If it had not been for a disagreement with my mother on that Friday night in August, perhaps my body would be resting in a coffin beside hers at Mount Olivet Cemetery in New Orleans.
It was the night that Hurricane Katrina was swirling through the Gulf of Mexico. I was a 13-year-old in middle school, and I was looking forward to attending the party of a girl I had been crushing on for a long time. But my excitement was interrupted when my mother told me that we were going to the Superdome to ride out the storm.
My friends and I assumed that Katrina would be no different from other storms that had come and gone with little damage to the city. I resisted her plan, arguing that I really wanted to go to the party on Saturday and that I should be allowed to stay in the city. I wore her down, and she agreed that I could stay with my father if he allowed it. But when I called him, he didn’t answer his phone.
I kept pushing, asking to stay with my auntie, and ultimately my mother agreed. When Aunt Louise came to pick me up, my mom and I said our goodbyes. I can’t remember whether we hugged before we separated because this happened long ago. I’d like to think that we did.
Within the hour, I was watching TV from the comfort of my auntie’s couch. About midnight, there was a knock on the door, and I was surprised to see my dad, who told me we had to leave. His car was filled with supplies and members of his girlfriend’s family. We began moving along a congested highway toward Mississippi.
I spent the last weekend of August at a Mississippi motel. We eventually arrived at my grandma’s house in Jones County on Sunday. I had no idea what was happening back home.
I spent two weeks away from school, playing with my cousins and eating my grandma’s cooking. These distractions ended when my father told me that no one knew where my mother was. I walked into the woods to give myself some space, sat against a tree and hugged my knees into my chest for hours. I don’t recall whether I cried, but I remember the dreadful realization that my mother was probably dead. I also remember trying to convince myself that she was alive.
My father sent me to Baton Rouge to spend the remainder of September with his girlfriend’s family while he worked elsewhere in Louisiana. In October, my father, his girlfriend and I moved back to New Orleans, to her home in the Westbank area. Relatives spent these weeks searching for my mother, asking radio stations to broadcast her name, her age, when she was last heard from.
Before schools reopened, I visited my old neighborhood with a friend and realized I was never going to return. I stood several feet away from the porch because I was too distraught to approach the house. My friend walked over piles of trash and debris to reach the iron-barred screen door. It was still locked, but the actual wooden door had been knocked into the living room. I could see the wreckage inside.
I felt some sense of normalcy return after school began in October. Under my father’s guidance, my grades improved. There had been no sign of my mother for five weeks, but I held out hope that she would return.
It wasn’t until November that my father sat down with me in a room at my auntie’s house. We were unable to make eye contact as he spoke.
“Your mother is dead,” he told me.
My father’s face fell into his hands as he broke down. I tried to console him, but I was shocked beyond tears. The only emotions I conveyed about the experience at the time were kept in a black leather journal I wrote in every day before Katrina. I ended up losing the book at some point, but I recall the expletives I used in my entry that day.
A neighbor had seen my mother’s body inside her flooded house. My father, my aunt and I went to a warehouse mortuary in Gonzales, La., where officials identified her body using dental records and DNA samples swabbed from the inside of my aunt’s cheeks and mine. I was fortunate not to have seen the corpse.
The funeral was held Nov. 30. My aunts and uncles were in tears, my grandfather was in shock and I remained silent. I admired my mother’s pink coffin, the color chosen because it was her favorite.
As my mother was moved toward a mausoleum at Mount Olivet, my father’s girlfriend pulled me aside from the crowd, grabbing my shoulders and demanding that I express my feelings. It didn’t take much persuasion before my eyes reddened and tears soaked my face. I remember emitting a wail that aches my chest at the memory of it.
Suddenly she told me to regain my composure because others were approaching. I did so, but a new frustration formed within me. Why would someone encourage you to express your pain only to push it back down within seconds?
I learned how to cope with my loss in the summers of 2006 and 2007 after traveling to Japan to meet with children from all over who had lost one or both parents. A Japanese international grief camp called Ashinaga invited me into the organization and I was delighted to accept the offer, given my fascination with Japanese animation. It was a bittersweet opportunity because of what we all shared.
The wall I developed inside to hide my emotions cracked, and I cried openly during my two summers in Japan, soaking many T-shirts and tissues while hugging people as I learned about their hardships. It was during this period that I found an important mentor and decided to become a journalist.
I wish I could say I’ve changed emotionally a decade later, but I carry a lot of frustration inside. There have been many nights when I’ve attributed my mother’s death to my own actions. It hasn’t helped that we said goodbye after having a disagreement. I’ve accepted that it was not my fault that she died, but my anger often emerges this time of year. It’s a feeling that is aggravated whenever people make remarks about Katrina or my experience that are either insensitive or to advance their agenda.
Take for instance the man I interviewed this summer at the Lincoln Memorial while covering Fourth of July events. He had traveled all the way from California with a large sign that said, “In God We Trust.” His shirt was embroidered with words from the Constitution. He insisted that hurricanes represent God’s disappointment with America’s path and said one storm in particular signified the divine wrath.
When I asked him if he was referring to Katrina, he said the storm was a national wake-up call, “the 9-1-1 of hurricanes.”
This summer, I had dinner with a friend from Louisiana State University, and we discussed the media attention on Katrina. He nonchalantly said that although it was a severe storm, it was not as bad as the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. I asked him why he would say that, and he laughed. “C’mon, man, you know what I mean,” he replied. To him, Katrina was not the winner of the tragedy Olympics.
The most startling experience was a comment from the mother of one of my oldest friends. I was telling her about my experience while I was visiting their house, and she said my mother probably would have lived had I stayed with her. My escape was to walk away and play video games with my friend. These are things that are impossible to know. If I had stayed with my mother, I could have died.
If we’ve learned anything from Katrina and the flood, it’s that we should value our time with our loved ones. Granted, this is a universal aspiration. Everyone knows this. You would think that I would, too, as a result of my loss. But I have difficulty maintaining regular communication with my family.
I feel guilty about my struggle when I see or hear from them. I wonder whether I learned this not only from my father, who is self-reliant, but also from my mother, who often said she was the black sheep of the family. My mother seemed to keep herself away from the family. I’m not sure why, because everyone loved her, but I know it helps to have your solitude.
My difficulty reached a climax recently when I couldn’t remember where my mother was placed at Mount Olivet. I felt like I had lost her again.
I walked through the cemetery, sweating and tired, as the smell of grass and dirt filled the air. I looked at different mausoleums to try to find her. Words were etched into the marble block corners of each structure. One was the Corridor of Peace. Another was the Corridor of Mercy. I wondered if the cemetery had moved her without telling me.
I gave up on finding her without help just as I stumbled across the cemetery office. A man in a purple shirt asked me who I was trying to “get in touch with.” The odd question startled me, but I told him I was looking for Gladys Marie Dupor. Born July 8, 1954. Died August 29, 2005.
I waited inside the room as they searched their online records. After waiting for 30 minutes, I called my aunts to learn where I could find my mother.
“She’s in Solace,” my Aunt Louise said.
The man led me to the Corridor of Solace, where my mother was in the highest right corner, next to my grandfather. He passed away two years after my mom, and most relatives think his death had to do with losing his daughter.
Some city residents say Katrina’s aftermath brought both good and bad things to New Orleans. I will never view as positive anything to come out of Katrina and the flood.
I’ll never be able to ask my mom for advice on relationships or about her views on today’s issues. I wonder if she ever expected that the United States would elect a black president, or that her left-handed penmanship would rub off on me and lead me into a career as a writer. Although I’m fortunate to have a family to speak with about these things, I want to learn about my mother more than anything else. I understand that family can fill in the blanks, but nothing will ever measure up to the firsthand account of her past, present and what should have been her future.
The small house we lived in still stands on the corner of Arts and Mexico streets. It is a wreck. The overgrowth from the lawn wraps around most of the home.
Because of the flood, I do not own anything that belonged to my mother. The family photographs we had in the house were destroyed. My aunt recently e-mailed me a collage of pictures from my mother’s life, including a portrait of her with me as a baby. It was heartwarming to see her smile.