7 years ago today,
I walked down an aisle like this in the Astrodome and met a woman in a purple warm up suit.
I will never forget our conversation or her pained face.
It was 2 weeks after Hurricane Katrina made landfall in New Orleans. Thousands of refugees who had fled to Houston were being housed inside the aged Astrodome.
September 13, 2005 was a beautiful day in Houston. I drove down to the Astrodome to join other volunteers, hoping I could work with some of the children. First I went through a screening and I was warned to remove my jewelry. "Don't give any money away or let anyone use your phone. Don't walk anywhere alone, especially to the restrooms. Sanitize your hands every 20 minutes." Then I was given plastic gloves and told to walk up and down the aisles between cots and "offer assistance." Not only was that a vague assignment, but my thoughts of cheering up children, turned negative. I felt as if I'd just been given an orientation for working with prisoners.
Where to Start?
I stared down the perfectly lined cots and wondered why they were kept so rigid. I saw gray blankets and stuffed animals and decks of cards. I saw a small boy eating cornflakes from a box and a teenager eating a half pint of Ben and Jerry's. A couple sat side by side in serious conversation, while two children nearby leapt and giggled on their cots. Mostly the atmosphere seemed like a slow moving dream...a hum of murmuring voices interrupted by echoing announcements. And lots and lots of cots, with folks sitting, resting or even sleeping under the bright lights. I set off down the row, looking for someone who might actually welcome my help.
I saw her purple.
She slouched on her cot at the end of the aisle. Her elderly body seemed too weary for the bright warm up suit. I asked her how she was doing.
"Oh, better." She sighed. Her words invited conversation, but her turned away posture did not.
I asked if there was anything I could get her and she answered no as she stared off at a group of teens gathering nearby.
"What's going on over there?" I wondered with her. She shrugged.
"Want me to go find out and tell you?"
I sort of teased with my offer. Her mouth turned up slightly at the corners as she nodded.
I saw a few police in the crowd, but there were also smiles. I walked up to a young boy who was watching and asked what was going on. He said someone was signing autographs, but he didn't take his eyes off the crowd when he spoke. I asked an older teen who had a better view, "Who's that man signing kid's shirts?"
"That's Kanye West." He said in a cool voice. I could tell he was working hard to suppress his smile.
I didn't try to hide my enthusiasm, because I was pretty darn excited that I even recognized the rapper's name. I had only recently heard about him when he had become very vocal with the media about his outrage over Bush's handling of Katrina.
Sharing my News
I headed back to my sweet purple lady and shared the news. I'm not sure if she even knew of Kanye West, but the ice had been broken and she began to talk. I asked if she had other family in the Astrodome and she answered with a story about leaving New Orleans. She gazed away from me as she began to describe the escape from her flooded apartment with her daughter and her children. Her voice was muffled as she described her fear about leaving. Her daughter had to force her out the door and how she screamed and held tight to her family when the water reached her chest. She told me how one family floated their children in an empty "refrigerator". Much of what she said I couldn't quite catch, but I didn't dare intrude on her monologue to ask her to repeat. And then she mentioned how helpless she felt when she saw a small boy drown.
I asked this time.
I wanted to be sure I'd heard her correctly.
"Yes. It was horrible. There was nothing I could do."
I asked how she was doing now, compared to when she first arrived at the dome. She said she hurt everywhere for a long time and she didn't have her medicine at first, but she repeated that she was better. Then she stared forward as if she were picturing the apartment she left behind.
"I had just moved in. Most of my stuff was in boxes. I had some towels." She recalled. "They were in containers...I wonder if they might still be okay?"
It was touching to see that tiny glimmer of hope she had for her towels.
Before I left, I fumbled to compliment her bravery. "You should be very proud of yourself." My words seemed so simple, so unworthy for this dear, weary grandmother who battled the filthy waters of New Orleans. But she smiled and nodded and made full eye contact for the first time.
Thank you Dear Grandmother in your Bright Purple!
You taught me about quiet bravery. I met others at the Astrodome that day and I've seen many tell their story on the news. But none have told their story as gently as you. Whenever I think about Katrina and the people who suffered and lost and fought and rebuilt, the image of you in your purple warm up comes to mind. I hope you really are BETTER now!
To celebrate my birthday in April 2012, I decided to reflect on the past with a different kind of list. I've met a lot of people in my 55 years, but I'm going to stop and remind myself about the strangers I've met. These are people I met by accident, not through friends or work. For some reason, these strangers dropped into my life. Even though we may have only spent a few minutes together, these people have never been forgotten.
Each week, I'll spotlight someone I met in the past, who in some small way, made me stop and think.
Remember 55 Strangers