Last night I cried over a sea otter. I have cried over dog rescue videos, countless horse movies and of course my own pets – but sea otters are a new one.
In July of 2006, Tim and I took our first trip together to New Orleans. He grew up in Hattiesburg, Mississippi which is a small town less than two hours from the Big Easy. Even though Tim’s roots were in Mississippi versus Lousiana, he would tell strangers he was from ‘outside of New Orleans’. He loved the city, and spent a lot of time there before I met him.
The summer of 2006 was a rough time for Nola. About a year after Katrina, the city was still in shock and recovery mode. On our visit we stayed at this fabulous french hotel because they dropped prices so low Tim could afford it for the first time in his life. Driving around the city, heavy wooden doors to historic shot gun houses still had spray paint messages from the hurricane. Search rescue groups and the ASPCA tagged doors across the city from shacks in the 9th ward to mansions in the garden district. Each X left a message. Date searched. Dogs abandoned. Pets dead. Food left. Bodies found.
Walking through the French Quarter on that trip, the city was struggling but trying. Usually you can hear live music through every open door, brass instruments pinging out into the dark, sticky air outside. On my first trip there, every now and then you’d hear an acoustic guitar plucking over the bass of a club next door. New Orleans was still mourning in 2006, but it was trying.
One of the hurricane’s countless tragedies was the Aquarium of the Americas. Though initially outfitted with generators and plenty of people to keep the fish and animals safe, once the levees break and the city broke into crisis mode the aquarium had to stand on its own for several days. Aside from a white alligator and some tough river fish, almost every inhabit of the aquarium died in a four day span without power or available help. Of the lucky survivors were two sea otters named Buck & Emma.
When I asked Tim if we could go to the aquarium, I wasn’t thinking about the rebirth of New Orleans or how the smell of fish lingered over the Mississippi River for days before staff could get back into the building. Instead I was thinking that I liked fish and I liked aquariums and I liked taking pictures of fish in aquariums.
The tanks we saw in the newly re-opened aquarium were sparse, but none of them were empty. The rare albino alligator looked grumpy and intimidating, and the large freshwater bass hung out in the bottom of their tanks with turned down faces. Everything was status quo, and then we got to the otters.
Turning around the corner to a two story wall of glass, the sea otter exhibit was obviously the pride of the aquarium. “Meet Buck & Emma!” a sign proudly declared off to the side, but I didn’t read a word of it because I was captivated by the joyful creatures inside. These large, brown sea puppies weren’t worried about FEMA and didn’t even know about the Superdome. They spun, played with their toys and spiraled around each other in the water. Tim and I were enchanted.
“They love!” he said up at the pair before looking at me.
I nodded. The creatures loved their toys, loved their life and in some kind of sea otter way – they loved each other. Before we left, Tim appeared from the gift shop with a souvenir for me – a little stuffed animal with two otters holding each other, embroidered with “Buck & Emma”.
Like many trinkets from my marriage, that toy has followed me around in life. Eliot used to covet it more than he could have wanted any dog toy in the world. In his younger days, he would sneak it down off of the shelf and I’d come home to find Buck & Emma in his dog bed with a layer of dried drool. Now it sits on a shelf too high for him, but when my friend’s daughter comes over she ooo’s at the otters. I will pick it up and show them to her, calling them Buck & Emma versus sea otters. They are special otters after all.
I have a friend who’s traveling in New Orleans right now, and following her story on Snapchat is bitter sweet. The drinks on Bourbon street, views of Jackson square and snaps of beignets covered in powdered sugar all bring up different memories from my years of going to New Orleans. Yesterday she went to the aquarium, and I saw a familiar otter splashing around on my phone. I had to text her.
Buck & Emma! I love that aquarium!
That otter was GIGANTIC. Apparently it is a sea otter
Yup! Were there not two?!?!
No. It was at night so maybe he was sleeping?
So I googled “Buck and Emma otters” and the first result confirmed my fears, Buck the sea otter dies at age 18. He was the 5th oldest otter in captivity. I checked the date on the article, and read he died from natural causes nine days before Tim did last year.
And I cried.
I cried because I missed New Orleans, a city drenched in memories and folklore – somewhere I want to visit without Tim there beside me. I cried because that otter was now a otter widow, and I wondered if she missed Buck swimming circles with her or if she stretched out her fins now to a tank that felt much larger. Mostly I cried because even though memory can escape the passing of time, everything expires eventually. Doors close. Couples separate. There is an end to everything, and you can’t relive a chapter that’s complete.