I have the good fortune to spend a few weeks in New Orleans this summer. This city feels like home to me, even though I have never lived there. I am drawn to New Orleans for the same reason I am drawn to “Hamlet.” The entire city is a living, breathing memento mori.
Also, there’s another reason. And here it is: My mother dreamed of visiting New Orleans. But she died before she had a chance to make the trip.
One of the reasons why my mother loved New Orleans is because she loved Anne Rice. She wanted to tour St. Louis Cemetery No. I, site of the Vampire Lestat’s empty tomb. She wanted to take a riverboat cruise on the Mississippi River, the way the vampires did in the movie that came out when I was in middle school. She wanted to have her Tarot cards read in Jackson Square.
I moved to Louisiana two years after my mother died.
But I lived in the northern part of the state, a region populated by Baptists and Pentecostals. The fastest way to get to New Orleans was to drive through Mississippi, and even that was a four-hour drive.
Still, I went whenever I could. When I met Carl, he went with me. He keeps going back with me. If I wanted to, he would go every year.
We don’t do that. But each time we visit New Orleans, it feels like a new experience, like I am seeing the city for the first time. Like I am seeing it through my mother’s eyes. I take none of this for granted. I know how much even one trip would have meant to her.
I keep going back because I can, and because she cannot.
A few weeks ago, I started working on an essay about the iconography of grief. It’s a hard essay to write, one that forces me to confront truths I would prefer to ignore. It’s an essay where I need to reveal aspects of my life around which I feel tremendous shame. It’s an essay where I disclose something that embarrasses me deeply.
I have a draft of the essay completed. I know the essay’s bones. I know its themes and title. But there is too much exposition. Not enough scene. The ending does not work. No ending I have drafted works.
This is because I’m holding back. A part of the essay’s story terrifies me. And I am not as brave as I want to be.
Sometimes I think writing should be easier than it is. But writing is the hardest emotional work I have ever done. It demands honesty. If I am being dishonest, I know it. And the reader does to. Right now, I’m not ready to be fully honest. So the essay is suffering.
When I get stuck in an essay like this one, I am full of negativity and self-doubt. I do not see all the progress I have made. I focus on what I have not yet done. I worry I will never finish.
Fortunately, research helps me get unstuck. New Orleans has become the focus of my research. I know I will finish the essay there.
Another idea that this essay engages is how grief can haunt our bodies.
My body is haunted by my mother’s illness and death. This haunting manifests in certain odd behaviors I enact with my body, as well as an autoimmune disease that binds me to her in a strange and familiar way.
In New Orleans, I feel at home because grief is inscribed on this city, on its body.
After Hurricane Katrina, Day-Glo orange and yellow “X-codes” appeared on a majority of the city’s structures. The X-codes documented a FEMA crew’s search and rescue efforts. The number of people found alive or dead was written at the bottom of each X.
We saw the Xs when we drove down for the first Jazz Fest after the storm. I gasped when I saw them. For me, each X held an apocalyptic power. The symbol evidenced a biblical level of human suffering and endurance. Pain that could not be erased. Or so I thought.
Now many people have painted over their Xs. Or the houses that once bore them have been replaced.
Some artists and academics have documented the Xs and the stories they tell. A few Xs may even remain more than 10 years after the storm, a distant echo of its roar.
I plan to find them during my visit.
I like to enter New Orleans from the west. Interstate 10 takes you past Lake Lawn Metairie Cemetery (known as simply as Metairie Cemetery), and you can see its marble tombs and mausoleums rising alongside the road.
I’ve toured other cemeteries in New Orleans, but have never visited Metairie Cemetery. As part of my research, I will visit the cemetery this summer. I’m drawn to the Angel of Grief, also known as the Weeping Angel, located in Chapman Hyams’ monument.
Hyams was a prominent New Orleans businessman, and the statue he commissioned is a copy of the 1894 sculpture by William Wetmore Story, the same sculpture that marks Story’s grave in Rome. Copies of the statue exist throughout the world, but Hyams’ statue is the only one in New Orleans.
Although it is not an official tourist site, Metairie’s Angel of Grief attracts visitors each year, some of whom have documented their journeys online.
For me, the statue is a pilgrimage site, and I suspect other visitors may agree.
I am compelled by the angel’s body stooped in grief. One arm bends beneath her forehead, while the other one hangs down. I read desperation in her posture. Animal vulnerability. I read myself into her pose.
When I learned my mother had died, I fell to the ground.
Sometimes, I think I’m still there.
But that is a half-truth. After my mother died, I rebuilt my life in Louisiana. Each time I visit, I am farther removed from my mother. I am farther removed from the person I was when I lost her.
This does not mean I am okay with the loss, just as the city of New Orleans is not okay that Hurricane Katrina happened.
It means I’ve learned to live around the loss, or in spite of it. But there’s a part of me that will never be the same.
In New Orleans, I do not have to hide.
Me at my favorite NOLA restaurant Galatoire’s in 2012. Don’t let the Bourbon Street address fool you, Galatoire’s is a classy joint.