Pulse (for the Irish Times)

On Saturday I woke to the horrible news that a young singer had been senselessly shot while signing autographs at a venue just 5 miles (8km) from our house. I shook my head and lamented the loss of this young life, and the fact that Orlando would now be synonymous with the violent act of one crazed man.

On Sunday I woke up to the sounds of helicopters hovering in the airspace over my house. Scrolling through my newsfeed minutes later I learned, with horror, about the shooting at Pulse Nightclub, less than a mile from our front door.

I pass Pulse every day on my drive to work. In its past incarnation as Dante’s Restaurant, my husband and I and a group of friends used to enjoy Thursday happy hours there every week. Since it became Pulse we’ve visited a few times, even held my sister Audrey’s hen night there a few years back.

Now, the early morning news said, 20 people were lying dead inside those walls. I tried to wrap my mind around that, and couldn’t.

I stepped out front and saw our neighbour Fred across the street, partially obscured by the large rainbow flag that flies in his yard. I put my hands up to the sky – what gives? Fred walked towards me with tears in his eyes. We hugged and he told me that he was frantically trying to get hold of his brother, who is often at Pulse on a Saturday night. He told me he was leaving for church. I told him I felt I needed to go too.

I hastily dressed and 10 minutes later was sitting in a pew at Christchurch Unity, a non-denominational church with about a 50 per cent gay congregation. People were hugging each other, sitting looking stunned, crying. Fred told me he’d been in touch with his brother and he was safe. I listened to the uplifting message of tolerance and love and, feeling somewhat better, headed home.

My husband was home from his shift at Winter Park Fire Department by then. He had been unaware of events at Pulse. His crew did run calls for Orange County overnight, but hadn’t known why. He told me the number of dead had been raised to 50 and that this shooting, a stone’s throw from our house, was now being labelled the worst mass shooting in American history. None of us could comprehend the magnitude of that. Columbine, Sandy Hook, Orlando. How is that possible? Down the road. Madness.

Our 18-year-old, Ciara, suggested we go donate blood. My sister had already dropped her young children off so she could do so too. I called home to Cork to let our parents know we were well.

At 10.30am we arrived at the blood centre to see a long line of people reaching out to the street and wrapping back around again into the parking lot. We found my sister Audrey, standing with our friend Lu Hanbury from Dublin, and began our wait. The crowd, a mix of all the demographics, was sombre. People were crying, hugging and expressing pure disbelief that such hatred and violence had visited us in the City Beautiful.

Volunteers were distributing water, snacks and sunscreen to those of us in line. June in Orlando is brutally hot. As we waited the donations got more elaborate. Local restaurants sent employees laden with burritos, ice creams, pizza and subs. An ex-Orlando Magic player, very concerned with everyone’s hydration levels, handed out water bottles insistently. A bank of portable toilets was delivered.

News crews from all over interviewed the people in line. We saw crews from Norway, China, England and Vietnam. The sombre feeling of the morning lifted as the hours passed by, and a strangely muted festive atmosphere settled in. We felt we were part of something, part of a solution, and we were held up by each other.

The lines were amazing; one reporter speculated as many as 1,000 people were at our site alone. When officials from One Blood came to speak to us, about three hours into the wait, to tell us we were likely to be in line for as many as five more hours, hardly anyone left.

Audrey and I had our donation plans thwarted by a Mad Cow Disease restriction on those of us who lived in Ireland in the late 1980s and early 90s. We waited with Ciara, because she was still free to donate. When she got to the registration point we left her to go grab a drink and digest the happenings of the day.

Shortly after we arrived at Vanbarry’s, a restaurant owned by a friend of ours, we realised we had been carried along on a wave of altruism and unity to that point. Separated from the crowd we were left to consider the reality of the violence. The two helicopters still hovering in sight were a stark reminder.

Loud music played and a large group of drunk people seemed oblivious to the fact that the worst mass shooting in US history had just occurred just 3km away. It seemed bizarre. I felt oddly annoyed that the whole place wasn’t full of people hugging and crying. Audrey and I sipped our beers and barely spoke.

I saw him then. A young man intermittently sobbing and staring into space. Wanting to share some of the solidarity we felt at One Blood, and wanting to feel that connection again ourselves, we went and hugged him. His friends told me he worked at the restaurant and had lost multiple friends at Pulse. I asked how he was even vertical, and they told me he needed to be with his work family – he needed their support.

Other patrons followed suit and shared their condolences and hugs. A few minutes before 6pm, everyone gathered around a TV for a live news report and, though not observed on the news station we were tuned to, one of the bartenders announced there would be a minute’s silence. Our friend fell to the floor and his support dissolved around him. It was heartbreaking.

My husband called from One Blood, where he had gone to Ciara, and I went to join them. It had been almost 11 hours since we first joined the line. Inside were the people who had been around us in that line, sun burnt and exhausted but still managing smiles. Amazingly, the staff inside the centre were still smiling too, even as the TVs on the walls reminded us of the horrific reason we had all come together.

News crews were still interviewing donors; a persistent crew from Vietnam filmed needles going in to veins. A photographer shot multiple frames of bags of blood lying on a cart. I watched my daughter’s blood flow into a bag next to her gurney and thanked God she was one of the people able to help, rather than one of those in need of help.

My daughter’s first time donating blood was on the day that the worst mass shooting in US history occurred less than a mile from our home.

I reread that sentence and still can’t come to grips with it. It was a long and harrowing day.

Here’s the thing I take away from this; evil visited but love lives here. One man brought the hate but thousands replied with love. Psychological scars will remain, and I wonder how long it will take, passing Pulse on the way to work, before I won’t think of this day. But I feel more bonded to my community now than ever before. Orlando Proud.