house before the city's 6 p.m. curfew. He had kicked through broken glass, CDs and furniture in the den. He found the rotted case with the flag that was draped across Michele's father's coffin when the World War II veteran died in 1995. He reached high to get one of Kristen's dolls, waterlogged but still upright, from the top of a bookcase, held steady by debris. He remembered to check the closet shelf and pulled down a disintegrating box of their casual wedding china. He even managed to get Michele's grandmother's ring after wrenching open a drawer in their overturned chest.

His wife said grab "anything," and he took whatever spoke to him through the fog of his upended house and decomposing dog. If he saved more of his stuff, he swears it wasn't intentional.

He says he was wrong to keep the awfulness of it from Michele. "I just assured her, you don't want to know, you don't want to know. But she does want to know," he says. "I'm just trying to be mindful of her condition."

Since seeing his ruined house, Todd has focused on the now -- on finding some security for his family, on packing an overnight bag to take his wife to the hospital when the time comes, on figuring out what they'll do next. "If I've got to level my house, I'll say goodbye," he says.

Sitting in the living room, wishing to God she could have gone to New Orleans with her husband, remembering her promise not to cry, Michele is trying as hard as she can, but she isn't nearly that far along.

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