MY KATRINA

by Randy Reynolds

Katrina, age 14, smoked Kools behind the church and I, her 7-year-old nephew, had the great honor of being her lookout at the corner of the building. Inasmuch as she was my idol, I spent more time observing her than watching out for adults, but somehow she never got caught on my watch. When I was 14 and she was 21, I tried to blackmail her: "Remember all those times you smoked behind the church and I stood guard? And I never told? Well, now you can pay me back. My girlfriend thinks I have a car. I need your keys."

Amusement twinkled in her ice-blue eyes and the skin around them crinkled in a preview of how her face would look in her thirties. Though it would have been more in her nature to taunt me for having a girlfriend, she merely smiled, extended her upper lip slightly so that her smoke spewed downward, and gave me grownup arguments about why I couldn't borrow her car--(first and foremost, I didn't know how to drive; secondly, I didn't have a license; thirdly, my dad would blow his top.)

I said bitterly, "Well, that's gratitude for you." I'm sure she turned that encounter into a story that lit up rooms. I never heard it--she wouldn't have wanted to embarrass me--but she found the humor in everything and spent her life sharing it.

Everywhere Katrina went, laughter followed--even when she swerved to avoid a dog and went over an embankment, totaling her car and cutting her face on the broken windshield. The look in that cur's eyes, as Katrina told it at one of those extended family gatherings at Grandma's...the game of 'chicken' she and the dog played as her headlights speared him...the terrible moment of choosing to save his life instead of her own and veering off the road...changing her mind too late and losing her love of dogs a millisecond before impacting the trees...the triumph that dog must have felt...the barking in her ears she thought she heard in the emergency room....the story, like all Katrina stories, left us rolling on the floor.

She was the axis of a world of laughing faces.

The faces changed as friends came and went, as nieces, nephews and her beloved daughter Kim grew up, as her good-natured husband and then her parents departed the scene, but the laughter was always there.

Life isn't good to everyone. A misstep here, a blink there, a swerve to avoid the yellow-eyed cur in the road and a person winds up far from where she thought she'd be, but Katrina took it all in stride. Grandchildren gave her a new lease on life. There was adoration in her voice, along with the usual drama, when she spoke of such things as her shopping trip with three-year-old Quinn, who got tangled in her oxygen tubes, cutting off her air so effectively that she couldn't call out for help. His struggle to free himself caused her wheelchair to roll toward the down escalator...

That's the story she told the last time I saw her. The family's center of gravity had shifted and the reunion was in a new place--my father's house. It was Thanksgiving and the women were bustling about the kitchen, carrying on several conversations at once. A constant stream of kids flowed through the house. We men were in the living room hooting and hollering over a football game on the tube. For once, Katrina was by herself, her wheelchair parked where she could see both living room and kitchen, but not close enough for her voice to be heard above the din.

I happened to glance away from the game and caught her staring at me, shrewdly, with no humor in her startling blue eyes. I had never seen her look like that and I wondered what it meant. Had I offended her? Was she remembering the precious little nephew she had loved like her own when she was a little girl? I smiled but she, lost in thought, didn't smile back.

Uh-oh, I thought. She's thinking of something that I've done. I'm in for it at dinner.

But Katrina only told the oft-repeated shopping story about Quinn, the oxygen, the escalator and the good-looking Good Samaritan who saved her life--"If I'd been ten years younger, or he'd been ten years older...." We laughed, those few of us who heard it above the bedlam of the great-nieces and -nephews whom she called the baby-birds. And that was the last story I ever heard her tell.

When the National Weather Service announced that Hurricane Katrina had formed, I thought how melancholy our family would be upon hearing that name repeated so often until the storm ran its course. My sister from South Louisiana called and said, "Oh, Lord, with a name like Katrina, it's bound to be the baddest one ever"--as if our Katrina's strength went along with the name. I've since learned that others in our widely dispersed family, from Florida to Alaska, expressed similar half-joking forebodings.

The only storm our Katrina was ever in was life and she rode it out laughing in its face...except for that last Thanksgiving...looking at me like that...as if telling me goodbye...or thanking me for being her lookout...