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Bill Capossere


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Contributor's Notes

Blood Ties

Bill Capossere

All the soarings of my mind begin in my blood.

The blood drive at Victor High School has just about run its course and only a single student remains, lying on the one table left behind. While one of the Red Cross aides removes the needle from this last girl’s arm, several others clear away equipment and methodically pack it into their metal containers. They are so quiet that I can hear their uniforms, the fabric whispering crisply across their skin as they move, and from where I stand behind the food and beverage table I can just make out their shimmering reflections, wavy distortions of shade and color that come and go in the dull burnished surface as they lean in and out of the great silver boxes. They use two hands to lower the heavy lids and when the boxes shut, it is with an efficient click that cuts authoritatively through the quiet.

When the Red Cross called my house several times during the past month to ask if I could come donate blood, I had told them in my best self-congratulatory tone that I was already signed up at the high school where I teach English. It turned out, however, that all I was able to donate was time, relegated by my prescription medicine to merely assisting the process. It seemed the least I could do, although the aide who scratched me off the list was very polite and I think genuinely impressed when I told her I had purposely skipped my medicine yesterday and today, even as she informed me that twenty-four hours was not enough time for my system to clear. Despite her gentle demeanor, I couldn’t escape the feeling that I had somehow let them down, had in deed if not intention lied to those oh-so-earnest people on the phone. So I’ve been coming down during my free periods to register students, walk them from the donor table to the food area, and hand out cookies and juice.

Watching the aides carry boxes out to the loading dock, I think of the story I heard from a student in one of my morning classes. She’d been giving blood first period when Meghan, a student of mine from a different class, lay down on the adjacent table. The aide started to swab Meghan with antiseptic, the girl said, when Meghan suddenly broke down into quiet tears that ran down the side of her face and onto the slick vinyl of the table. The aide softly calmed her down enough so Meghan could leave the room without drawing much attention to herself, and the student telling the story assumed Meghan had been afraid. But when I heard the story, I thought I could guess the real cause. Standing here now, pulling out another juice box as the final donor heads my way, one hand pressing the spotted gauze pad against the crook of her elbow where her skin is still yellow from the antiseptic, I’m sure of it.

We didn’t get cookies and juice at the Plasma Center in East Lansing, Michigan, where fifteen years ago I used to sell my blood rather than just give it away. Nor did I miss them, since food and drink would have cut into the overhead and thus my take-home pay. Every Monday and Thursday, just after my two o’clock graduate classes at Michigan State, I would walk over to the center where they would remove my blood, separate the plasma, then return my blood.

Payment was seven dollars the first time, eight dollars the second. Because the body replaces plasma more quickly than whole blood, it is possible to give plasma twice a week as long as you wait forty-eight hours in between. After each donation they swabbed the back of your palm with a dye visible only under an ultraviolet light and each time you arrived at the center they would check your hand to make sure you weren’t sneaking in for a third time that week. There were always some who tried anyway, elderly men whose frayed gray coats matched the gray in their sparse beards and hair, and whose hands shook as they held them under the lamp. Some of the aides would lean away from the sharp smell of old alcohol mixed with sweat and offer up a stern lecture on the perils, both physical and moral, of deception. Somewhat blithe, I thought, in their assumption that these men so shared our own self-assured sense of time and schedule that they were purposely trying to buck the system. Other aides simply patted the men softly on the back of their hands and told them to come back tomorrow, offering up a bit of human warmth in a place predicated on sterility.

My friends at first thought I was joking when I wrote them I was selling my blood, but sixty dollars a month more than paid for my food bill, and it wasn’t too bad really—usually I just lay there and read a book or chatted with the people around me; after a few months on the same schedule we had become something of a "regular crowd." Sometimes we would race to see who could fill the bags the fastest so that the aides would have to come around and take away the little blue ball we squeezed in our palms to make the blood flow faster, always with the same admonishing look as they checked our lines and tapped a stern forefinger against the plastic bag hanging down from our tables. Then we would joke about how the day’s happy hour would be a little cheaper, the buzz a little quicker, what with the thinning of our blood.

Conversation always dwindled, though, when they brought your blood back. The plasma was centrifuged out at low temperature and when they replaced the blood it felt as if someone were pouring a thick, frosted drink into your arm. The coolness spread from the crook of your elbow outward and upward, stopping finally to rest in the fleshy part between your shoulder and chest, a simmering chill that lay heavily on your body and mind, making talk and movement difficult, and frighteningly superfluous.

The first time Meghan cried in my classroom came after an off-hand remark to her about a small dip in the quality of her work as she trailed the rest of class on the way out the door a few weeks ago. It was the kind of lull one gets now and then from good students as they try to balance their many difficult classes, shifting mental resources back and forth from English to chemistry, chemistry to math, math to social studies, dependent upon the assignment schedule and relative strength of their uniformly high grades. Typically you’d let it go for a few days, then point it out in a passing aside as they flittered past at the end of class. A day or two later they’d be back on track and you didn’t worry about what other homework they’d skimped on to do so.

I don’t remember exactly what I said to Meghan that day. Something short and casual. Something about getting things in on time, maybe reading with a bit more attention, certainly no more than a sentence or two, neither of them weighted with any sort of direness or institutional authority—that semi-threatening “teacher gravitas” that comes so easily to some but that I’d never been able to carry off.

So it came as a surprise when, instead of laughing it off with a “yeah, yeah, I know” or blurting out a running apology/explanation while rushing out the room, as usually happened in such cases, Meghan’s face just sort of collapsed in on itself, like a runner who’d overextended themselves to finish a race and then buckled suddenly onto the hard pavement. She didn’t respond for a second, as if she had to wait for her facial muscles to reshape themselves for speech, then said something barely audible about doing better, her eyes shifting down to the floor as she mumbled. And then she began to cry.

When you work with adolescents, it doesn’t take long before you become a connoisseur of tears. You can chart the entire spectrum of their flow, from the slow, beaded stream to the wracking, heaving flood; memorize the varied steps of the whole brackish dance as they splash onto desks, dampen denim-clad thighs, streak the back of a hand drawn hastily across a well-watered face. And you can catalog as well the sundry families of causes—boyfriends, girlfriends, school—and sub-families: she broke up with the boyfriend, the boyfriend broke up with her—the whole Linnaean system of emotional waterworks.

So when Meghan began crying that day, quiet tears she never moved to brush away, just let them roll down then off her face into that small spot on the floor she seemed determined to commit to memory by the intensity of her focus on it, I knew it was something serious. This was no missed homework or a relationship gone sour, no noisy release of adolescent angst. In silence and stillness, her eyes ripened to a briny maturity, and her seventeen-year-old face seemed tragically adult.

As I work, cleaning up around the food and beverage table, I keep an eye on the last girl. An earlier donor had fainted when I was down here last, swooned even before the needle entered her arm, her head lolling suddenly to the side and flat against the vinyl surface of the table. After she was revived and had rested a bit on the table, I helped her to a chair while she whispered, "I'm so sorry, I'm so sorry," again and again, pulling single strands of long blonde hair away from where they had stuck against her cheek. Later, I would see her in the cafeteria, red-faced and laughing, telling the story to a group of friends and pointing a finger at me as I walked by, sharing a shy and somewhat mortified smile.

By the time I'm done cleaning up, the last girl has finished her juice and is standing, looking at the plate still full of cookies. “Go on and take it,” I tell her. She is the last one, after all, and I’m guessing the Red Cross people have their own stash somewhere. She picks up the plate and turns to go, but then wheels back around and places two of the cookies on the table in front of me. “For the road,” she says, then walks out, the paper plate bent in a protective curve around the remaining cookies.

It was her mom, Meghan eventually told me. In my room, after the tears had slowed but before they’d stopped completely, she related how her mother had just been released from the hospital where she’d undergone surgery for the cancer they’d detected a short time ago. The news seemed good, the doctors thought they’d gotten everything, but her mom was about to start chemotherapy, a requirement, Meghan said, that made all the cheery talk seem a lie. If they think they got everything, she wanted to know, then why did she need chemotherapy? And then the tears began to flow faster.

I stayed with Meghan that whole period. I didn’t have a class, luckily, and she, well, it didn’t matter what her schedule said; she was off the script. She cried for most of that time. Standing at first, then seated at my desk while I held an arm around her shaking shoulders.

Out on the fields through the classroom windows, the last gym class of the day separated themselves into those who cared and those who didn’t, then half ran frantically back and forth while the others slowly doled out their physical activity in more desultory fashion. Their muted yells and shouts sounded far away through the thick-paned glass, and more youthful as well, like a playground of small children just at the edge of hearing, a warmly soothing sound that negated the cold hum of the fluorescent lights right over our heads, the uncomfortable institutional chairs, the recitative drone of the science teacher across the hall.

She cried again when we spoke the next day. And the day after. And though she didn’t cry every time she came in to speak to me about what was going on at home, it was near enough. She broke down in the library a day or two before the blood drive, in the morning before homeroom started, in the library between the two short shelves of encyclopedias, her chin boring into my damp shoulder, the two of us surrounded by a collected wisdom that for all its weighty and compiled authority remained for both of us thickly impotent.

When the last donor walks out, I’m left alone in the room. The aides have all disappeared to load the trucks, leaving just the food table and the last donor bed behind. Looking at it, I think of Meghan this morning, imagine how the room, stocked with multiple beds draped with medical tubing and bags of blood, must have seemed to her an eerie echo of the hospital room she had visited her mother in, an unnerving similarity that must have seeped slowly in, unnoticed perhaps until she leaned back and felt the cold vinyl against the back of her head, the cool touch of the aide's fingers on her arm. When it came to her—that sense of recognition—the cheery young bodies laughing on the tables beside her and the aide's sure-faced smile above must have seemed a sudden mockery, a bitter distortion of her own just-realized memory that suddenly swam its way to the surface behind the shallow pools of her eyes.

My own mother died of cancer when I was fifteen, three years after my father had died from a sudden heart attack. Megan knows this from the times we’ve spoken. I wish I could tell Meghan that she won't always think of her mother's hospital room at times like this, but the reality is, I still can't walk into a hospital or a clinic or even sometimes the school nurse’s office without thinking of all the hospital rooms I have visited and left, if not alone, then still without the person I most wanted to leave with.

I’d like to tell her things will be all right for her mother, but we both know how false that would sound coming from my lips. Better she hears it from someone with a less disheartening experience. She says she feels bad talking to me about it, that it must be painful for me, but that she really has no one else to talk to. I tell her not to worry and answer her questions about chemotherapy and radiation honestly, talking not just about the physical effects, but also about the emotional effects on her mom and on the family as a whole. Familiar pressure is already taking its toll. Lately Meghan has been arguing with her grandmother, who has moved in for a time to help out around the house and who, as Meghan says with clear understatement, “has her own way of doing things.” We have talked about the difficulty of her grandmother’s position—the worry she feels about her daughter as she tries to care for two girls sixty years younger than she.

When my grandparents moved in to take care of us after my mother died, my sister and I both responded by exiting the home, my sister running all the way to Florida and staying there for three years while I, though I kept to more familiar locales, fled just as far in spirit, the miles added up as nights spent drunk and wandering or sleeping over at friends’ houses. While my mother was sick we had taken care of our two younger brothers—cooking, doing the laundry, checking up on them at school—but now we abandoned them to fighting a constant generational battle, warring over school and curfews and clothing, and anything else that the distance of age and culture made unbridgeable.

If I press Meghan now to try to understand her grandmother with a bit more empathy, it is because one of my greatest sorrows is the years it took before I understood the sacrifice my grandparents had made, giving up their well-deserved freedom to raise yet another family, each of us a constant reminder of the loss of their youngest daughter. How they must have mourned the loss of their quiet home, its sturdy furniture and screened-in garage, its two kitchens and the workroom, where the only reminder was the table chair where my mother would sit when we came by for Sunday's pasta dinner. Lying in still, strange beds at night, did they retrace in their mind the paths they used to wander in their old home? So many steps from the stove to the sink to pour the water from the pot, so many paces from the couch to the television to watch Lawrence Welk? Where, they must have wondered, did they misstep? Where the error that led them here, to an empty house full of children?

By the time she died, nine years after moving in with us, my grandmother had followed those tracks so deep into the past that she moved more often among the dead than the living, happily lost in her own resurrected world where my mother and uncle—dead of lung cancer six years after my mother—both still lived and spoke. She had forgotten where she was by then, forgotten who any of us were standing beside her bed at the hospice, forgotten the night my sister had purposely put her hand through the window that ran along the front door of our house, flaying bitter flesh over jagged glass and cutting my grandmother with an eviscerating whisper: “I’d rather die than have you be my mother.”

Forgotten as well how she had come down those still unfamiliar stairs in the middle of that night, collected brush and pail, swept the glass, and scrubbed with strange-smelling chemicals, on her arthritic hands and knees, that stained floor beneath the window, pouring libations and incanting names, feverishly seeking the strange alchemy that might finally transmute the pooling elements of her fading, traitorous blood.

There are people whom we come to know like the unfolding story of a book, slowly over time. Each page, each day, each year illuminates the recesses of their lives until after a while we can read their thoughts, their expressions; we feel we can tell the tale of their existence with the confidence of someone relating an old and familiar story. And then there are those who remain mysteries to us despite our familiarity, or perhaps because of it. Until some moment arrives which defines them as the years cannot. For me, the moment which defined my grandmother as a woman of otherworldly strength and passion came after a dinner during the summer of my sophomore year in college, the last summer I would spend at home and the summer which ended with my sister, returned from Florida, giving birth to her first child.

My grandfather was famous for not wasting time cleaning up after dinner. Our meals tended toward sprawling affairs—long campaigns of battle punctuated now and then by minor skirmishes and brief respites all brought to a sudden close by my grandfather charging in to clear the table. Near the end, I often found myself circling the condiments like wagons around my plate while he swooped across the table, gathering up everything not actually held by hand. My grandmother, after fifty-five years of marriage, had earned the right to wave the back of her fleshy hand at him until he left her alone, but the rest of us could only eat a little faster or watch sorrowfully as the food retreated from us to be tightly wrapped and put away. Rarely was any item allowed to make a reappearance once removed, especially dessert, and one learned quickly to take two portions of whatever it might be.

My sister knew all this, of course, but in her seventh month of pregnancy she no longer had the body control to sit straight through both dinner and dessert. That night, while she was in the bathroom, the watermelon had been sliced, doled out, wrapped up, and put back in the refrigerator. I was just finishing my second slice when my sister’s voice came from the doorway leading into the kitchen.

“Is it all put away then?”

She was standing in the doorway, heavy-bodied and slow, one swollen foot already on the step leading up to the kitchen, while her eyes sadly scanned the remaining wreckage. I felt sorry for her because watermelon was one of those foods that simply never made it back to the table. It was just too heavy and messy, and the care with which my grandfather wrapped it in Saran Wrap bordered on the obsessive—overlapping layers and smoothing out creases as if it were a rare painting and not just some fruit he had picked up at fourteen cents a pound.

“I just put it away,” he said from the middle of the kitchen, gesturing toward the refrigerator. “Why’dnt you say somethin’ before, I woulda cut you a piece?”

My sister, expecting no more than that, shrugged and began to move into the kitchen. Normally that would have ended it, but this time my grandmother intervened sharply.

“Cut her a slice anyway.”

“It’s all put away. Don’t you hear so good? I just wrapped it up.”

“So you unwrap it. Big deal.”

“That’s ok, gram; I really don’t need it,” my sister said.

“You want a slice, you get a slice. Joe, get the melon!”

“She don’ want it.”


“Jesus Christ, Jenny, I told you . . .”

“Gram, really, it’s okay.”

My grandmother turned and waved a hand at the table.

“Sit! For a piece of watermelon a baby died! Siddown.”

Silence. My sister looked at me, unsure how to digest such a piece of information, then lowered herself heavily into her chair. I returned her stare blankly, not knowing myself what my grandmother was talking about. My grandfather, though, knew exactly what she meant.

“Jenny, you still going on about that?” His voice was raised but my grandmother had thrown her heavy bulk around in the chair to face him and now she drowned him out, big-armed and pointing.

“For a piece of watermelon a baby died! A baby! You know that. You know that. You don't forget. You know that.” There was silence for a moment, and then my grandfather, small now, quiet:

“Ahhh, Jen. When will you let it go?”

He opened the fridge, brought out the watermelon, and began to slowly unwrap it. My sister and I looked at each other, then at our grandmother, crying silently.

“Gram?” my sister whispered. “What happened? What baby?”

My grandmother shook her head, then picked up her napkin and blew into it, a great burst of noise that seemed to signal a return to normalcy, and to preclude any further discussion. But when she looked up, she must have seen our faces, curious and concerned, and the wandering hands of my sister, curling protectively up over her belly. And when my grandfather leaned over the table with slices of melon and growled “Nothing happened,” she became fierce again. “It wasn’t nothing!” And then:

“We were eating dinner in the basement. This was in the Depression, when we lived in the basement of my mother’s house. We usually ate with my family, but sometimes we would eat just the two of us, downstairs. Nothing so much or so good cause we didn’t have so much then. And that night we were eating together, down in the basement. We had just finished and were having watermelon when I looked up and saw this pregnant girl looking in our window, watching us eat.” Her voice was low and she shaped the words like she kneaded bread—rhythmic and heavy. Slap. Slap. Slap on the table. “She was bent way over and staring at us. It scared me, this face at the window looking at me and I screamed. It was just a girl from the neighborhood but I didn’t know who it was then. So I screamed. Then she run off.” Slap. Slap.

“We found out later she lost her baby.”

My grandfather stood behind her, hands broad in the air above her shoulders, taking in her and her space.

“Jenny, it had nothing to do with . . .”

“It had everything! Everything!” The silverware rattled on the plates as she banged her heavy fist on the table. “She was hungry. She was hungry and she lost her baby and don’t you go tellin’ me it had nothin’ to do with us and our food ‘cuz I saw her face, Joe, and you seen it, too.” Once more the silver rattled, then she raised her hand and pointed at him. “You seen it and you know. You know. And you don't forget. You don't forget.”

I remember my grandfather's hands pulling at the air as if to reel in some type of answer, some denial, but the air had grown heavy and strong as my grandmother spoke, and it seemed to press down around the thickness of his arms until they sank slowly to her shoulders and stayed there, thin and spindly upon the bulk of their past.

I’ve told this story to a few of my classes over the years and they have always reacted the same way the students today react when I tell them my story about selling my plasma—polite incredulity. It is, I think, one of the most frightening stories I know. I haven’t told it to Meghan; it is not the story she needs to hear now.

I tell her instead of my mother’s laughing attempts to find the right wig to cover her bald scalp, and of the pleasure she took in having one of us brush her hair when the radiation treatment stopped and her hair grew back long and thick again. I tell her, because she asks, of the treatment itself, keeping to myself the hollow thud that echoed in my stomach when the heavy metal door shut behind my mother—so tiny next to its swinging weight—how cold it felt when I pressed up against the door to watch through the small, round window in its center, where her familiar form would slowly fade away behind the misting frost of my whispered breath. Because it is there, Meghan and I talk about the sickness that follows, and the temper. She too has learned to turn away the suddenly sharp tongue, the acrid retort, though I can tell by her nervous laughter that knowledge of the source does not dull the pain. I remember that lesson as well.

When she asks other questions about my mother, about what I remember of her, I limit myself to the fond memories: her love of Christmas, her obsession with Abigail Adams, the time she loaded up our station wagon with wood stolen from a still-being-built housing development so my friends and I could build a fort, and, most bittersweet, how the two of us shared the same birthday.

The truth, though, is that my most vivid memory of my mother is the time I returned from the eighth grade trip to Washington, D.C. after having been gone for four days. It was my first time alone and away from Rochester, an exciting and horizon-stretching time, but I found to my surprise that I had actually missed my home and my family. I had never even considered that possibility, but as our bus pulled into the school parking lot that morning, I was actively scouring the small crowd for a trace of my mother, glad to be home and eager to tell her everything I had done and seen.

When I saw her standing there in the early morning sun, a hand on my two younger brothers waiting beside her, a sharp thrill coursed through my body so that I could barely stay seated. I was already standing before we pulled to a slow, screeching halt, and as I waited at my seat for the chance to move into the aisle, I watched as she scanned the windows of the bus that had arrived just before us. Every now and then she would pull a hand from my brothers’ shoulders and brush aside a russet strand of hair that had fallen in front of her eyes. I remember that movement even now, and the comfort of its small familiarity.

Somewhere, though, all that changed. I don’t remember if it was during the slow shuffle toward the front of the bus, or if it was in the swirling press of my classmates immediately outside the bus door; but somewhere in that short time period, I had been reminded that these were my peers, that I was in junior high, and that I had to act accordingly. So when my mother came up to me bright and beaming and proud, I darted in and out of her outstretched hands like I was tagging second base and running for home on a deep pop fly. Then I told her I had to collect my bags and turned away, though not before I saw her face fall and become what later seemed to me suddenly and shockingly old.

It’s strange, but though everything else of that moment is impressed on my mind in the finest of detail, the one thing I cannot recall is if I knew that day my mother was dying. I desperately need to hope not. She of course knew; it had been the news of her cancer, its terminal ravaging of her immune and blood-forming systems, that two years earlier had sent my father fleeing to Washington and a new job in a desperate attempt to either outrun it or come to grips with it, leaving us behind to manage on our own. It would, I suppose, be easy for me to blame my father for abandoning her if it were not for this image that stands out in my mind: my mother dropping her hands back to her sides, standing still and alone amid a press of people, and in front of her a small pocket of hopelessly empty space.

I wonder if I’ll see Meghan again today, if she’ll come by this last period, knowing I’m free. I wouldn’t be surprised. Because she’d already come in to talk first thing this morning, I know that her bad experience giving blood came on top of an already awful start to the day, one begun by a particularly sharp fight with her grandmother. Worse than the argument itself, she’d told me, was her guilt at causing her mother to try to mediate the fight from her spot on the couch, the sense that she was making her mother sicker with all the arguing. I don’t remember what I said to her when she told me about it, her face muscles straining to hold in the tears. I know I wanted to tell her it was nothing, that she’d forget all about it. But I couldn’t. The words, shaped like my own remembered betrayal, stuck in my throat, a lifetime’s accretion of dust and silt packed and pointed at its too-rough edges.

If she does come by this final period, I don’t know either what I can tell her about her experience trying to give blood today, about leaving a room due to the overwhelming presence of ghosts. Perhaps nothing. Meghan’s a strong girl, she's shown that to be true enough at times, but still, it seems like there should be something.

On my way out, I take the two cookies the last donor left behind and hope Meghan likes chocolate chip. It is a small thing, but so often, I’ve learned, the small things are all we have, and perhaps, all we remember.