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I feel as if I should, on this day, write about Katrina.

Except I haven’t wanted to.

As the coverage of the fifth anniversary has ramped up, I have seen the #5yearsagotoday tweets, the documentary premieres, the news stories and the blog posts, and I have found myself avoiding them. I avoid them because when I think about five years ago, I feel myself falling into a dark, angry-sad, miserable place, sucked back into the emotions of the time. I have worked pretty hard to move away from that place, and so I am not keen on falling right back into it — so, to take care of myself, I am opting to avoid most of the coverage.

Still, it is hard to completely avoid marking this event which has so permanently marked me and my life. I have a tattoo of a hurricane symbol on the bottom of my foot, because Katrina marked my path, but I still stand above it (and because this way I can stomp on it every day). I moved to New Orleans exactly one month before the storm hit, ready to begin medical school. I was also moving in the spirit of establishing a home base; up until then I had been moving around quite a bit and I was ready to embrace this city and call it my own.

After the storm, I sobbed because I realized my school would not permit me to transfer, and I couldn’t bear the thought of coming back here to this unsafe and broken place. If, five years ago, you had told me that I would be fighting to stay here, thinking of raising children here, calling this place home, I would have told you about some nice padded rooms and delicious anti-psychotic medications.

And yet here I am, five years later, doing exactly that. I can’t explain it. New Orleans gets under your skin, insinuates itself into your heart, your nerves, every fiber of you. I drink it in when Mr. Okra goes by my house, or a seemingly random parade marches by. I taste the words coming out of my mouth with New Orleans flavors, and I go hoarse from Who Dats on Sundays. I am fairly certain there is a portion of my blood which has now turned to hot sauce. Nola Notes has a wonderful post up about Katrina, and why we stay in this crazy sinking city. I suppose I am one of the “hard-wired” people she talks about, called to New Orleans by some unexplainable drive. I love this city in strange and unusual ways, and I truly am proud to call it home.

That is all nice, of course, but still leaves the problem of the fifth anniversary of Katrina. The sad truth is that there are still people whose houses are not rebuilt, cultural landmarks that have faltered or never re-opened, and of course an entire hospital whose fate is still in question. I have seen the marks on the minds and souls of my patients, too. We are better, we are moving on, we are rebuilding, but we are not “back to normal”, as people from other places like to ask me. We have established a new normal, we are coping, but New Orleans will never be the way it was before Katrina.

New Orleans will not be the same, and neither will I. And really, as much as the me-of-five-years-ago would deny it, I don’t think it’s a bad thing.

If it had not been for Katrina, I wouldn’t have come to know Slappy and, through him, Katie. Slappy was one of my classmates and became my roommate the year we were in Houston immediately following the storm. He was exactly the right person for me to lean on that year, and I count both him and his lovely wife as two of my dearest friends.

If it had not been for Katrina, I would never have come to know a whole host of friends, people who are now among my family-of-choice. Certainly other relationships would have developed, but I cannot imagine my life without these friends who sheltered me, physically and emotionally, in that year and in the years since. My life is richer for knowing them.

If it had not been for Katrina, I would never have met my husband. I would have still been in the class ahead of him, and our paths would likely have never crossed.

If it had not been for Katrina, I would be a lot more stressed out right now. Pretty counter-intuitive, right? Granted, I am still a little stress fiend, as I think most medical students are, but having been through this has strengthened my faith that things work out. Even if I can’t understand why on earth this is happening to me (whatever ‘this’ happens to be at that moment), some part of me now deeply believes that I will understand it in the long run. I could, for example, be completely in pieces over our excessively complicated and potentially terrifying residency match prospects, but I find it hard to get worked up about it when I am completely confident that in the end, it will work out. I credit that directly to the effects of the storm, and how I’ve grown since.

Katrina was horrific. I would not wish that year (because it was truly at least a year before I started feeling even remotely okay again) on my worst enemy. It was a deeply destructive force, on a physical, psychic, and emotional level, and it laid me flat for a long time. It shattered me, but not into a million pieces as I might have thought at the time. I look at it like moving through a prism — split apart into my barest components, I moved off at a new angle, and I see the world in a new light because of it. Five years later, I am choosing to focus on that light, and move on.

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Thank you, Granddad.

I:
My father called me to tell me that my grandfather was very sick.  He’d been in the hospital, but it seemed to be worse than previously anticipated, so I piled into my car with the dog and drove to Florida.  When I got there, I was able to talk in doctor-speak to the doctors and translate for the non-doctors.  My grandfather was so happy to see me, and I was happy to be there when he was transitioned to a rehab facility.  In May, he came to my promotion ceremony and administered my oath — his face was full of pride as I stood there next to him in my uniform, a symbol of our shared commitment and service.

II:
My father called to tell me that my grandfather was very sick, in fact even worse off than we had feared, and was being put into hospice right away.  I piled into my car with the dog and drove to Florida.  I got there in time to see him one last time and tell him I love him, I’m proud of him, and that I hope he’s proud of me, too.  I brought with me a copy of the captain’s oath, and with the help of a relative, he was able to go through it with me right there in his hospital room.  It’s not official, but it means so much to me that he was able to do it before we had to say goodbye. I was there when we all told him it was okay, that he could go and be with my grandmother now, and I was there when he finally did so, peacefully and surrounded by love.

III:
My father called to tell me that my grandfather was gravely ill and being moved into hospice as we spoke.  I piled into the car, but before I even left home, my father called me again to let me know he was gone.  I still took the dog, and we are still going to Florida.  I’m a little less clear on how this story ends, but I keep saying I’ll figure it out when I get there.

My grandfather died Saturday night, and as my sister said, the grief comes in waves.  These are the stories I have been telling myself since the first phone call on Friday — only one of them reflects the actual course of events, but I like to think that in some way, all of them are true.

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