Thirty-six hours before Hurricane Ida slammed into the Gulf Coast, my own levees broke. I was sitting in the courtyard of our house in New Orleans, a pink blur circling me as my one-year-old daughter rode laps on her tricycle.
When she grew tired of her bike, she filled a bucket with water from the courtyard fountain and dumped it on my nine-month pregnant belly, baptizing me in the fiery last breath of summer that is August in lower Louisiana.
The holy water was merely a formality; I had sold my soul the night before.
This was my second late-summer pregnancy. As I neared the end, with the added delight of chasing a toddler this time, I was desperate. I called my cousin and veteran pregnant New Orleanian for advice, and she suggested a pizza that she claimed sends pregnant eaters into labor within twenty-four hours of their first slice. The “Tony’s Pick” from Reginelli’s Pizzeria on Magazine Street. It’s got marinara, mozzarella, pepperoni, pancetta, hot capicola, mushrooms, onions, and capers. The womb’s secret recipe? I was skeptical, but it had worked for her—twice.
That night I ordered the pizza and ate two slices. In the morning, I ate another slice. If I was going over to the dark side, I was not going halfway.
In my defense, my intentions weren’t entirely self-motivated. It was my mom’s birthday, and after she lost her Irish twin the year before, I had the perfect gift in mind: a new birthday twin.
So this is who I was, sitting in the courtyard that sweltering morning: a very pregnant woman full of voodoo pizza, trying to force the hand of God. As the sun rose higher and hotter over our heads, I waddled inside for an AC break. I felt water trickling down my legs and assumed it was leftover holy water from the fountain. When the trickle became a flow, it dawned on me. This was not a baptism; it was a breaking.
I shuffled to my husband’s office in the back of the house, shouting, “My water broke!” and he shouted to someone on the phone that my water broke, and I imagine that person shouted to someone else, on and on into infinity, the water breaking shout heard round the world.
I called my cousin, the same one who had led me to this life of voodoo pizza–induced labor, and she came to stay with our daughter until my parents could make it from Mobile.
The rest of our delivery day was slow and uneventful. Late that night a nurse came in to check on me and said it was time. Our baby boy arrived in two pushes, with just an hour and change to spare on August 26, my mom’s birthday. But his adventure on earth was just beginning. It would be a wild first few days of life.
My husband went home to shower the next morning, and while he was gone, one of the nurses came to check on us and asked what our plan was.
Confused, I asked, “Our plan for what?”
After staring at me for a few seconds, she softly said, “To evacuate. That storm is coming, honey.”
I immediately called my husband, but he didn’t answer. He was busy securing windows, stuffing our thickest towels at the bottoms of hundred-year-old-doors, knee-deep in the plan I didn’t know we needed for the storm I didn’t know was coming.
I called my parents next. They had already loaded up their car with our necessary belongings and planned to leave with our daughter at the crack of dawn for Mobile, where I was told we would be headed as soon as we were discharged.
Early the next morning the doctor came by to remind me to keep my legs elevated during the drive to avoid blood clots, and a lactation specialist handed me plastic spoons to catch any colostrum I might be able to squeeze from my breasts in between breastfeeding stops.
I guiltily watched the nurses load my bags with witch hazel spray, disposable underwear, and diapers. I had already snuck a few of those things from the hospital into my bag, but they just piled it all on top, ignoring the stolen goods that were already there.
We said our goodbyes and readied the baby for his first car ride: a hurricane evacuation across three states.
We pulled out of the darkness of the parking garage into the brightness of a beautiful, sunny day, the wind blowing the late summer heat around in gusts. As soon as we plugged in my parents’ address in Mobile, we were directed onto a narrow backroad hugging the shore. Whitecaps danced across the surface, taunting us as we sat motionless in the line of cars, all headed in the same direction: out.
My husband pulled over at the last gas station before the Pontchartrain Bridge. Even through the windows of the car, you could feel the adrenaline of a people and a place on edge. Cars were parked every which way, and the squeals of pent-up kids rang out while their parents ran around frantically inside.
I was also a hurricane kid, with school days built in for potential storms and a hurricane drawer in the kitchen with batteries and flashlights. Despite my circumstances, I recognized the excitement. I smiled at my own hurricane kid and tried to feel it too.
While my husband went inside to grab water, I attempted to feed the baby. I looked out the window for distraction, but the previous excitement had evaporated. All I could see now was panic on the faces of strangers as they darted in and out of the gas station, arms heavy with bags and faces full of concern. With a less than two-day-old baby attached to my breast, I had never felt more vulnerable in my life. Soon I was panicking too.
I fumbled for my phone and called my husband. No answer. I called again, no answer. I kept calling, tears streaming down my face. He ran back to the car expecting an emergency, but instead he just found me, my shattered nerves, and a hungry hurricane baby.
We squeezed back into traffic, moving like a line of ants all on the same mission, and finally made it to the Pontchartrain Bridge. I closed my eyes and tried to force myself not to look at the clock, but my eyes kept betraying me, like fingers picking a scab. I turned my eyes to the baby instead and watched his face, memorizing every inch, creating a tiny bit of newborn bliss in a car driving through chaos.
I woke up when I felt the car pull off the interstate and allowed my eyes to land on the clock. It had been four hours. The drive from New Orleans to Mobile is usually two hours, give or take ten minutes. I looked out the window for a landmark and saw a sign that sent shockwaves through my system.
Welcome to Slidell.
In four hours, we had only traveled a little over thirty miles.
We stopped at a grocery store so I could use the restroom. I was still wearing my striped hospital nightgown and slippers, and when I looked down, I saw blood stains on both. A few people glanced at me as I walked by, and I gripped the plastic bag in my hand a little tighter, my postpartum cleaning supplies stuffed into this Ziploc travel bag of insanity.
When I found the restroom, I walked in and immediately walked out. Dirty toilet paper lined the floor, the toilets were clogged and leaking, hair was strewn across the mirrors, and the sinks were filled with brown water.
My husband saw me walking out of the store and dropped his phone, ending the call he was on with my mother to reassure her we were okay although he was unsure if we were. I started to hyperventilate in the car, my body throbbing, my mind blowing up with panic.
I could feel his eyes monitoring me in the rearview mirror as we drove around looking for another bathroom. We passed a pharmacy (closed) and a fast-food restaurant (closed) and a bank (closed) and did a few U-turns until we finally found a gas station that was open.
I walked inside, created tunnel vision, and cleaned myself up. I got back in the car, turned my eyes to the baby, and we started again.
Over the next three hours, we stopped a dozen more times for food, water, coffee, diapers, restrooms, and breastfeeding. The pillow underneath me began to feel like a block of concrete. The painkillers from the hospital quickly became the best party favors I’ve ever received, and the baby, he was a savior. Without his little eyes to lock on, I think I would have begged my husband to drive us off that first bridge.
We made our second to last stop in Kiln, Mississippi, a little over ninety miles from Mobile. I slipped the baby out of the car seat to feed him, near naked in the last glimpses of sunlight, any shred of modesty I had left discarded somewhere on a back road in Louisiana.
My husband snapped a picture of me in the backseat, still in the nightgown stained with blood and sweat and tears. As the sun began to set on the second day of our second baby’s life, I looked at that picture and started to believe we were going to make it.
When we finally passed the Sweet Home Alabama sign, GPS directed us off the interstate again, and we started a dark crawl on rural back roads for what would be the final hour of our evacuation.
I knew this drive so well that the first landmarks were like salt in the wound, familiar faces that offered no comfort despite how long we’d known each other. The foreignness of the alternate route was a respite, at first. But then the baby fell asleep, and there were no more silent conversations between our eyes to keep my mind awake.
I had only slept in spurts since the night before my water broke, and my husband had slept less. He had been driving all day and now into the night, his two hands on the wheel trying to hold us together as best he could, but as night started closing in around us, his eyes started closing too.
My own eyes were drowning in the darkness that stretched out infinitely in front of us, while my mind overflowed with desperate prayers, begging the minutes and miles to run hand in hand and deliver us home. I looked for reassurance in the rearview mirror, but all I found were two closed eyes. I screamed, and we returned to the bright lights of the interstate for the duration of the drive.
A little over ten hours after we left New Orleans, we pulled onto my parents’ street in Mobile, the darkness carrying us all the way to the house I grew up in at the end of the street.
Through the windows, I saw my parents jump off the couch and run to the front door. As soon as my mom’s arms touched mine, I crumpled to the ground, rivers of relief flooding from my eyes.
As time has passed and smoothed over the jagged edges of our journey, it’s easy to see that everything happened for a reason, and to be overwhelmed with gratitude for the things that carried us: Irish twins and August heat, two steady hands on the wheel and two tiny eyes locked on mine, overflowing bags of hospital supplies and party favors to ease the pain, gas station bathrooms and truck stop photos, constant phone calls like arms around our shoulders, a brand new big sister, the house I grew up in, and the waiting arms of my mother.
If not for those things, I’d still be sitting in the backseat at that very first stop, just shy of the Pontchartrain Bridge, watching the water start to reach over the bulkheads and kiss the road. If not for those things, and voodoo pizza.