I am five, maybe six. We are driving to New Orleans. My sister (maybe four, maybe five) fidgets beside me. We take turns lying on our sides in the coveted space beneath the rear window, pressing our palms against the glass as cars slip backwards fast. I flip the skinny metal lid of an armrest ashtray up, then down, up, then down. Twiddle the dials of an Etch-a-Sketch. Turn my arm into a snake that undulates in the rushing air outside my window. I imagine the streetlights are snakes, too, arced strange and high. Their heads glow like fireflies.
New Orleans must be far, far away. We have brought pillows and books and a cooler filled with food. My mother unwraps a sandwich and hands it to me: cold steak between slices of white bread smeared with Miracle Whip. I pretend the sandwich is hot, like grilled cheese, and cool it by slipping my arm out the window again. I feel clever and defiant and sly, gripping the bread so tightly it flattens to mush between my fingers as I dare the wind to snatch it away. When it is "ready", I chew bites between sips of water from a bathroom Dixie cup. It is the best sandwich I have ever tasted.
I don't remember much about New Orleans, but I do remember this: we stayed with my mother's uncle Robert. Robert liked to sit in a lounger next to the air conditioner. He was married to a big woman named Marie. Marie's mother was tiny and bent and spoke with an accent. She cooked spaghetti with homemade sauce and made meatballs the size of baseballs. I ate two meatballs. I played in a pool with some neighborhood kids. I snatched the tail from a lizard as it raced up a wall laced with vines.
Lately, as I watch the news or listen to public radio or read on-line tales of survival and loss and destruction, I can't help but make connections. My mind plays a game of compare and contrast, trying to fathom, to relate. I remember the shock I felt as a child, gripping that severed tail. It was so unexpected ... I hadn't anticipated the outcome ... I wanted time to rewind and for the lizard to be whole again. I think about that moment, that feeling of bewildered dismay, and then imagine it intensified, magnified a hundredfold. I try to imagine what it would feel like to lose my home, to be separated from my child, to be a child in a world turned inside out.
And so I watch this, and my heart feels both ripped and uplifted. I read this, and I am stunned amazed. I watch this, and my laughter tastes bitter. I hear this, and I can't contain my pain.