Disaster, An Instruction Manual
Keep them from the news. Turn off the television.
Never let them see the computer screen in your study with its images of smoke or water or ash.Always whisper when you talk to your husband in the kitchen or your sister on the phone.
*After school, while I slice apple, pour sippy cups of milk, Meridian sits at the table, construction paper fanned across its surface. She scratches her crayon hard on the paper. “There’s a hurricane in Arcadia’s town and I’m trying to save her.”
*Disaster: from the Italian, disastro, meaning “ill-starred,” from dis – “away, without,” and astro, “star, planet” from the Latin.
*My father stands in the late fall dark of our backyard in New Jersey with a pack of matches. “Look,” he says, and lights up the MRE, military-issued food he and my mother were given by the National Guard.My daughters are watching from the back steps. I want to imagine the scene is somehow lovely, a shower of sparkles in the backyard grass.
Five minutes after leaving the apartment, my husband calls home from a pay phone. “Someone just told me there’s been a plane crash at the World Trade Center. Turn on the TV.”
I’m sitting in the rocking chair, my baby daughter on my lap, breastfeeding her before I leave. My first reaction is to grip her so tightly she wakes up and begins to cry.*
Disaster: mischance, misfortune, misadventure, mishapDisaster: a total failure
*You want to go down to New Orleans but you can’t. It’s not just that they won’t let anyone in the city—no –rentry is allowed—but you can’t leave your children.You want to save your parents but you can’t. All you can do is watch the news, the city filling like a bowl.
Disaster: a calamitous event; a sudden loss of life; a business failure
How to make it beautiful? How to keep them safe?
“We can’t have another child,” I tell my husband.
“America’s New War” has begun.
On the N-train, potassium iodide tablets safely stashed in my book bag, next to the books of poetry I plan to teach in class, I sit in my plastic seat trying not to look at anyone around me. If you see something, say something, the posters around the subway stations entreat. As if it is important to be suspicious of everyone around you, at all times, but at the same time not to look too closely at them.
Disaster, now obsolete: an unfavorable aspect of a star or planet.
The morning of the hurricane, I placed my last phone call with my parents. We all knew Katrina would be a direct hit, and it would likely be a Category Five storm. “You have got to leave,” I told them. “Go to the Superdome.” They would not listen.
The truth is, I know now, it was already far too late for them to leave the city.
How to turn it into a lesson?
Disaster, an alphabet: act of God, adversity, affliction, bad luck, bad news, bale, bane, blight, blow, bust, calamity, casualty, cataclysm, catastrophe, collapse, collision, crash, debacle, defeat, depression, emergency, exigency, failure, fall, fell stroke, fiasco, flood, flop, grief, hard luck, harm, hazard, holocaust, hot water, ill luck, misadventure, mischance, misfortune, mishap, reverse, rock, rough, ruin, ruination, setback, slip, stroke, the worst, tragedy, undoing, upset, washout, woe.
"Disaster, An Instruction Manual" from Milk Dress. Copyright 2010 by Nicole Cooley Reprinted with the permission of Alice James Books.
Nicole Cooley grew up in New Orleans and now lives outside of NYC. She has published five books, most recently two books of poems, Breach, with LSU Press, which explores her family's experience during Katrina, and Milk Dress, with Alice James Books. She directs the MFA program in Creative Writing and Literary Translation at Queens College-City University of New York where she is a professor of English.