By Bruce Fleury
Christmas came as a big surprise this year. The usual onslaught of catalogs never appeared. Just a few strands of colored lights dot the town. The only Christmas card I've received is from the self-storage unit where my surviving possessions are stashed. Gone also are the long lines of my hopeful students, waiting to see if they were naughty or nice on their final exams. Life has changed.
My holiday reminder lately has been the cheerful little dog on the Dogpile Web page. When the doggie donned a pilgrim hat, we knew it was Thanksgiving, and we broke out the frozen turkey dinner. When I saw him sporting a big scarf and winter hat, I knew it was the season to be jolly.
But I'll admit being jolly is a real stretch this year.
If only we could rewind the tape to last Christmas, when we were standing in the street, our heads tilted back in disbelief as we watched snowflakes tumble from the sky, wrapping our neighborhoods in a Currier and Ives cloak. But fate had different plans.
This holiday season, instead of making cookies and wrapping presents, we've spent our time standing or sitting one the phone, arguing with insurance adjusters, bankers, Realtors and service reps, trying to get back all the things we took for granted, like fresh water, electric lights, cable TV, hot showers and home cooking. All of our energy is spent picking up the pieces of our shattered lives.
Normally, this time of year is full of excited calls from friends and loved ones. But for a while I stopped looking forward to calls from the folks I care about. The simple question "how are you?" would force me to relive the whole nightmare in my head, a low-budget science fiction film with my respirator serving in lieu of Darth Vader's helmet. There were moments when I felt like I had been sucked into a computer game like Doom or Half Life, when I was crawling through the moldy wreckage of my flooded Broadmoor home with my flashlight, keeping a weather eye out for zombies. That's the price you pay for being a survivor
As I tell the people who aren't here: It's as if you were nearly finished working on a thousand-piece jigsaw puzzle, a tranquil scene of pastoral family bliss. You left for a moment to answer the door, and returned to discover that some thoughtless stranger had swept the puzzle to the floor. Then the dog rolled around on the pieces, dragging the box away when he trotted off. Then the cat threw up on what remained.
Now you are left with a wet, sticky, stinking mess, coated with stuff you don't even want to touch. Nonetheless you grit your teeth and pick up as many pieces as you can find, carefully cleaning each one as you go, regretting those you cannot save. How will you ever find the strength to put it all back together? And you don't even have the picture on the box to guide you.
But all is not lost, though it might seem that way to many of us this Christmas. For me at least, the most important pieces of our puzzle have survived. We were able to sneak past the National Guard in a daring pre-dawn raid and rescue our stranded pets. And despite the roller coaster ride of hope and despair, I'm still happily married (at least as of this morning).
My teenage son will soon be back from his evacuation exile in northern New York, having learned what a white Christmas is really all about. Hopefully his French-Canadian lumberjack genes stood him in good stead. And we will soon be moving into our new home, leaving our tiny refugee condo perched high over St. Charles Avenue (you see, dear, I told you that if you stuck with me you'd end up on the Avenue!)
Things will never be the same, but we soldier on, because that is ultimately what life is all about. We put the pieces back together as best we can. We shake off the holiday blues and give thanks for what we have, even if it is not what we are used to.
We are grateful for all our good friends and relations, who helped us back from the brink. And we take comfort this holiday season in witnessing the true meaning of Christmas -- the spirit of giving, the importance of family and the rebirth of hope.
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Bruce E. Fleury is a professor of biology at Tulane University. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Originally published in the New Orleans Times-Picayune on Dec. 25, 2005