By Linda L. Crowe
I gave blood for the first time at age fifty-four. I’d wanted to give before then, but at less than one-hundred-ten pounds—the minimum weight required to donate blood—I was too scrawny.
I came from a blood-donating family; both my parents were periodic blood donors. They went about it faithfully, though without fanfare. They felt the same way about giving blood as they did about voting. It was a privilege—as well as a duty—of citizenship. When he hit his fifties, my father had to give it up. He’d faint, or come close to it, after his appointment with the needle because of his low blood pressure. My mother gave blood well into her later years. My sister and her husband both donate when the bloodmobile rolls around.
Over the years, I’d attempted to slip past Checkpoint Charlie, always to no avail. Once, in South Carolina, I even wore my steel-toed boots at the weigh-in, but the nurse—she must have worked in a prison at one time— was on to my tricks. She slapped a consolation sticker (I Tried to Give Blood Today!) on my chest and marched me back outside.
As middle age crept up on me, so did my weight. One fine day, I stood on the scale and looked down. One hundred ten. Opportunity presented itself in the form of a sign at my former church: Blood Drive Here This Thursday. 1 p.m. to 7 p.m.
The Methodists: “Open hearts, open minds, open doors.” Open veins, too, it would seem.
When separated into its components (red blood cells, plasma, platelets, and cryoprecipitate), one pint of blood can save three lives. The goal for this church on this day was thirty pints. Or, potentially, ninety souls.
How appropriate that my first blood donation would happen at a Methodist Church. My father came from a long line of Methodists. His grandparents were Methodists in Sweden before they immigrated to Massachusetts in the late 1800s. Daddy attended a Methodist Church Camp as a boy during the Great Depression. Even his middle name was Wesley, after John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist church.
My parents met at the Methodist Church in Hopewell where my mother sang soprano in the choir. I was christened there as a baby, attended before my earliest memories. I was married there when I was thirty-seven. But by the time I turned eight or ten, Mom no longer sang in the choir. She and Daddy attended only sporadically, making special appearances on Boy Scout Sunday, when Dad’s scout troop marched the flag in, or if I played my flute for a special hymn. Sometimes, not even then. By the time of their divorce when I was nineteen, my father was an absentee on the membership roles, and my mother was a self-declared atheist.
Except for a brief time in college, and despite my parents’ religious apathy, I’d gone to a Methodist church all my life, even attending as a girl when my parents had stopped. I was a pious little thing back then, though I’m not sure where it came from. I loved the hymns, the advent wreaths, the Easter cantatas. But after all those years, did I still buy the whole bit about the magic baby, forgiveness, resurrection, life after death? For that matter, did I ever?
When I lived in South Carolina in the early 1990s, I attended a tiny rural Methodist church. One Sunday in May, a young college-aged woman stood up to testify. “If a man came in this church right this minute with a gun and threatened to kill anyone who was a Christian, I would stand up and say, Jesus Christ is my risen Lord and Savior.” She continued in her heavy southern accent. “And I wouldn’t be afraid because I believe in life after death.”
Wow, I thought. I wanted to have that kind of faith. It would make things so much simpler. Maybe I just needed to try harder. Pray more. Just keep showing up. Which is how I arrived at Nelson UMC in 1996, after I married and moved to Nelson County. I liked this small church immediately. The choir seemed overjoyed to have another alto. The congregation took on meaningful projects. The men worked on Habitat houses. The women knitted prayer shawls for cancer patients. The members of the church collected school supplies, coats, mosquito nets for communities in need both near and far. Most of the congregation seemed heavily biased in favor the Virginia Tech Hokies (always a good thing in my book). I had found a new church home.
When my mother died in 2008, I took what I intended to be a temporary leave of absence from church. She’d lived two hours away in Hopewell and during her six-month illness, I traveled down there a couple of times a week. Combined with my more-than-full-time job, I was away from home a lot. Sunday had become the only day I had to relax at home with my husband, do laundry, help him with projects, maybe cook supper.
During this time, I missed seeing people in church, and I missed singing in the choir. But Nelson is a small county. I ran into folks in the grocery store, the library, the farmer’s market. “When are you coming back to church?” they’d ask. “When things settle down,” I told them. I would return to Sunday morning worship when things got less hectic.
Worship. Who was I kidding? When you sing in the choir, you don’t have time to actually worship. Right off the bat, you’re looking at the bulletin to see what hymns you’ll be singing that morning, then marking them in your hymnal. Even during the pastoral prayer, you can’t really concentrate because you don’t know exactly when it’s going to end and when it does, you’ve got to chime in with the Choral Response. Will it be the three-fold or the seven-fold Amen? You lean over to whisper to your fellow alto, trying not to make a spectacle of yourself, but because you’re sitting right up front near the altar, you’re doing just that.
There were other problems for me as well. In my mind, a lot of what came after Christ’s life, and always in the name of Christ, didn’t seem consistent with Christ’s message of acceptance, tolerance, and non-violence. In the Methodist church for example, homosexuals are welcome in the congregation, but not in the pulpit. With all the starving and homeless people in the world, why the focus on homosexuality? The Bible makes some references to it for sure, but it is even more clear on topics like adultery and killing, as in Thou Shalt Not. Methodists’ open minds, it seemed, opened only so far.
When we sang “Onward Christian Soldiers, Marching as to War. With the Cross of Jesus, Going on Before,” I used to wonder, “Why not Marching as to Peace?” After September 11 and the wars that followed, I couldn’t sing that hymn anymore. I would stand with my hymnal in hand and not even mouth the words. I could barely stomach it when the minister read Psalm 137, ending with “Happy shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock!” Jesus must get himself stinky drunk when he sees the twisted ways we’ve interpreted the Bible. Thou Shalt Not Kill. Were there some exception clauses that I missed along the way?
My Sunday school teachers taught me that Jesus is love. The ministers all along the way explained that when Jesus died, he became part of the Holy Trinity— the Father, Son and Holy Ghost. God is omniscient, they said, and omnipotent to boot. I thought about the on-going world condition that included genocide, poverty, and violence. If God was all-knowing and all-powerful, I reasoned, then he wasn’t all good.
I did not return to church immediately following Mom’s death in June of 2008. Dad’s Alzheimer’s had worsened, my sister and I had moved him into an assisted living facility, and I was on the road more than ever. Yet the following Christmas Eve, I attempted a re-entry.
I’d always loved the quiet excitement of the midnight service. Candles lit, poinsettias on the altar, the evergreen scent of the Advent tree. But now a large projection screen hung from behind the altar. Suddenly something like a comet swirled across the screen as though from another planet, and at the end of the tail lay a baby in a manger, as a large deep voice boomed, “And Unto You is Born This Night, in the City of David, A Savior, Who is Christ the Lord.”
“Christ in a bucket!” my mother used to swear when exasperated. Christ on a comet, I thought now. It was too much. I slipped out the back door before the end of the service and drove back through the night toward home.
Life is full of inconsistencies, but here was the real question for me. Could I worship someone or something I wasn’t sure I believed in to begin with? Christian faith. After a lifetime of looking for it, practicing it, even faking it, I had to admit it. I just didn’t have it. What I did have finally was the required poundage, and now another cross beckoned. The Red Cross.
It was raining when I arrived at the fellowship hall to donate blood. The workers were still setting up, and three or four donors were ahead of me as I filed past the greeting table manned by church volunteers. “Given before?” asked a friendly-faced man I didn’t know.
“This is my first time,” I said.
“Good!” said Dawn, a woman from the church I’d always liked. “You’re mine!” She peeled off a sticker and wrote the number 1 on it. She handed me some reading material, and I took my place in a row of seats to wait.
I looked around. This fellowship hall had been built since I’d last worshipped here. Gleaming acrylic floors replaced dull tiles. Brass chandeliers brightened the room, providing cheerful contrast to the gloom outdoors. Though they’d been stashed away for today, I could picture the folding tables and chairs that usually filled this space; could almost smell the fried chicken, garden vegetable side dishes, and vanilla-wafered banana pudding that adorned the counter during the many covered dish dinners I’d enjoyed here over the years. Now this busy place prepared to give sustenance of another kind.
Sanford Shepard, a rising senior at Nelson County High School was seated in a chair beside me, tapping away on his iPhone. He was a babe in arms when I’d first come to this church, seventeen years ago.
“How did your soccer season turn out?” I asked. His picture had been in the paper more than once that spring.
“We lost 2 to 1 in the regional semi-finals,” he said. “Lost to a Northern Virginia school though, so that’s not too bad.”
“Not bad at all,” I agreed. Little Nelson County High School had just graduated one hundred seventy seniors. The Northern Virginia school would probably graduate ten times that number. Then I asked something else that was on my mind. “Have you given blood before?”
“Oh, yes, ma’am,” he said politely, then returned to his phone.
I was impressed. You can start donating blood when you’re sixteen years old, with a parents’ permission. Here he was, maybe seventeen, with multiple pints under his belt.
The Dalai Lama says that kindness is his religion. I’ve been giving that a try, but constant kindness is harder than it sounds. The Bible, the Buddhists, even the Boy Scouts entreat us to be pure in thought, word, and deed. As difficult as it is to constantly do good deeds, that’s the easiest one of the three. Followed by words. I curse and sometimes take the Lord’s name in vain. Even when I try not to, I slip up. If someone swerves into my lane, the first thing out of my mouth is “shit,” which may well be the last thing out of my mouth someday.
But thoughts? How is it possible to maintain integrity in thought? I’m working on it, but it seems an insurmountable task. Mostly I’m thankful that people aren’t mind readers. I remind myself that each day offers a new opportunity to make a new start. To work harder. To try to be better. Let the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in thy sight.
For me, it was one step at a time. One thought at a time, one word at a time. And in that fellowship hall, I’d joined others who were doing their good deed for the day.
After a bit, a uniformed woman who looked to be in her mid-thirties, and who sounded exactly like Whitney Houston when she spoke, led me behind a small curtained enclosure for a “mini-physical.” If I passed it, I could advance to a questionnaire. If that went well, I’d “get the chair.”
I passed the physical—great temp, super blood pressure—but nearly balked at the finger prick. I hated those things worse than I hated needles. It’s practically impossible to sit calmly while someone jabs something sharp into your oh-so-sensitive fingertip. You never know exactly when they’re going to do it, so you try not to anticipate it and pull back, but you do anyway. It’s just dreadful.
I thought of my son, who needed surgery on his arm when he fell off a ladder. And of my other son, who climbs tall trees with chain saws. I thought of my nephew who recently joined the Marines at a time when the nation is at war. And of his brother, who joined the police force at a time when Virginians have never been more armed and dangerous. It is better to give than to receive.
I survived the finger prick.
I breezed through the questionnaire, which contained everything from where I’ve lived over the years (might I have been exposed to Mad Cow disease in England?) to questions about my sex life. I was escorted to a comfortable lounge chair. Whitney Houston swabbed my left arm with brown liquid, waited thirty seconds, then did it again. This time she made Van Gogh swirls until the crook of my elbow looked like an abstract painting, suitable for framing. “My artwork,” she said with a Mona Lisa smile.
I dreaded what came next, that horror of a needle. I made myself look elsewhere.
Elsewhere happened to be where young Sanford reclined, blood flowing from his athletic arm to a bag, nearly full. A boy’s blood.
All the ways young men can and do lose their blood— often in great quantities— flooded my mind. Car crashes, athletic injuries, plain old foolishness. I saw chainsaws, mortar rounds, bullets. Blood everywhere.
“We got it,” Whitney said, and I watched my own blood fill the clear tubing like tomato juice through a crazy straw.
There is no substitute for human blood, and in the U.S. and Canada, we need a lot of it; one person or another needs blood every three seconds. Patients use 43,000 donated pints each and every day. Shortages of all blood types occur during the summer, and winter holidays.
A few years ago, I dreamed about Jesus. He was the Caucasian Jesus presented to me in childhood, fair-skinned with long reddish-blond hair and beard. He was seated under a tree, beckoning small children to come unto him. I don’t remember what else happened except that when I awoke, there was no doubt in my mind—none—that Jesus Christ was the risen Lord and Savior. I had the feeling that I’d found what I’d searched for all my life. The whole deal, it was all true. I retained this assurance, and with it a feeling of joy, throughout the morning.
Then the doubts began to set in. Jesus wasn’t a white man bedecked in spotless flowing robes. He was a roaming Middle-Eastern man who bore more resemblance to Osama bin Laden than the Jesus of my girlhood. My dream must have been more of an aspiration than a visitation. Had Jesus really taken time out of his busy schedule to appeal to my skepticism? My certainty faded. Did I not have the strength to believe, or was it all in my mind? I prayed for the vision to come again, but it never did. Was it a visitation, or was it just a dream? I didn’t know. But over time, I’ve gained clarity on what it is I do believe.
I believe that there are more people who claim to have spoken directly to God than who actually have. I believe that Jesus is among those who actually have. I believe that his practice of embracing the poor, the sick, those disenfranchised by society, showed us a way to be good in the world. I believe what we do here and now is more important what comes after this life.
And what I was doing here, was giving blood. While my bag filled, I recalled so much time spent in so many hospitals. My mother’s cancer surgery, my father’s heart valve replacement, my husband’s adrenalectomy. Our sons, our friends, our families. All those operations. All that blood lost and replaced. It was always there and I rarely gave it a thought.
But I saw it now. My mother and father in a blood mobile in Hopewell. Big city people in line at collection centers. Rural people in country churches. This is my blood, shed for you.
Twenty minutes after I started, I joined other freshly bled people in the recovery area, drinking juice and chatting. Sanford was back with his phone.
I should have asked him how many pints he’s donated in his life thus far. All I knew was that I had some catching up to do. That day, I made a start.
LINDA L. CROWE lives in Nelson County, Virginia, with her husband Kevin, big-hearted dog Tem, and mean-spirited cat Mildred. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in Virginia Forests Magazine, Slaughterhouse, River Teeth’s Beautiful Things, Full Grown People, NPR’s Open Mic, and Studio Potter.