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Chaos Theory

The Definition of Home

Finding meaning after the storm of the century

By Cassie Bustamante

What do you take with you when you’re evacuating for a hurricane? Baby, check. Baby accoutrements, check. Both dogs, check. Toiletries, check. Enough clothes for just a few days — because surely, we won’t be gone that long — check. (Though overpacking was a nonissue since my two-week-postpartum body wasn’t squeezing into much besides drawstring sweatpants when Katrina made a beeline for New Orleans.)

After living it up for a year in an old, baby-blue, converted Victorian in New Orleans’ Garden District, Chris and I moved across Lake Pontchartrain to Slidell to begin our more “respectable,” suburban newlywed life in 2003. The Lake Village rancher was our very first home and I took much pride in making it ours.

A year-and-a-half later, I coated the walls of the soon-to-be nursery in buttery yellow and filled the space with blue-and-green furnishings from my own childhood. And, much to my current self’s embarrassment, I decorated with a frog prince theme. Royal amphibians in place, we were as ready as we’d ever be. In August of 2005, we welcomed our first baby, a boy, into our home.

As if being frazzled new parents isn’t enough of a sleepless whirlwind, an actual cyclone had just announced its impending arrival. Lucky for us, my dad was visiting. His timing couldn’t have been better because it turned out that we needed him. Since I wasn’t yet allowed to lift anything heavy, Dad and Chris boarded up the windows of our rancher.

Together, we hurriedly packed up all the essentials and loaded everything into our two cars. Chris drove his Jeep Liberty, our two pups panting anxiously in his ear, and Dad took the driver’s seat of my Ford Escape, with 2-week-old Sawyer and me riding in the back. One by one, we joined the slow-moving interstate parade of evacuees. Because I was still nursing every couple of hours, highway truckers — who had a straight line of sight into our car — got quite a show. Helpless, I simply waved and smiled as we passed them.

Our hours-long drive finally landed us in Knoxville, Tennessee, home to my in-laws who welcomed the four of us, plus our canines, to crash their house for what we’d wrongly assumed would be just a few days. My mother-in-law, Pam, raved about how I was holding it all together, especially as a new mom in crisis. Honestly, I didn’t know to do any differently. What else could we do but accept things as they were and keep putting one foot in front of the other?

But, eventually, my breakdown came. We watched the news relentlessly to find out the latest at home. All of our friends had evacuated as well, so no one was there to fill us in except for reporters who tend to exaggerate. The tears finally fell when an anchorwoman said, “Eighty-five percent of homes in Slidell have been destroyed.” At that moment, it finally occurred to me that we may not have a house to return to.

Noticing my wet eyes, Chris put his arm around me reassuringly. I looked around and took in my surroundings. Baby asleep in hand-me-down Moses basket, check. Partner by my side, check. Dogs sitting at my feet, check. In short, we were lucky to all be alive.

In the coming week, though, we’d learn just how lucky we were. Aside from needing a new roof, our house, which sat less than a mile from where flooding reached, survived. But that experience redefined what home means to me. It’s not a building filled with precious things you’ve put on walls and collected over the years. It’s a feeling of safety and security, a knowing that everything you need is within reach and that your family will be by your side throughout any storm. That is home.  OH

Cassie Bustamante is editor of O.Henry magazine.