Today is August 29, 2016, and flashbacks from exactly eleven years ago come tumbling back into my memory just like the storm that changed my life forever. I can visualize the churning waters crashing violently at the base of what I once called home. My life, which had been the simple, typical life of a six-year-old, would ultimately be changed forever due to one underestimated storm. It was the third day of the flood which had devastated my beloved city, New Orleans.
Hurricane Katrina was a monster that crushed everything in her path. Her eye focused on my town, and her winds destroyed the levees that held everything together. Those fragile mounds of cement were the puzzle pieces that connected everything my innocent mind had ever known. With a gust of chaos, Katrina brought not only the dark waters of the Gulf of Mexico swirling merely feet away from my rooftop, but also a stranger who would impact my life forever.
I gripped the cage of my anxious parakeet and watched the sky as the sharp wind of the helicopters pierced the sticky August heat. The heavy breeze made the floodwater beneath us ripple in large waves against my house, and I curled my free hand along the rough, now familiar roof that had been my sanctuary since the destruction of the levees. Frustrated, I switched my gaze over to my mom and then, to the cross that dangled from my neck. I did not want to look down towards the growling waters, whose contents were filled with unmoving shapes and dark secrets. But above all, I could not bare to focus on the roaring helicopters, several passing by the second. I refused to meet the eyes of the coast guards whose helicopters were low enough for me to see the cameras they gripped with excitement. I was merely a second-grader stranded on her rooftop with her mom and her parakeet, and I could not wrap my mind around the fact that they were filming us in our despair rather than rescuing us.
I have always and still do believe in miracles. And as I sat on top of my house with the dusty winds blowing my polka-dotted dress, I prayed for one. Although I was terrified out of my wits, an ounce of me was completely calm. The muggy weather thickened as I vaguely heard my mom worriedly murmur about the waters reaching my second story window. I was looking straight off into the distance- the dark orange in the sky brightened as a helicopter remained frozen in the air. The propellers sliced the still air with a steady beat, and I sat, unmoving as a basket lifted into the air towards the base of the helicopter away from the roof of a house. I could vaguely see a person tightly hugging a coast guard while the rest of the neighborhood cheered with relief at the sight of the rescue. Still touching my cross, I silently pointed towards the helicopter. The rescued woman’s delightful cries echoed across the waters.
It was one of those moments that happened very quickly but seemed to last for eternity. As the helicopter began to drift off, I felt my mom’s protective arms around me with determination for our rescue. My feet suddenly lifted in the air, my hand clutched the cumbersome cage of my little bird, and my free arm flailed with surprise. I looked around, really taking in my surroundings at the heightened view as my mother held me up towards the sky. A dark black and blue flood spread for miles in every direction, and tiny dots stood on their roofs, screaming for help. I noticed that the sight was a dark kind of beautiful; Katrina’s destruction was like the Van Gogh of a real life portrait. Her wild brushstrokes splattered trees, bodies, and parts of buildings in abstract dimensions, and the most graceful touch was the large, red helicopter that had halted from its departure.
I craned my neck down to look at my brave mother, who was staring intensely at the copter and mouthing incomprehensible words due to the blaring sound of the propellers. Her brown eyes were wide with pleading and full of hope that we could be taken to safety. I looked back at the helicopter just in time to see it- the young coast guard inside was pointing directly at me.
I was astonished as the helicopter began to fly through the air towards my house, the increasing winds blowing my dress and hair in all directions. As the flying vehicle neared, I began to focus on the features of the man whose arm had not dropped from acknowledging me. He was a young man, fit, and dressed precisely in uniform. His expression was tight with seriousness and intensity. But what stood out most about the coast guard, which is a feature forever seared into my memory, was his limitless blue eyes.
His eyes were not like the blue of the floodwater. They were not destructive or deceiving or harmful. They were not dark and secretive and damaging. They were pure and clear and strong. They lit up the sky and lit up the hope in my heart. The coast guard’s eyes were bright and promising. As the helicopter hovered just above my house, he lowered his body down the rope to meet me at eye level. He gave me a silent promise in that gaze that he would save me. I returned that beautiful stare, and I knew in that infinite moment that the coast guard’s eyes were endless, and my time amongst the growing waters was not.
The man extended his arms towards me, and I looked at my mother with fear. Although my initial instinct was to trust this stranger, how could I know if his intentions were sincere? I hugged the bulky cage of my parakeet against my chest and strained to hear my mom’s urging words. Before I knew it, tight, large hands were wrapping around me, stripping me away from the loving arms of my mom.
The coast guard grabbed the cage of my parakeet gently, and I instinctively met his gaze with defense. My hostility dropped almost instantly as our eyes met. For the first time, he smiled at me. I hadn’t seen a genuine smile like that since the beginning of the hurricane, and through the bitter gusts of wind, my insides warmed. Tightening his grip on both me and the cage of my suddenly calm parakeet, he spoke to me. Despite the crashing waters, howling winds, and chopping helicopter like a metronome, each word rang like bells in my ears.
“You’re both going to be okay, now.”
And I smiled at him. My grin could have lasted for eternity as he securely strapped me to his belt and began to raise in the air towards the helicopter. It’s funny how we don’t think about things until much later, and I hate how I never asked for his name. This man, who is just a tiny memory in the back of my mind today, saved my life, and I didn’t even have the decency to ask for his name. The only distinguishing feature I can remember clearly was his sparkling blue eyes in that short moment that lasted forever.
The coast guard kept his promise; my mom and I did, in fact, end up being okay after he successfully lifted us to the safety of the helicopter. That was the last time I ever saw him. The strange man with the blue eyes is not an active part of my life, but he did give me something that will continue to impact every breath I take- the chance to live my life. Sometimes I pass men with clear, beautiful eyes, and I wonder if he could be the answered prayer that saved my life eleven years ago. But I know that I have not seen him since the day on my rooftop. Eyes as endless as those are limited only to him, but I know that the actions of my coast guard are forever limitless.
To the coast guard who saved my life: if you’re out there reading this… thank you.