Blood Connections

I sat on one of the folding chairs lining the mini-gym at the Y on a Saturday morning in January. First and second grade boys were earnestly enacting their version of basketball, my grandson among them. They’re not bad, considering their age.  The leniency about traveling violations and a rule against stealing the ball enable them to enjoy the game as aggressively as their little bodies can muster. The basket has been lowered proportionately as well. I have a good time watching with my son and his mother-in-law, cheering when the boys make a layup or a long shot.

              Only a day before—fewer than 24 hours—I was lying on a padded table donating blood on the same spot. I was feeling smug, because I wasn’t rejected this time due to low blood pressure as I had been twice before. This never used to happen, but I suppose my minor heart condition has a greater effect on my pulse than it used to. It doesn’t seem to slow me down in any other respect.

              This time I did my walking exercise upstairs on the track for an hour beforehand, hoping to pass the blood pressure test. When I arrived for my appointment, I learned that the Red Cross crew was short on staff, and it would be a 30-40 minute wait.

              Back upstairs, more walking.  When I returned, they still weren’t ready. I could feel my pulse slowing down, so I began to exercise with my arms, pumping them as I visited with the person next to me. She was more concerned about rejection due to high blood pressure, which turned out to be the case. I’m sure I looked silly to passersby as I waved my arms, but this was the Y after all, where people exercise.

              Finally my name was called and I was tested. Passed, with the lowest score possible (50 diastolic). I was ushered to the station of a large man with a delightful disposition. He told me his name was Carlos, rolling the R as though savoring it on his tongue. We chatted about the crummy road conditions he had to navigate that morning. I asked whether he likes his job, and he cheerfully responded as he prepared me for the donation. He informed me that he was really good at it, so I said I would be the judge of that.

              Carlos gave me a red plastic ball in the shape of a heart, carefully instructing me on the number of times to squeeze it, then as the blood began to flow, to keep it rolling in my hand. After a couple of minutes I fumbled and dropped it. “I dropped your ball,” I called to him since he was looking away.

              “It’s my heart,” he corrected.

              “Then I’m sorry if I broke your heart,” I teased.

              “You’re done! Four minutes and forty-seven seconds,” he declared proudly. I was astonished. It had never happened so quickly before. I barely had time to pray for the recipients of my blood, as has been my practice while on the table.

Just like that, I was dismissed and given the usual instructions to take care of myself. I stayed for a few minutes and ate a snack just to be sure I would be all right.  I happily went on my way, anticipating a hearty lunch to make up for my loss.

These events happened during a week of mass shootings in California, which would number six within thirteen days by the weekend in that state alone. It was also the week of the brutal murder of Tyre Nichols in Memphis by bloodthirsty police officers. Blood spilled needlessly, violently.

Where do these violent impulses come from? The horrible scenes seem so far removed from this gymnasium, with its innocent children playing and hardworking Red Cross workers displaying the better parts of humanity. But they could be right next door. The potential for violence lies within all of us, showing itself in more subtle ways, like dismissing one another for deeply held beliefs, denying each other’s rights, or exerting power over those who are vulnerable. It happens literally next door no matter where you live.

The little boys on the court are beloved, no less than Tyre Nichols and all the other victims were. My blood donation might go into the vein of a victim of violent crime.

Somehow my mind wants to connect these events.  Blood relation, dear grandson, enjoying life at its best. Blood offered in the same place, for the sake of others. Blood shed at the hands of humans suffering from some deep pain that compels them to inflict it on strangers.

If only we could follow the rules of kids’ basketball: no stealing, no penalty for not having enough skills, lower the basket for the ones who need an easier target. At least we can do our best to be kind, like Carlos with the Red Cross, like the coaches of those kids who gently remind them to guard their man and keep moving to get open for a pass. We must not succumb to despair or cynicism, but instead we can keep the kindness flowing, teach the children how to play fair, lower the basket for the ones who need help.  Love our enemies.

I can’t help but sense the shadow of the cross over all of this.  Jesus, innocent victim bearing the terrible violence in his own body so we can see where our worst impulses can lead us.  Shedding blood for our sake. Giving us hope in a broken world.  Loving the children, the nurses, the victims and even the shooters. Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.

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