In the winter after Katrina hit, I traveled to rural, western Louisiana to help with the rebuilding effort. I went with one other volunteer, Charlie, whom in a former time I called my best friend. The two of us agreed to help there before we knew that a great dispute would come between us, and we thought it would be selfish to have canceled the trip because of our personal differences. Yet my attempts to reconcile in the days before we left were fruitless and painful, and we drove in silence over the bayou roads, past barren farmland and over-turned cars.
Charlie and I worked at six different construction sites for a local relief organization. One project, which took the help of several other laborers, called for us to rebuild the home of an elderly black woman named Marietta, who in her old age suffered from blindness. We had to gut her home before we could rebuild it, since the flood waters reached nine feet and mold had grown everywhere. We ripped off the wood paneling with crowbars, tore out the insulation. The cockroaches that settled inside the walls when the waters receded came crawling out, up my arms and legs as I worked. Efficiently enough though we removed the old materials, killed off the roaches, and began reconstruction.
We finished Marietta's house the day before we left Louisiana. On that day Charlie and I were by ourselves there, putting on the final touches, and Marietta was to return with her nephew that evening. When they arrived we greeted them from the new cedar ramp that led to her front door. I took Marietta's hand, and Charlie and I walked with them from room to room, describing what we had done and what it now looked like. She touched the blue kitchen tiles, floral wall paper, took in the lingering smell of drying paint, listened to the ceiling fan whipping around in the living room. She began to cry during the middle of our tour, and by the time we said our good-byes, had to sit down and collect herself. Her nephew embraced her tightly as Charlie and I stepped out the front door.
It was quiet outside. The air was heavy and visible in the last of the daylight. We looked out onto the street where we stood and could see for miles the rows of houses that remained untouched by laborers, and the fields that would take years to become arable again. How small were the problems of Charlie and I amidst all of this?
Charlie turned to me, half-smiling, and extended his hand. We shook hands; I smiled back. This was the only time since our friendship had ended that things were amiable between us, and, in that moment, I felt as though we were transported back to the days when all was right, when talk flowed easily, and anger and regret were miles from our thoughts. But on that humble lot where we had worked, we left something behind, which I pray will stand strong, and was built with love.