I Was Not Among Them

by Jill Frischhertz

Requiem (the first two sections)

Not under foreign skies
Nor under foreign wings protected –
I shared all this with my own people
There, where misfortune had abandoned us.
[1961]

Instead of a Preface

During the frightening years of the Yezhov terror, I
spent seventeen months waiting in prison queues in
Leningrad. One day, somehow, someone ‘picked me out’.
On that occasion there was a woman standing behind me,
her lips blue with cold, who, of course, had never in
her life heard my name. Jolted out of the torpor
characteristic of all of us, she said into my ear
(everyone whispered there) – ‘Could one ever describe
this?’ And I answered – ‘I can.’ It was then that
something like a smile slid across what had previously
been just a face.
[The 1st of April in the year 1957. Leningrad]

***

Anna Akhmatova’s Requiem speaks to the victims of Stalin’s Terror and her own agony as a mother waiting for the release of her son from prison.  She also speaks to me.  I cannot help but focus on the final words of the poem’s first stanza; “Where misfortune had abandoned us.”  In this line, there is a sense of darkness, a separation from grace; but Akhamotova, like any poet, does not find solace in silence; she finds it in words.  In “Instead of a Preface,” Akhamotova describes the push that led to this poem: the scene of her calling, a calling to capture the Russian misfortune, a calling that led to the creation of this poem; “‘Could one ever describe this?’ And I answered – ‘I can.’”  In my mind, Akhamtova’s response to tragedy represents the poet’s response to tragedy.

This understanding adds clarity to my desire to put on paper a lesser tragedy, but one that still sits heavy on the southeast, a place where water replaced hope.  I remember front porches with swings and rocking chairs filled with people in search of a breeze.  I remember the hottest days, when we would stand in shade, anticipating the chilled syrup of a snowball.  I remember New Orleans when her people celebrated a storm the way they do a baptism, a birthday, or a Friday afternoon— with music and beer.

***

I was not among them, the people of New Orleans, when lake water commandeered houses, floorboard by floorboard, or when families climbed from attics onto roofs, or when  hospitals ran out of hope, clean sheets, and working generators.  I did not witness the city fill with water; I was not among them.  I was in the Astrodome, waiting.  In preparation, I helped others place cots in measured rows, rope off a play area for children, stock concession stands with Doritos and water, check bathrooms for toilet paper, sanitizer.  We thought we were prepared for the recent residents of the Superdome.

The first buses arrive, but they are not occupied with any of the expected 25,000.  The three drivers are no older than sixteen, and their passengers are all children, some babies.  Still, they managed the 350 miles.  One boy explains, “The older ones carried the little ones above water to abandoned buses on an empty lot.”  They siphoned gas from forsaken cars and followed the radio’s evacuation route to Houston.  He tells me, “I stopped waiting for my ma after two days. We had to leave cuz the younger ones were scared of all the water.”

Outside a line of buses unloads the desperate: those who suffer from feeding tubes, oxygen tanks, dialysis, and the effects of days without treatment.  A few come with medical histories, prescriptions, and emergency numbers. We are ill prepared; there is a three hour wait to see the doctors.  Have you ever taken a crippled man’s wheelchair? We have to all day long because wasted frames cannot walk down a ramp or lower themselves into a cot.  Each time I return to the drop-off area, there are more, leaning against trees, walls, propped on benches. Now, I understand the meaning of war a little better. I do not distribute the carton of water because there is a woman half breathing who was sitting, now slouching.  I shake her and wake her with a sip of water.  She is 76, the age of my grandmother; and she is lost.  She asks me, “Have you seen my daughter?”  Do you tell her the truth or comfort her? “I am sure she is close. Let’s move you inside where it is cooler.”

Trip after trip after trip, and finally I stop because an elderly man has my elbow, begging me to take him to the bathroom.  He doesn’t have the muscle to manage the stairs to the first level. I have no wheelchair.  I search and I plead, but, despite my success, I am late, too late: maybe by seconds, maybe 3 minutes. I do not notice the puddle or the smell of soiled clothes only the face, no longer urgent.  A young mother stops me.  All she wants is her newborn baby who was evacuated without her. Remember, no one was prepared even though we all knew Katrina was coming.

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