Proof of Life

Leaving Louisiana with a light suitcase and heavy heart.

I shouldn't even be telling you my story. I wasn't plucked from a rooftop; I didn't survive the Superdome. Cycle through the screaming news channels and find 1,000 circumstances more remarkable than my own. I left my apartment on a quiet Uptown street at dusk, as Hurricane Katrina churned in the Gulf a full two days away from still-uncertain landfall. Too early, friends and coworkers said, just like always. This time, they were right. If I had stayed one more night, I would have known that I was leaving New Orleans for perhaps the very last time.

Instead, I left without so much as a long last look around. It would only be a day or two, after all, before I would return, before things would go back to normal. I drove out of town in typical Friday night traffic across a placid lake to my parents' open arms in Opelousas. And so the house that I grew up in sheltered me as I watched the city that shaped my life disappear.

When I was a little girl, New Orleans was the world to me. Every time my family visited, I remember asking my dad to drive me up and down the busy streets of the Central Business District so I could crane my neck to stare up at the tallest buildings I had ever seen. To a small-town south Louisiana girl, New Orleans was my New York, my Chicago, my London, all wrapped up in a gorgeous Gothic package that somehow still felt close to home. But the Big Easy could also be hard. When I arrived at Tulane University in 1989, a fraidy-cat freshman, New Orleans was the last place on earth I wanted to be. I wasn't ready for it then, but I got that way fast. The city has a way of doing that to you, insinuating itself into your personality, changing the way you are.

It certainly changed me. Full of knowledge and experience, scared to death about the future yet optimistic just the same, I graduated four years later in the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, a place the world now knows as an epicenter of darkest desolation. On that day, the great halls were bright and brimming with hope and uncertainty. All of my memories of New Orleans are like this today. Parallel universes. Then and now.

Unsubstantiated reports indicate that my house and street may have survived relatively unscathed, although I already know of losses hard to bear. My place of employment, Gambit Weekly newspaper, was geographically unlucky, our alternative voice silenced indefinitely by the murky limbo in which the city now resides. More importantly, the precious people of my city ' those who survived ' have scattered to the four winds and we grieve for those we have lost.

I think I knew early on that I would not be one of those hardy souls queuing up at the parish line to get right back in there. For days, I sat and watched what seemed to me to be The End. I have always loved the idea of New Orleans, and for now ' no matter what the future might hold ' that idea is gone. Much of what has held me there seems to be no more. I simply cannot go back now; after all I have seen, there is no normal for me there. I crave a sense of stability and vitality; I want to lose myself in another city's charms. Perhaps it is cowardly. It is all I know to do.

Ever since the storm, kind people, concerned people, have asked what my plan would be. All I could do was sit in silence at my parents', praying for some kind of an answer or, at least, the strength to look for one. What I got was not what I expected: a generous and immediate offer to relocate to Washington, D.C., to work in the offices of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies. Anyone who knows me well knows this kind of change challenges me to my core. But if not now, when? The job makes sense for me, a lifeline to the profession I learned to love so much in Lafayette and then New Orleans. I struggle to feel grateful instead of guilty.

New Orleans may indeed be reclaimed ' rebuilt better and stronger, as they say. It may even one day be the same. I know I never will be. I have seen the mask of civility torn from my city, and in the void is terror and anguish, heroism and heartbreak. Far more eloquent observers have mourned the many costs of Katrina. I will miss the simple things, the tastes and smells and memories of a home that, truth be told, chose me long before I chose it. I will mourn the city's favorite fantasy, its promise that everything can change at any moment, its whisper that nothing ever really will.

I leave next week, and New Orleans comes with me. It will always be with me. My suitcase is light, but my heart is heavy. Someday, I shall return, but I cannot yet see that path. The water begins to recede from the city, drop by toxic drop. The sun shines. God is inscrutable; God is good. I am moving on.