Last night, I saw the splendor of our future. Not in the glow of the bursting full moon or the blaze of crackling fire, but in the halo of my protégé.
In a tiny room, bathed in the glow of a rose-glass lamp, one of our dearest and loveliest patients received the Lord’s call. Reaching for the light, the elderly woman’s fingers trailed the air as if a loved one’s grasp fell short, time and time again. The hand she finally found belonged to you—her lifeline between the realms of heaven and earth.
Then tonight, I discovered you alone and grieving in our private chapel. Your tears fell to the stone floor with the weight of time’s relentless march, reminding me of all the life lights we’ve watched flicker out and the spirits we’ve had the privilege to set free. While we share what some call the curse of immortality, in your hands it’s a miraculous blessing. You, the youngest of old souls, soar closer to the flame than most of us dare—ever vulnerable to the heart-wrenching pain of human tragedy. Dignity and grace in the face of death…that is a talent born into your blood.
So, on this year’s darkest and deepest of winter nights, I implore you to celebrate the ritual of Solstice with our family. We will feed well, drink deeply, and unite our energies until the veil separating us from the ancestors falls away.
Mourning and respect offered for those lost, will heal your heart. Joy that transcends time and restores hope for the new year, will grant you wings.
Until tomorrow night then, my brave angel,
The wilted crowd dwindled as party-goers stumbled into the darkness, hurried home or hailed cabs. Only the drunkest were brave enough to stroll the streets, along with those who had nothing to fear from ordinary predators.
A man with jet-black hair loosened his silk tie and slowed his step in the middle of the sidewalk.
“Stop…stopping.” Steven crashed into him and bounced off as if he hit a steel wall.
The dark man’s eyes glazed over as he stared past a striped awning and into the soft light of the all-night kitchen.
“What’s wrong?” A young woman ran her hand over his midnight blue suit.
“I miss this.” He inhaled the aroma of coffee and fried oil. “So much it hurts.”
“Then quit breathing, fool.” Steven tried to pull the woman away. “When’s your boyfriend going to learn—can’t have luxuries from both worlds.”
“Not necessarily true.” She tapped her chin. “There’s a compromise.”
“At least the take-out line isn’t hideous—” Steven stepped over stains on the concrete and shuddered. “Mercy, this needs to be hosed down.”
“We’ll sit.” The woman said, pulling her boyfriend along as he tilted his head at the clink of spoons on white china.
“You’ve got to be joking.” Steven pointed to the disarray of tables and chairs. “To sip black coffee?”
“Like old times.” She pushed past him and shot a look over her shoulder. “Please?”
“I’m overdressed for this…a bit like that filthy bar crawl your forced me to endure, so we could hear rock music that made my ears bleed.” Steven whipped the silk square out of his lapel pocket. “Doesn’t this ensemble just scream smoky jazz club?”
“Screams something.” The man’s eyes wandered up a waitress’s arm as she poured coffee. He lingered on the pulse of her neck.
“You’ve had plenty of that tonight.” The woman snapped her fingers in front of his face and pushed a plate of powdered sugar across the table. “Try a different treat.”
The man dropped a pinch of sugar on his tongue. “It’s safe—for us, I mean?”
“Bit juvenile.” Steven rolled his eyes. “But, won’t kill you.”
The woman dropped her head to the table when her boyfriend smashed the plate into his own face.
“That man,” Steven poked her shoulder and waved away a blizzard of powder. “All yours. My hand to—”
“If you say God,” The man licked sugar off his knuckles. “I’ll break your scrawny neck.”
Steven raised his hand next to his face, straightening one finger at a time. “—to whoever’s in charge of this debacle.”
Usually I agonize over my blog posts to make them perfect, lyrical masterpieces. In these days leading up to the 10-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, all the pretty words have abandoned me.
Should I talk about it at all? Being quiet might be easier…but it feels wrong. I need to say something.
Those scary hours are jumbled in my head, fuzzy memories that still feel like yesterday. I was home in New Jersey, working nights and following the storm on every TV in the Intensive Care Unit. Most of my family was in New Orleans for Tulane move-in and a convention at the Superdome. I fell asleep the next morning relieved that they had all evacuated—caught one of the last planes out or took their rental car and drove east.
I woke to catastrophic images that are still seared in my mind. Precious life, love and history, stolen by the flood.
In the heartbreaking days afterward, I learned a lot about people I thought I knew. Very few “friends” here shared my grief. Some of the stupid comments I heard….
“Why do you care about a city thousands of miles away? Isn’t everything that flooded a slum anyway? Can’t you just vacation somewhere else? Who builds a city below sea-level?”
And then, the most idiotic comment of them all…
“I think New Orleans needs to go bye-bye.”
In my entire life, I’ve never been so close to punching someone in the face.
Plenty of people shook my faith in human nature, but others lifted and restored it. Our friend Carol, drove a food truck around the parishes for weeks, feeding workers, recovery volunteers, and local residents just trying to survive. If we never told you, Carol, we are so very proud and thankful for your effort.
So, my husband Scott and I aren’t New Orleans residents. Yet. We may have fallen in love on vacation—so many do. For Scott it was 40+ years ago—getting up early and ordering coffee at Morning Call for his family. For me it was 20 years ago—whatever was in the air for my first breath, never let go. He wanted to rebuild with his hands. I wished I could help evacuate patients from the hospitals. We didn’t lose our home to the storm, but we felt sickeningly powerless and disconnected. How could we ever give back to a city that’s brought us such joy? Give back enough?
We went back the summer after the storm—before the cruise ships came back—while a lot of the restaurants and shops were still closed. We talked to every person, bought whatever caught our eye–enough to share with everyone at home. We ate every breakfast at the Old Coffeepot on St. Peter St., because not much else was open and their omelettes are awesome. We searched for the shop that sold ceramic houses I collect and an artist that was my mother-in-law’s favorite. We rejoiced when we found them both.
If we ever complain that “the Quarter is so crowded”, we stop and remember when it was a ghost town and how desperately empty those streets felt without the music. Now, we embrace the crowds and (most of) the foolishness, because the alternative is unthinkable. Every chance we get, we introduce new people to New Orleans, bring them with us to visit and watch their eyes light up when they start to get “it”. That mission will go on forever.
I wrote Monsters and Angels as a distraction for my mind after Sandy caused so much destruction in New Jersey, but I set it in New Orleans. My characters live there, my heart is there, my visits are more frequent—every few months. When it’s time to leave, Scott needs to pry my fingers off the airplane door so they can close it.
Last week, I heard Trombone Shorty play at a little theater in New Jersey. From the Preservation Hall Jazz Band’s first song until the second line that closed the show, I let myself be spirited away. During one amazingly long note Shorty played…it went on for minutes…many, many minutes…it occurred to me. The first time I stepped onto New Orleans soil, I heard that note. Felt it in my soul. It started like a whisper, swelled into a symphony, flickered and almost died once—but it’s growing stronger again, every day.
One stirring, haunting, magically endless note.
Tonight I had the pleasure of visiting a historic, French Quarter residence to interview Sorcha B. Alden, a 2015 nominee for the “Light Up Every Room” award. A career nurse, Sorcha was born September 3, 1916 and has cared for patients around the world in her quest to relieve suffering and celebrate every precious moment of life. She currently resides in New Orleans, Louisiana.
Ms. Alden, congratulation on your nomination!
Thank you for traveling so far for to interview me.
I know you’re from New York City, were you born there?
Yes, at St. Margaret’s Hospital in Hell’s Kitchen.
What prompted you to move so far south?
Initially, for a job, but New Orleans gets under your skin. I felt the ground shake when I stepped off the train in 1935…I didn’t realize it then, but I was home.
What inspired you to become a nurse?
My mother, Adelaide Alden. She passed away when I was 21 years old. My life’s path has been about honoring her legacy.
You don’t look a day over 22…what’s your secret?
I may have found the fountain of youth, but it’s cost me everything.
Who has been the most influential person in your incredible journey and why?
Dr. Raimond Banitierre. He taught me how to stare adversity in the face and cherish every gift I was given. Balancing love and duty was his greatest strength.
Have you ever been in love?
Once. Well…yes, just once.
Are you married?
In my heart, I am. Officially, my husband and I are separated. It’s complicated.
What are you most passionate about?
Preserving the dignity of people at the end of their lives. Treasuring our ancestors and their memories.
What makes you angry?
Seeing people disrespected because they’re different. Acceptance is the key to survival.
What makes you strong?
The unwavering support of my family and friends.
What character trait do you most admire in others?
One more hard question…what was the most important day of your life?
New Year’s Day, 1955. I faced my fears and won back New Orleans for the Banitierres and Aldens.
Now, let’s have some fun. What’s your favorite drink?
The Garnet Martini. It won’t be on the drink menu, but any New Orleans bartender worth their salt can mix it.
Band—Volbeat. Musician—Lady Gaga or Meatloaf. Depends on my mood.
Your favorite color?
Favorite vacation spot?
Scotland. The Isle of Skye.
What holiday do you look forward to each year?
Halloween…and Christmas. I love to decorate for both.
If you could give a piece of advice to future generations, what would it be?
Strength to forgive your enemies, vision to see power in diversity, and the courage to lead will pave the road for a brilliant future.
Even thousands of miles away, hints bombard the senses, every minute of every day.
The burst of fresh coffee’s aroma, and the knowledge that it won’t be perfect.
A wall of air so steamy, it’s worn like soggy paper.
Silent fog, swirling, devouring all in its path without remorse.
Snippets of jazz, riding on a veiled wind.
The fleeting whiff of a long forgotten candle.
Whispers of spirits hidden in the midnight rain.
In her sultry voice, New Orleans is always calling us home.