I take one last look at my students through the viewfinder. They are lined up by the door, and every one of them looks sullen while I make this picture. In the South, at least in Texas, pictures are made, not taken. But I’m taking.
A hurricane is coming. Rita is in the Gulf of Mexico and is approaching Houston at a slow but steady pace of nine miles an hour. I don’t have many, or any, illusions that God and Jesus will see us through. I’ve got a more ancient suspicion playing through my head. If some societies believe you can take a soul with a photograph, maybe I can fix my students to this spot, this moment so they can’t go anywhere. I have to take a picture of them before they scatter, so I try my hardest to seem like breezy yearbook staffer. These kids aren’t buying my overdone perkiness when I try to goad them into smiling.
“You afraid we’re not going to make it back alive?” Smart-ass kid.
What I don’t say: Yes, actually. Or that you might end up homeless and lose everything you love. And that who you are right now won’t exist anymore.
“Naw, man,” I reply, “just recording that hairstyle for posterity.” Now a few are shaking their heads affectionately at me. A couple roll their eyes, but actually give me a genuine half smile as they tilt their heads. It’s the same gesture they use when their moms embarrass them—they still like that someone out there fusses over them. Deirdre hasn’t cracked a smile and won’t. All of her fourteen years are pinned on me, and she’s fiercely pissed off at me for my nervousness. The bell sounds and they go off casually. The lack of panic or enthusiasm isn’t any different than when I send them off to a pep rally, which makes me wonder if school spirit has always been an inflated lie perpetrated by the board. I’ve secured Deirdre’s cell number. She’s got mine.
The precautions we take protecting our classrooms are asinine. Plastic garbage bags over the computers. Cheap ones, thin as the film on pudding. Books off the bottom shelf, even the tattered, graffitied, unusable abominations. God forbid they get carried away in a flood. What a shame to have to spend some football money on new books once in a while. I’ve been instructed to take my laptop and any personal pictures, then evacuate.
It’s late September and back home in Illinois I would have probably needed a sweater by now. Here, I walk out to the back parking lot still swatting mosquitoes, still afraid to leave my lipstick in the car because it will melt. Houston is the armpit of Texas as all non-Houstonian Texans will attest. When I interviewed for this teaching position, my cardstock resume wilted in the parking lot. It had just absorbed too much water from the barely breathable air. The breeze off the Gulf of Mexico, only one block away, could never push off the swamp smell that met it. It couldn’t even begin to compete with stench of the oil refineries next door, though the salt in the air tried so hard to rust them. I loved it. The wind whipping up waves made for a beautiful picture, even if you had to hold your breath to appreciate it. If this hurricane stayed the course it had set out to, the storm swell that preceded the rain would push up the gulf and bury this town in twenty-five feet of stinking, foul water. I was fairly certain that there would be no job for me once this was all over, and that some of the kids, the ones whose families had either too much money or too little, would try to stay and protect their homes.
I get the impulse to stay. I take off my shoes every day and tangle my toes into the grass, into the dirt, try to weave them into the fabric of the earth I’m on so that I can’t be shaken free. I want to mesh into that Saint Augustine grass that spreads like vines and cuts like blades and hold tight to this home. I’ve left my hometown, I’ve left one state and I don’t want to leave two, but I am not going to be part of rebuilding if this is destroyed. The simple truth is that if this place is wiped out my husband will get another job with his company in a different part of the country, and I’ll follow him to teach there. When it gets too hard, I’m not going to be able to stay. I’m ashamed to say that, because I like to think I’ll always be there for my students.
Deirdre has begun calling me “Mom” as a nickname. I allow it because I know she needs help, and because I don’t know what to do for her except be available when she needs to talk. I’m afraid of shutting her down, of rejecting her if I set up a more appropriate boundary. And I’m still pretty green. There was probably a point earlier in the semester where I should have drawn the line, but I missed it. To be fair to the person I was then twelve years ago, I had talked a lot of students through a lot of tough times and helped them make sense of bad things that had happened in their lives without having the student become so attached.
Deirdre called me before I even got home, while her parents went to get plywood as she bathed and packed for her younger siblings. I don’t remember what I said to her. I remember thinking how careless her parents must be. I was swept into swift protective anger for Deirdre. This isn’t new to you, I wanted to scream in her parents faces, you know you live in a hurricane zone, you have children and you’re doing this now? You’re going to wait in the sweltering heat for how many hours to get the gear you need to protect yourselves and your property now? Damn you for putting too much on her again, for not looking ahead even a little bit, for making her take care of other children and forgetting that she’s still a child, too, and that she depends on you. I must have said something to Deirdre, asked something, joked about something and promised to call her later. The rest of the ride home, I turned off the radio, sat in silence.
This was September of 2005. Hurricane Katrina had doubled the population of Eastern Texas over the last month, with every church and shelter on the I-10 corridor housing more evacuees than they could handle. Each of my classes had absorbed one or two new students from New Orleans. I got a few who were relatively lucky. They had come to Houston because family lived here, and were able to stay in a real home, not the Astrodome or a convention center or auditorium. One pretty blond girl sat in the back of my class and giggled shyly when the more outgoing boys tried to make her laugh. I got her a notebook and a textbook and asked her to do the same sort of assignments everyone else was doing. A small blessing for her was that she had been on the road west of the hurricane for its duration. So she had been sticky, hot, miserable and bored, but she and her brothers and mother had never been in physical danger, and she hadn’t seen any of the news coverage of those first days. The rest of us had.
At my school, we gathered toilet paper, canned goods, cash donations; we subbed for teachers who volunteered to try to get a generator all the way to Pontchatrain; we exchanged wide-eyed glances over the heads of students when they asked if anything like this had happened to a major city before, or if it could happen here, and took a deep breath before answering carefully. The truthful answer: Maybe. Yeah, it could happen to us.
Now it was our turn. We were evacuating from Rita, barely a month later, and all I could see were the bodies and oil-slicked water of New Orleans overlaid onto this small town.
Deirdre called again as I bought huge quantities of bottled water. She called while I got wood screws from Home Depot at six in the morning, while I said a quick silent prayer of thanksgiving that I didn’t need any more plywood. She called while I took insurance pictures of every room of my home. She called as I packed my things and then again when I was trying to push a sheet of plywood up a ladder to my husband. That time I didn’t answer right away and sure enough only a minute lapsed before she called again.
I started to become terrified that the moment she called she would catch me crumbling. When you only see someone for an hour or so a day, you can hold it together for at least that long. I could stay calm when she would confide to me things that made me want to sob. I could give her advice from the marginal bit of experience I had that she didn’t, and not reveal how little I really knew. I could appear secure when I had so little confidence that everything would turn out all right, because that was what she needed from me.
My husband Greg and I packed our black Mazda with luggage, water, and non-perishable food, and began our evacuation at three a.m. hoping to get a jump on the traffic out of the city. We spent eighteen hours to get only sixty miles away from our home in Galveston County. The first twenty miles we flew along at sixty miles an hour. The last ten miles we sped along at sixty miles an hour. There were long deserts of time in between when we moved less than a mile an hour. Thousands of cars made the Houston highways a vast, parched parking lot with a hundred thousand loiterers.
In a land with no ice, no one has any qualms about constructing flying bridges, layer upon layer of highway suspended in the sky with banking that is breathtaking. Express lanes rise several stories above Highway 45. Normally, in the traffic game here, the higher you are the faster you’ll go. But, when all forward motion grinds to a halt in 100 degree heat, the express lanes become a trap. Raised up higher to the sun, the people on the express lanes hung over the concrete edges limp and dead-eyed, looking down at the shade they provided but couldn’t enjoy. We were a miserable tailgate party—back doors and trunks were opened to their furthest angles to make a little triangle of relief, to save some gas from the hungry jaws of the air conditioner. Their express lane shaded ours for a few hours as our thermometer crept closer and closer to 120 degrees. Throughout the afternoon it took us seven hours to pass one green highway exit sign, and when we finally did we laughed and hugged like it was midnight on New Year’s Eve. Then we realized that like New Year’s Day, nothing had really changed. Not when the same problems keep beating you down. Every time I felt weary, I cried.
I sucked up the mucus that was running from my nose in great snorts whenever Deirdre called. I stopped hiccupping long enough to make sure that she and her family were on the road ahead of us, closer to safety. She’s not oblivious though, she could hear it in my voice. I cried for being so flighty as to never watch the weather before now. I cried at the thought of losing my home and barely-year-old wedding presents. I cried because my Midwestern family had no idea how to help besides giving me the addresses of every long-lost relative who lived anywhere in Texas. I cried when the cell phones shut down, when I knew even ambulances were running out of gas and couldn’t penetrate the gridlock. For a while, I wept bitterly that I was insecure enough to let my vanity push me into wearing jeans in this monstrous heat because I “felt fat” in shorts. My tears swept from fear to self-condemnation.
I was only able to smile intermittently. I would throw on a new CD when the radio reports repeated the same information for the twentieth time, unable to feel the futility in it any longer. Greg and I would try to tell each other stories to keep our minds busy, and Greg joked that in my delirium he worried I would use all our drinking water to make a pool at my feet. At one point we passed some decorative waterfalls at the entrances to wealthy subdivisions and realized that kids were splashing in the shallow water. Their sweat-soaked shirts draped over elegantly stacked sandstone, the flow originally calibrated for aesthetic and not recreational purposes. The kids were so happy, finding this surreal oasis, released from the confines of a hot car for a half-hour. One boy who was maybe ten kept scooping water in his hands and dumping it on what looked like his little brother’s head. Maybe the only thing that lets anyone survive is the ability to stay joyful. It’s the only thing to make the end of the world not feel like the end of the world.
We decided that we needed to be released from our car, if only for a bit. Strangely enough right off the feeder roads, convenience stores and Subways and donut shops were still open. The only items still for sale were twenty-ounce bottles of Code Red Mountain Dew and a few bags of Munchos, vegetable items that were supposed to fill sandwiches but no bread to make them with, and three- or four-day-old donut holes. But, there was also air-conditioning and a bathroom and a new place to sit while our overheating engine got a break. I fled to the bathroom to peel off my jeans and finally climb into shorts. Greg and I slumped into an empty booth and stared at our Formica tabletop as we alternated chocolate and vanilla doughnut holes for a little variety. After all, this was breakfast and lunch and maybe dinner as we squinted in the sunlight. Feeling more calm and free than I had in hours I turned my thoughts back to Deirdre.
Deirdre wants me to be her rock. She wants me to be there for her, to be steady, to protect her. I can’t. And I can’t make her laugh either. I failed her, and I’m pretty sure no matter who she is when I see her again I will keep failing her because her needs are so deep and what I’m able to give feels so shallow. Right now she seems physically safe, but the calls keep coming in so I don’t think she is any emotionally safer than I am. In my head I want to shout at her, “Please stop believing that I can help you. I don’t know how.”
Is know now that this is what Deirdre’s parents must have felt. They saw their children looking up at them, trusting them to do the right thing, and worried that they would not be able to. It was so easy for me to condemn them, to question their choices and priorities, their actions and words as told to me by their hurt daughter. I made assumptions and leapt to conclusions. It was so easy for me to imagine that I would never be careless, or callous or uncomprehending or unsure. As soon as I felt threatened and scared, my ability to be compassionate or composed or smart fell apart. I was a mess, and when there is a kid depending on you there is no leeway to be a mess. You need to act better than you really are, which is hard enough in easy circumstances, nearly impossible in hard circumstances. Is that what it means to be a parent? To love a child, but be incapable of being the person they need?
After Greg and I had eaten and the car had cooled off we climbed back in to drive further on. Crawling back into traffic we found out, eventually, that the road through Houston north to Dallas was shut down because a bus had caught fire. Traffic stood absolutely still. No one was going to get away from this. The best we could do was to get off the road and to shelter as quickly as we could. Watching the news after the hurricane we found out that other people huddled in car washes, and in church halls, wherever they could to try to stay safe. Greg was at the wheel and made the decision to swerve and crash through a grass median to get to a suburb we had passed four or five hours ago. We were off to find my father’s cousins, Sam and Barb, who I only sort of half-remembered.
Their suburb is a wealthier, more land-locked enclave north of Houston, with buried electrical lines and mansion-like new construction nestled in tall pines. Sam and Barb’s home was beautifully appointed with granite countertops, lush floral arrangements, elaborately carved china cabinets, and entertainment centers. The pool in back was fed by trickling water features that had to be tailored very carefully to the home owners’ association specifications. Every bit of the house, inside and out, looked expensive and tasteful. Bedraggled, sweaty, dazed and matted we showed up on their doorstep looking like lost twelve-year-olds who should have never tried to run away from home. Our hostess’s eyes crinkled in a smile and within a few minutes we were given a variety of leftovers, Egyptian cotton towels, and a spare bed. They called our parents to let them know we had arrived safely and let us sleep like the dead for as long as we needed. I just collapsed out of relief.
The next day of waiting for the storm to actually make landfall was long and sunny and calm. Our host drove us around the subdivision pointing out the country club, the home Michael Jordan almost bought, the shopping center with hidden signs designed to camouflage into the scenery and become nearly invisible. We came to the overpass that shadowed Highway 45, where neighbors watched the slow march of the failed evacuation with interest. Back at the house we visited with Sam and Barb’s grown successful son, daughter-in-law, and grandson, and read back issues of Better Homes and Gardens. Other neighbors made huge batches of hurricanes served in huge goblets adorned with beaded charms and paper umbrellas, which my husband and I were still too tired to enjoy. Sam grilled thick steaks on the gas range, just in case the electricity went out. No one thought it would, no plywood blocked the view out, and the most I remember doing at nightfall that day was helping to fill the bathtubs with fresh water and watching the weather channel. My cell phone finally lost its last shred of signal, and I wallowed in the silence and comfort of not hearing from Deirdre for a little while. I let myself be taken care of without having to help anyone else and I don’t know if that was selfish or smart.
I was relieved when I was absolved of Deirdre’s care and the responsibility I felt towards her, if only for a little while. Circumstances thrust us all together and those happenstance relationships can become strained when resources are scarce. I wanted to be my hosts, a better version of myself, who had the money and the maturity and strength to give while making it look effortless. But I wasn’t them. I wasn’t ready to be a recipient. Nor was I ready to give.
There is a nakedness to need. When two people come together because one needs and the other gives, there is no more hiding. Every part of you is used and useful, whether you are ready for it or not. It tangles and twists, and you cannot extricate yourself from each other ever again. I truly didn’t want to extricate myself from Deirdre. Neither was I ready, after knowing her for such a short span of time, to be wrapped up in her life.
I felt small, knowing that I was not ready to dissolve those boundaries between what I thought was mine to keep and what I should have given to someone else. I was not ready absorb the pain of anyone else. I was not ready to become permeable.
But I was not willing to close my perimeters against love and generosity, either.
I needed to be better. I needed to be better, because that was needed of me. Whether or not the hurricane would be, this was absolutely inescapable.
And then, nothing happened.
At the last second (or several hundred miles still out in the gulf), Hurricane Rita turned north and made landfall near Beaumont, Texas. Reporters who had been preparing for a grisly tragedy turned their cameras to decorative plastic casings of street lamps that had blown only a few feet away. The boardwalk had warped a bit. A billboard for a strip club had been knocked over, leading the more religious in the community to see it as a little sign of God’s anger, but certainly not wrath. We thanked our hosts and drove back to our own home. The trip there had taken more than eighteen hours; the trip back took forty-five minutes. Half the plywood we had erected had never even gotten wet. That afternoon we ripped it down and, by next work week, I was able to putter around town, though the perishables still weren’t restocked. I was back to work about a week after I had left.
The whole aftermath was so anti-climatic I couldn’t believe any of it had really happened. Imagining an apocalypse that didn’t come made all my thoughts and fears about it appear contrived, as if I had really just seen a movie about a hurricane. I must have exaggerated how scared I felt or how dire our situation was if it could all turn out this well with no effort on my part.
Back in my classroom I pulled the filmy plastic off computers, moved textbooks from the tops of desks back to the bottom shelf, set up pictures and blocked a big chunk of my lesson plan out for just talking with the kids, swapping stories. I stood in the hallway shooing my later classes past me to their first period of the day. Smart-ass kids grinning, “Didn’t think you see us again, huh?”
I replied, “Whatever. Shoot, I wasn’t worried at all, you’re just imagining things.”
“Yea right, Miss, all right.”
Before the first bell Deirdre found me. She didn’t blink and she didn’t smile. She hugged me and I told her, “I’m glad you’re okay,” which was absolutely true. She nodded and left for her first class.
I knew two things for certain upon seeing her again.
First, I needed to fortify myself, make myself stronger and more solid. I had found out I was a person who easily imagined that everything could be lost in the blink of an eye, and not a person who had faith that even if all was lost that I could manage. I was a person who had not been tested for courage or stamina often, and now that I had been, I found I fell short of what I thought I was capable of. By luck and providence, I found myself surrounded by comfort watching a storm glide away in the distance, a position I had had most of my life. I had little realized how it had shaped me and made me think I was better than people like Deirdre’s parents. Whether or not Deirdre discovered it then, I knew that in many ways I had been a fraud, a pretender positioning myself as a better mother to her than her own, when I couldn’t handle someone depending on me for just a few days past the last period bells. I wasn’t nearly a good enough person, yet. But maybe I could strive to become that person.
And second, I needed to admit to myself that I didn’t want to hold Deirdre at arm’s length. I had been worried how it would look, that I would be unprofessional. I worried that if I became too attached to her that I would hurt both of us when we inevitably had to leave town for Greg’s work and she, of course, stayed close to her biological mother. I worried that if I held too much room in my heart for her I wouldn’t have any left for my own children, one day. I worried that I would screw it up, that I would be another adult who made her life harder instead of easier. I was scared. But I did love her, and wanted to be there for her. Maybe I could make myself into a better person, like making a picture, a person who is able to give and receive freely, to understand and forgive, to connect and be brave.
Maybe, if I tried hard enough, I would be capable of being shelter for her.
Rumpus original art by Clare Nauman.