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.