Hurricane Katrina was still 24 hours from New Orleans but I was already bruised, bloodied, and exhausted to the point of nausea. My fiancé Mike and I were up until midnight the night before putting boards on all the windows in the house and bringing all the porch furniture and potted plants inside. I’d hardly slept, but I was up early to finish battening down the hatches and preparing to ride out the storm. We were glued to the weather report and trying to decide whether we were going to ride it out at home or head for higher ground Downtown. Evacuating wasn’t a consideration.


The boarded up house was dark, and the air was stagnant, so I went outside to clear my head. That’s when I saw Mr. Anthony getting in the car. “Oh shit!” I thought. I figured we’d have a few of us on the block: the family across the street, Mr. Anthony, and the two of us. Everyone else had already high-tailed it out of town. The family across the street said they didn’t have anyplace to go. Mr. Anthony had lived in his house since he came home from his service as a Marine in the Pacific during World War II. Though well into his eighties, it was easy to see the handsome soldier he once was. Tall, neatly dressed, and with a carefully slicked back full head of gray hair. Despite his cane he still exuded the confidence of a much younger man. Of course I knew he was elderly, but I never imagined that a hurricane would drive him any farther than his porch.


I was trembling as I walked over to him. He was carrying his cane in one hand and a tumbler of amber-colored liquid in the other. Stupidly, I asked if he was leaving. He said he’d never left for a storm but this time he thought it was best. His sons wouldn’t let him stay alone and he couldn’t ask them to risk their lives to stay with him. They had families to consider.


I started to cry. He told me not to worry. Good New Orleans Catholic that he is, he removed his rosary and Father Seelos medallion from his breast pocket. He said, “I know you’re Jewish, but Gawd don’t care bout dat.” He waved the medallion in a circle toward all the houses on our block and said, “Father Seelos, protect us.” “Now,” he said, “we got nothing to worry about.”


“You kids staying?” he asked. I told him we were. “Well then,” he said, “there’s something you’ve got to do. You put on your helmet, tighten that chin strap, and … Semper Fi.” With that, he stood up more erect that he likely had in 30 years, saluted me, gave me a kiss on the cheek, took and big swig from his tumbler, and slid into the passenger seat.


Once the car had turned onto Magazine Street and was out of sight, I walked in the house and told Mike that Mr. Anthony had just left. “Oh shit,” he said.


Within a half an hour we were packing the car to head Downtown.


Now I’m usually incredibly uncomfortable with anything military-related, but there were literally dozens of times in the following days, weeks, and months when all I could do was put one foot in front of the other and ruminate on that U.S. Marine Corps motto, Semper Fi. Always faithful.


When windows exploded in the building where we sheltered from the storm. Semper Fi.


Watching desperately poor people ransack grocery and convenience stores for food, water, and diapers. Semper Fi.


My mother sitting next to me in the passenger seat of my car with a gun in her lap as we drove out of town. Semper Fi.


Waiting in hours-long lines for gasoline. Semper Fi.


Sleeping in the car and enduring the brutal August heat. Semper Fi.


Screaming at Mike in frustration on the side of the road somewhere in Mississippi. Semper Fi.


Realizing that I was making a huge mistake marrying Mike and breaking our engagement. Semper Fi.


Going to the cemetery to see if the family tomb had been submerged in the floodwater. Semper Fi.


Cleaning rotting food and maggots from my refrigerator. Semper Fi.


Filling and hauling I don’t know how many contractor-sized bags of debris from my house and yard. Semper Fi.


Ripping out walls and floors by myself. Semper Fi.


Deciding to sell my house and move. Semper Fi.


Saying goodbye to my favorite restaurants and coffee shops, friends, and my home. Semper Fi.


Making a new life in a new place where I knew no one. Semper Fi.


Coming out. Semper Fi.


Sleepless nights when I first adopted my daughter. Semper Fi.


Feeling the loss five years later. Semper Fi.


It was a couple of weeks after the storm before I was able to speak with Mr. Anthony on the phone. He was chomping at the bit to get home. He asked me if it was bad. I tried not to break down. I told him I’d remembered to Semper Fi. “I knew you could do it,” he said. I told him I appreciated his confidence in me but that I wasn’t so sure. He said, “Now you know if I didn’t think you could handle whatever happened I’d have gone in that house and told Mike to get your butt out of there.” And I know that he would have.


So it’s five years later. I visited New Orleans recently, and Mr. Anthony was on his porch, right where I’d left him. The only thing that had changed was that he had grown a mustache. He’s Semper Fi-ing through the dwindling months of his long, brave life. New Orleans and the Gulf Coast are Semper Fi-ing through the worst oil spill in history. And we’re all Semper Fi-ing through the anniversary.


RIP my former life

July 27, 1967- August 29, 2005

Around the time I was still being congratulated for landing my first book deal, and for landing it at a big house without an agent, things started going downhill.

I’d been feeling under the weather ever since I received the edits on my manuscript. I always get a little tender when people strike out favorite passages, or write “NO!” in the margins, but I expected that. I even swallowed down the idea that this editor planned to market my book YA so many of the edits were about dumbing down the language and adding training wheels to the storyline. But what was breaking me was something that, in retrospect, I should’ve spoken up about. The editor had asked me to change the voice of the story, to have the character see the world differently. And for me to do that, every single sentence of the book, and every single action taken by this character would have to change.

I never spoke up. Never defended my position. I didn’t want to be one of those difficult types. I remembered what it felt like to have no book deal, and who was I to complain?

So I was driving my kids to a local amusement park, where they were supposed to sing with their school and then enjoy the rides. It was my first real day coming out of the fetal position. (You think I’m kidding.) And halfway there, I got a call from the editor who asked if I could get these changes to her by the end of the month. I pulled over on to the side of the road and just started sobbing with my poor, confused children looking on from the backseat.

A few weeks later, I was on a panel at a conference and had lost so much weight, friends wondered aloud if I had cancer. Against all instincts and without a plan, I had dismantled the entire book and had no idea, and no interest, in how to put it back together. The despair I had felt in trying to get this book published didn’t come close to the feeling of overseeing its destruction. After the conference, I went out to dinner with some writer friends (Patry Francis, Tish Cohen, and Bella Stander). It was a delicious African-fusion meal, and afterward, we went to a writer’s party, though I wasn’t in the mood.

At the party, my friends introduced me to Dan Conaway, who changed everything.

The last person I wanted to meet was an agent–I was that fed up with the business–but we got along easily, talked the next day, and eventually (though I fought hard against the idea at first), I signed with him. Over the next several months of working with him, we broke contract with that publishing company as I went to work finding my way back into the novel. I no longer had a book deal, which was scary, to say the least, but I was going to get this book right. Gradually, my body got healthy again, I rediscovered the joy in writing, and I am ever so grateful for that chance-meeting!

I didn’t tell a soul that we’d canceled the book deal. I didn’t want to invite the kinds of questions or tell the kinds of stories that would bring me down again. I just got to work.