Looking toward the stars from Old Algiers

All hope isn’t lost — and this is how I know.

On Thursday, my husband and I drove to New Orleans and sat on a bench in Jackson Square waiting.

My husband didn’t mind carrying the oversized gift bag containing a small red telescope, glow-in-the-dark ceiling stars, copies of “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” and “The Lightning Thief.”

I had never met the young man I had bought the gifts for, but amidst all the Katrina anniversary hubbub, he was celebrating the 10-year anniversary of his birth. I wanted to celebrate with him and his mama.

Every now and then, the stars align and the universe, along with everyone in it, seems to want to be certain that we keep hope alive. Thursday was one of those nights.

It was also one of those nights that makes me reconsider the ancient Chinese belief that those of us who are supposed to meet are connected by an invisible red thread — which may be long and twisty. However, if we’re supposed to meet, eventually we will.

Ten years ago in the wake of Katrina, a young mother named Qiana Ruffin ended up at Lafayette’s Cajundome as an evacuee. In the chaos of thousands of people in the Cajundome parking lot, Qiana grabbed me as I walked past. She’s not sure why I was the one. All I know is there were lots of other people around, and Qiana was distraught bordering on hysterical. When she told me what was wrong, I understood why.

In the course of the storm, levees breaking and hospitals evacuating — she had gotten separated from her newborn son. Someone had given her a tiny list of seven Louisiana hospitals where he might be. She had called them repeatedly, but no one knew where her son was.

By the time our paths crossed, she had been searching for him and seeking help from any and all sources for three days. Once I started making the calls and queries for her, other volunteers got involved. We were able to find the baby within an hour.

We didn’t call any different or magic numbers than the ones she had already been trying, but for reasons long, complex and sad enough to make me cry forever, when I asked the same questions trying to locate her missing newborn son that she had been asking for three days — we got a different answer.

The baby was in Baton Rouge. A volunteer took the parents to pick him up and the Ruffin family was gone from my life. They left me which much to consider — primarily the lesson of responsibility that those of us who have a voice have one for those who don’t. That lesson was seared in my soul in a way it hadn’t been previously.

And for 10 years, that’s where the story ended for me.

Back then, when I got back to the newsroom, I wrote a news story about it. With all the news of that time, the story ran on page 2A. I never forgot their names and searched for them to no avail.

Two weeks ago, Qiana Ruffin sent me a Facebook message and told me her son really wanted to meet me. My husband and I decided to come to New Orleans and throw him a little birthday celebration. Wrapping up Katrina’s most lingering story for me was a good way to mark Katrina’s 10-year anniversary.

The invisible red thread connecting us was definitely a long and tangled one, but Keldon Ruffin and I finally met Thursday night.

As I was planning our evening, I considered taking Qiana and Keldon to my favorite New Orleans restaurant — Irene’s on St. Philip toward the edge of the French Quarter. I called to make reservations and explained the circumstances of our celebratory dinner. Chef Nicolas Scalco, son of owner Irene DiPietro, called me back. He and I had never met either, but we had one of those conversations that restores your faith in humanity. He told me he was a dad and couldn’t imagine what Qiana had gone through. He assured me he and his staff would make the night one to remember and asked if he could take our photograph to hang on the wall of his restaurant.

If you haven’t been to Irene’s — go. The charming little restaurant with its impeccable staff serves food so delicious that sometimes after I eat there, I dream of its red sauce. It’s been my favorite New Orleans restaurant for years. On Thursday night, its status moved up from there.

From the moment we arrived, Chef Scalco and his team went to unheard heights to make our unlikely party of four feel special. They did little and big things all night long that still make my eyes well up.

It was a night of a thousand small beautiful things tinged with other moments of clarifying heartbreak.

Things like Qiana pulling out her 10-year-old copy of the story I wrote about her search for her son that ran in The Daily Advertiser. She explained that the very tattered copy was one of her most prized possessions. She keeps it in her box of special things, but it had clearly seen better days.

Things like the chef preparing cannelloni, a dish they had taken off the menu years ago. I mentioned how much I had loved it when we chatted on the phone.

Things like the whole restaurant stopping to celebrate with us when they brought out a birthday cake with a tall sparkling candle for Keldon — and in that moment it really felt like they were all with us, all rooting for Qiana and Keldon.

Things like Keldon being more enamored by the sparkly thing than actually eating his cake.

Things like the chef taking a photograph of our party of four to frame and put on the wall of his restaurant alongside the other photographs of more likely suspects.

Things like Qiana and I having a real conversation about what she needs to do to get her GED.

Things like Keldon telling us he wants to be a football player when he grows up and Qiana quickly telling him that he has to get an education first.

Things like the story of their neighbor, who is also rooting for them, who made special arrangements to bring them to the French Quarter that night.

Things like walking with them after dinner to meet the bus that would take them home. It was a walk that felt a lot like being Cinderella after the ball. The chef and I could do what we could to make the night almost perfect — and it was — but the reality was that they had to go back to a life that isn’t an easy one.

The experience of meeting Qiana 10 years ago has, through the years, made me contemplate what is necessary to teach people who don’t know how to be their own best advocates how to do a better job of getting people to listen to them. I am not certain a well-designed program will work. Maybe the only solution is when one end of the red thread meets the other that we figure out how it is we can help each other — and we keep helping until it doesn’t make sense to do it anymore. Surely, we are a long way from that.

In the meantime, there is a little boy near Old Algiers who has a red telescope now. I hope and pray that he will continue to look toward the stars.

$10 dinner for four — for sure

$10 dinnerWith the start of the new school year, my family and I have started a new program. I asked our oldest, Greer, who is a senior this year, to pick one night a week when she would cook dinner. I gave our youngest, Piper, who is in the 8th grade, the option to continue with her kitchen cleaning responsibilities or add cooking into the mix as well. She also chose to cook.
Greer will cook dinner Monday nights and Piper will cook Thursday nights. I added the caveat that if they needed anything special for their meals, that I would give them a $10 budget. Our pantry and refrigerator stay well stocked — I thought the budget was generous. Friends have advised me otherwise. However, for now, we will stand by the $10 and see what transpires. Plus, I’d rather the girls get more practice cooking before we start splurging on more expensive ingredients!
There are other stipulations to our so-called Teenage Cooking Plan. Only one of them can cook pasta each week. To be fair, we’ll rotate weeks. Also, there has to be something green on the plate.
In their first week of cooking, they both surpassed all expectations. Greer made bowtie pasta with clam sauce — and a salad). Piper made chicken and vegetable tikka masala with rice — and a salad. To be clear, Greer made the clam sauce from scratch, and Piper used a packaged sauce for the tikka masala. Either way, they were both delicious meals, and I couldn’t have been more proud.
I posted a photograph of Greer’s meal on Facebook and explained the parameters of our little project. Many of my friends couldn’t believe the $10 limit I had set. I got so much flack about it, I decided to prove a point.
On Tuesday, I went to the grocery story with only $10. I wanted to see if I could buy all the ingredients for a complete meal to feed a family of four. For the record, I succeeded and had many options. I chose to buy a pack of chicken wingettes ($5.10), a bag of black beans ($1.88) and rice (.88 for the whole bag) — totaling $7.86. I had the stuff for a green salad at home and added those into the mix. My salad fixings cost less than the $2.14 I had left on my budget.
Plus, the meal was easy to fix. I just soaked the beans, drained them and cooked them with an onion and a can of Rotel. For the chicken wings, I sprinkled seasoning salt on them and put them in the oven to roast — delicious. The next thing I did might not make it in the kitchens of healthy fanatics, but I did it anyway. After the chicken had been cooking for about 20 minutes, I prepared to cook the rice. I took the cookie sheet out of the oven and poured all that greasy goodness into the pot where I would cook the rice — scrumptious.
I want my daughters to learn what goes into cooking a meal and how much less expensive it is to eat at home than going out for dinner. With a little thinking and elbow grease, it’s possible to prepare fantastic meals at home on a low budget. Plus, once the meal is prepared, we get to sit at the table and eat together. As this is our oldest daughter’s senior year, we are appreciating that the normal evenings of the four of us being at home together are numbered.

Are you up for the $10 dinner challenge? Send me a pic of your ingredients and meal to be featured!

Call tugs at my Katrina heartstrings

Like anyone else who was in South Louisiana in 2005, the looming 10-year Katrina anniversary has had me remembering details from that nightmarish time. Even so, I was surprised when a message popped up on my computer screen Wednesday night.

“Hi My name is Qiana Ruffin on Sept. 3, 2005 u wrote a story about my losing my son through Katrina I been try to reunite with u.”

My heart skipped a beat.

After all this time, I couldn’t believe this woman had found me.

In the message, she went on to give me a phone number and asked me to call. Then she added, “He is big now and he truly wanna to meet u.”

She was referring to Keldon, her then-infant son — who will turn 10 on the Katrina anniversary. I assured her that I truly wanted to meet him too.

He was born prematurely the day Katrina hit. On the day after Katrina, the hospital sent her and her husband home. The baby stayed because of his under-developed lungs and possible heart issues.

The next day, the levees broke.

The hospital did an emergency evacuation. The parents went back to the hospital to get their son and found it empty. Someone there gave them the names of hospitals around the state where they might find their son. Qiana and her husband called every hospital repeatedly. Every hospital told her that they didn’t have her son.

By Friday, she and her husband were at the Cajundome in Lafayette still looking for their son. I was a reporter at the time and was walking in to cover First Lady Laura Bush serving lunch to evacuees.

As I walked by, Qiana grabbed my arm.

Last week, I asked her a question I had always wondered about: Why did she approach me?

She said, “Maybe it was God who told me to. I don’t know why.”

When she grabbed my arm, she said, “I can’t find my baby.”

I eventually learned the whole story. I went to the same people she had asked for help. Within an hour, we found her baby. He was in Baton Rouge. According to her, “Some volunteers took money out of their own pockets and gave it to us to catch a bus to Baton Rouge.”

But just as they were getting on the bus at the Lafayette bus station, another volunteer pulled up in her car and offered to take them directly to the hospital. There, they were reunited with their son.

I remember her husband so well. From the Cajundome, he had walked to all the hospitals in Lafayette, asking if any of them had his newborn son.

When Qiana and I spoke Thursday, I asked about her husband.

“We separated after 17 years,” she said. “The pressures of Katrina turned out bad for him.”

I asked what had happened after she got her baby back and we parted ways. She told me that they lived with her husband’s family for a little while. Then they moved to Atlanta for 18 months before she finally returned to New Orleans as a single mom.

“My house was totally destroyed,” she said. “I had to start all over.”

She told me, that in the years since, she had been working at Arby’s on Canal Street.

“But they closed. They say they’re renovating. They’re trying to get a liquor license. Have you ever heard of such?” she asked. “Only in New Orleans.”

In the meantime, she’s doing hair and says she’s occasionally the candy lady.

I asked exactly what she meant by that.

“I sell zuzus, candy, cold drinks, chips in my neighborhood,” she said. “All the kids love the candy lady.”

At 36, she’s just become a grandmother. She says her new little grandson looks exactly like Keldon did when he was a baby.

“We never found out from the hospital what happened,” she said. “All his records were washed away. Took me about two years to get him a social security number and birth certificate.”

When I first called the phone number she had given me, another lady answered the phone. I asked to speak to Qiana and the lady who answered said. “She’s not here, but I know who you are.”

I could hear a young child in the background talking to her.

“Yes, this is her,” the lady on the phone told the child. “I know you want to talk to her.”

And so she gave him the phone.

“This is Keldon. I want to meet you,” the little voice said.

“And I want to meet you, too,” I assured him.

The space between grief and hope

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In the week after the shooting at The Grand in Lafayette, Louisiana, friends and strangers folded 2,000 origami cranes and created two senbazurus for the families who lost loved ones. This is a watercolor of some of the cranes..

This is what I know — the space between grief and hope is fragile.

Upon further reflection, maybe I don’t even know that. Maybe there’s not a space between those two opposing emotions. Maybe sometimes they overlap making those of us experiencing them even more confused and muddled?

Whether the emotions are side-by-side or overlapping, I know that the energy required to balance grief and glimmers of hope has worn many of us down in recent weeks.

In the time since the shooting at The Grand Theater, many of us  have straddled that space between grief and hope much of every day. Personally, continuing on with the work in front of me has felt like anything but business as usual. In fact, getting the work done has felt more like a betrayal to friends directly involved with the tragedy than the right thing to do.

However, the bottom line is that the same friends would be horrified at the thought of work not getting done or not focusing on making the world a better place — or life just not being lived to the fullest.
Surely in the face of such tragedy in our community, we can do something to be better. To be kinder. To more fully appreciate those we love and care about. To share more bounty and beauty with those who have less than.

On the flip side, I also realize we have to have emotional downtime — we just aren’t wired to feel at full capacity every moment. We need time when we just focus on learning to juggle or watering the plants or chopping onions. We can’t live with full intensity, even in appreciating those we love, all the time — our brains and bodies couldn’t handle it.

I was happy that in the face of tragedy, Lafayette offered free counseling to anyone who thought they might need it. In fact, on Friday afternoon, I decided that an objective ear would be a good way to help me have a better weekend. I just needed to talk through my own concerns, fears and grief with someone who I didn’t feel like I was burdening so that I could put the jumble in my head into some kind of order. So, I took advantage of the free counseling.

The counselor helped me realize that the way I was feeling was typical. She gave me a handout from the American Counseling Association that was full of good advice. All in all, here are its messages:

Take care of yourself. This is a time to “put your own mask on first.” If you don’t you can’t take care of others. Personally, I love to get massages. I decided to treat myself to an extra massage. Figuring out the best ways to tend to yourself — and doing those things on a regular basis — improves life exponentially.

Maintain a healthy routine. Be sure to eat, sleep, exercise and maintain as normal a daily routine as possible.

Pay attention to your emotional health. Remember that a wide range of feelings during these difficult times is common. Know that others are also experiencing emotional reactions and may need your time and patience to put their feelings and thoughts in order.

Be extra patient and kind with others. They may be struggling too. Give them the benefit of doubt.

Limit exposure to the topic. Take a step back from the media exposure. Individuals of all ages may experience stress reactions when exposed (even through media) to shootings or mass violence. According to the ACA, “Changes in eating and sleeping habits, energy level and mood are important signs of distress. Watch for regressed behaviors, such as clinging in children and intense emotional reactions, such as anxiety or a strong need for retribution in adults.” Going to see a counselor is sometimes a healthy option.

Keep your friends and family close. We all need a little extra tenderness sometimes. Rely on those who know you best and love you most.

Remember what makes you happy and provides comfort. Take some time and do those things that calm you.

Ask for help when you need it. Sometimes asking for help takes more courage than going it alone. Be brave and let others help you when you need it.

I’m working hard to slow down and spend time with the people I love most. Indeed, life does go by way too fast.