I was walking my dog along Bayou St. John when a man cutting the grass asked if I had heard the news. An airplane had crashed into the World Trade towers and also the Pentagon. That's impossible, I told him. The Pentagon is nowhere near the World Trade towers. There is no way an airplane could have bounced off the World Trade towers and then landed on the Pentagon. He swore it was true. I walked home thinking this was some kind of surreal joke. When I turned on the radio, I quickly grasped that it was not a joke. I will never forget the patchy beard on the man who was cutting the grass.
My TV has not worked in years, and I hungered for pictures of what was happening in New York -- my old home town where many of my friends and family still live. I ran to my neighbor's house and sat in front of her TV, watching in tears as the towers exploded and crumbled. Those buildings were full of people, I said, thinking out loud. No one answered.
By noon I went home in a haunted trance. I started calling people in New York. Nothing worked. I paced my hallway, waiting for my sister in New Jersey to call me back. Her husband was somewhere in Manhattan, probably going downtown to work. His brother worked on Wall Street. But no one knew where they were. What to do but wait? As I paced, the radio announcer made the suggestion that people in New Orleans who wanted to help the victims should donate blood.
I have never donated blood before -- for reasons including a dread of needles -- but I instantly decided to follow this suggestion. It was as if someone had heard my unspoken questions: What action can I take in the face of this devastation? How can I make the surreal real? The answer: Give what is most real and most precious to you. Your own blood.
The line of people waiting at the Blood Center on Veterans Memorial Boulevard in Metairie goes out the door. As I take my place in line, a volunteer walks by holding a tray of small Styrofoam cups filled with an icy raspberry mixture, a donation from Smoothie King. We blood donors need to keep our sugar up. I down half of it before I start crying again.
Just before I had left my house I had heard that my sister's husband and his brother were safe. With the relief also comes an acute awareness of what might have been. The other people on line politely ignore me while I wipe my nose on my shirt. Their faces are grim.
Inside the Blood Center, mayhem greets me. Brenda Lastrapes, a Blood Center employee doing special duty today, patiently repeats the same information to each person in line. There is a two-to-three-hour wait to give blood. (This turns out to be wildly optimistic -- it was more like six to seven hours.) Brenda has to shout to be heard because the small waiting room is filled with about 40 people, and the television is blaring CNN at full volume. I sign the list and find a place to sit on the floor.
Just then CNN shows an "amateur video" of the second airplane plunging through the World Trade Center, and black smoke billows across the screen. Cries of "Holy shit!" can be heard coming through the TV. At the same time, a woman directs her two young daughters to hand out Krispy Kreme doughnuts to those of us waiting to give blood. The girls pass back and forth in front of the TV, one offering the box of sugary treats, the other following with a pile of paper napkins. Behind them, men in business suits pelt down a New York street to escape a speeding fireball.
The afternoon progresses into the evening. People are discovering each other in ordinary ways -- where they work, go to school -- and their mundane conversations are punctuated by occasional outbursts in response to the news. Whenever a food donation arrives, Blood Center employee Carolyn Lamury stands in front of the TV and yells, "OK, we need some strong men to help us bring this stuff in." This elicits an eruption off the couch as three or four men, appearing grateful to be given a job to do, stand up and follow her out the door. Their places on the couch are quickly filled.
At the end of the day, Brenda tells me I might as well go home and come back tomorrow. I learn that nearly 300 people tried to give blood in Metairie on Tuesday and 500 people came to the Tulane Avenue facility, and an estimated 1,100 people in total tried to give blood at all the Blood Centers in the New Orleans area combined. The Metairie facility was able to collect just 116 units on Tuesday. On an average day, they get between 10 and 25 donors.
When I return on Wednesday, I learn during my own screening process that I am disqualified from giving blood because I had acupuncture within the past year. This disappointment would be nearly crushing if I had not at least had an opportunity to meet the other people also waiting to make this offering.
One that stays in memory is Cammie Morgan, a 20-year-old Delgado student, who has never given blood before and also admits to being terrified as she reclines in a donor chair. "I'm going to cry," she promises Maria, the technician. "Just don't look, and you won't feel it," soothes Maria. Cammie looks away from her own arm and meets the gaze of another young woman waiting to give blood, as Maria deftly puts a needle into Cammie's vein. The second woman grins and cheers for Cammie. "Do you two know each other?" I ask. "We do now," the woman answers.
It remains to be seen what will actually happen with the blood that has been collected for this emergency. For now it is being stored while the Blood Center waits for instructions from the Civil Defense on how, when and where to transport it. Every Blood Center in the country is doing the same -- plus 5,000 units have been collected from New Yorkers.
Will this powerful national blood drive actually serve its intended purpose? Of course, it is always a good idea to donate blood. The Blood Center needs these donations, and they won't be wasted. But after spending two days in a waiting room, it occurs to me that this drive has also served as a healing process for those of us watching the tragedy from far away.
The significance of donating blood is something deeper than the physical needs of our bodies. Something was torn in our collective humanity by these events. We have been forced -- not for the first time and probably not for the last -- to feel the presence of evil in our world. In such a moment we are compelled to take action, to repair the damage. We act with the hope that our compassion and generosity will move in the world somehow or other -- either literally or figuratively -- to protect ourselves from the evil. In the face of such violence and blood loss, the way to show compassion, that is to feel with the victims, is through another blood offering. For it is through our blood that we truly melt into this melting pot and renew blood ties to our family of fellow humans.