Giving Blood

by Colleen O'Brien

The water carves a broad, sluggish swath, darker than the night. Steam lifts from the surface like breath. This is the Missouri as it slips south, six blocks from the house where I grew up. The air is thick and soft.

A cold hardness slaps my chest. I hear my name and fight to stay in the gauzy air beside the river. My eyes open. Fluorescent light like a punch to the head, the face of the Red Cross nurse so close I can count her lashes. I'm back at the blood drive.

I rather enjoy fainting. But it seems to have distressed the nurse. She looks Scandinavian, healthy and blonde, like the kind of person who enjoys winter. After bandaging my arm and tucking my hair back from my face, she brings me a cup of orange colored drink. It's not really juice, just looks as though it might be, and tastes like Kool-aid the way my mom makes it, with almost no sugar. My mom's a nurse too, an LPN. I don't know this one's name, but I think of her as “Heidi.”

Nurse Heidi moves the baggie of ice from my chest to my forehead. I can see I've inconvenienced her and tell her I'm sorry. She pats my arm and says it’s not my fault. But I know better. I'm here only because I lied.

They need my blood. I'm O-negative, a universal donor. My mom tells me it's what they use in trauma situations. I imagine head-on car collisions and knife fights, misfires, and the gunning down of innocents—made-for-TV dramas where a person's life or death depends on how fast the medics work. They can't waste time determining a blood type. Neonates—those tiny babies, small enough to fit in a doctor's hand—get type O too, so the nurses don't have to poke them unduly and extract any of the blood their new-to-the-world bodies can't afford to relinquish. I picture distraut loved ones clutching their hands and hovering at a distance while my blood, bagged and ready, rushes through a hollow needle and into an arm slack with need.

When I get back to my apartment I draw my blinds on sun radiating off the snow and climb into bed feeling comforted and cared for and even a little precious. The sleep is deep and satisfying and sinks me back into the fog of the river bank.

I fly home in June. My parents have rented a cabin on the Niobrara, at the spot where it fans brown, heavy with silt, and feeds into the Missouri. We converge, my brother and sister, their spouses and children, my parents and I, just ahead of a doozy of a thunderstorm.

Great prongs of lightning like pitchforks flung from heaven strike the wind bowed grass. For long moments the world beyond the cabin window goes bright and the plain seethes like a never ending rush of serpents. Beyond the bluffs, the water lifts in a furry of whitecaps. Rain slaps the glass and we are caught, the whole of my family, in a small dwelling without the diversion of television or radio or even so much as a phone.

On the surface my siblings' families couldn't be more different. My older sister, an attorney, and her husband, a nephrologist, live in the middle of Kansas City with their curly-haired, dark-eyed, unrelentingly adorable daughter and son. The kids take lessons—art, swimming, creative movement—and attend private preschools. My younger brother, a power lineman and his wife, an H&R Block receptionist, rent a farmhouse several miles of gravel road west of Osmond, NE. Their two unrelentingly adorable children, a son and daughter, sun-bleached blonds with eyes so blue they're practically violet, know a Hereford from a Black Angus, chase wild cats, and spend their weekdays with a local woman who babysits for a dollar an hour.

My sister doesn't believe much in discipline. My brother spanks. She reads entire books on brain development. He yells at his kids when they eat the paint chips peeling off the basement floor. She's always giving him radon detectors and water filters and lead kits, all of which he's told me they keep handy on the top shelf of the linen closet.

But what strikes me on this rainy afternoon is how alike they are, how they've both taken to parenthood like stepping into a second, roomier skin. My sister, who used to fasten her shoe laces to mine so we could play Siamese twins, unpacks her suitcase one-handed with her two-year-old perched comfortably on the wedge of her hip. My brother, who used to pin my arms to the floor with his knees and dangle a heavy droplet of spit above my face, tosses and tickles his daughter until she’s beside herself, giggling.

The bloodlines are as obvious as the veins on the back of my hand. Like my mom, all four of the wee ones possess a penchant for cleanliness. They fight not over any toy but rather over the cabin's carpet sweeper. The girls inherited my mother's pert chin and the boys, my father's hooked nose. All four display flashes of temper, stubbornness, and single-minded determination.

I pick marshmallows from the Lucky Charms box and tell my brother how I roast them, skewered on a fork over a candle flame. They brown and bubble almost instantly. I theorize that this is because they're dehyrated, rendering them denser than the bagged variety, less gooey, and capable of being effortlessly roasted to perfection. I tell him I think the yellow moons, green clovers, and all the rest should be sold separately. He's looking around for a candle when his son hollers, "Come wipe, wipe butt."

I can't help feeling that my siblings have moved beyond me, into a different sort of existence, one focused a generation ahead, replete with chores involving human excrement. My sister and brother's primary family, their tier-one loyalties, lie with their spouses and children. For me it's still my parents and them. It's not that I want children or that I don't want them. They just happen to reside in a world beyond the one I wake up to everyday.

I don't know what makes someone an adult, but it's not age. I remember the Carter administration quite fondly, and so am certainly old enough to be an adult. Yet I don't live the way I suspect adults do—cooking more than a single item, say a potato AND broccoli, for supper, eating at the table as opposed to the couch or porch, doing dishes every day, laundry more than once a month, and making the bed in the morning. Adults seem to be people who watch financial channels, take antacids, and buy furniture from furniture stores.

After being inside a cabin with six of them for several hours, I'm ready for some air. Puffy cumulus crowd the sky. A mowed path leads down to the shore. Bluestem, grama, and switch grass wave higher than my head on either side. I tell my nieces and nephews to watch for snakes and frogs, and my sister's children stick close to my side while my brother's kids tug at their cousins' arms, running ahead, intent on spotting inchworms, wild turkeys and deer, meadow larks and purple cone flowers for the glory of pointing them out to rest of us. The air smells heavy and clean. The damp coats our feet. Warmth returns on the wind. We are young and pounding down a green hillside, hand in hand, toward water.

After the kids are in bed, I sit at the table with my mother. A deep weariness draws her face and settles along her eyes. "Your nails," she smiles. "You've quit biting." When I was little she massaged lotion into my ravaged cuticles and told me I had to stop because all the fingernails I chewed went into a little pouch in my stomach and if I kept adding to it, the pouch might burst. I imagined all those bits of nail pouring forth like grain from a sack ripped open, unleashed into my bloodstream, poking my tissues and organs, floating through my veins.

My mom retrieves a file and some polish from her purse. Tired as she is, she shapes each nail, paints it carefully. I don't have any better handle on what makes a person old than on what makes someone an adult. But it strikes me how different she looked earlier, engineering a huge meal—mixing potato salad, grilling burgers and hot dogs, stirring grated carrots into green Jell-O—all with grand babies swarming, demanding the opportunity to "help."

Maybe the sort of responsibility that forces people to think beyond themselves, the kind required when they have children, keeps them from withering with age. It doesn't make sense, but it seems that if I never completely grow up, my parents will never grow old. I call them weekly, usually with a question about insurance or how often you're supposed to rotate tires or how long to broil chicken. Maybe having children, passing genes and blood, knowing that you're needed, can keep a person young. Or maybe I'm just desperate to feel like I'm contributing to the family.

The Niobrara dumps five million tons of silt into the Missouri each year. I feel a certain affinity with that river. We both travel along, autonomous and distinct, full to practically choking on ourselves. At journey's end we arrive to be swept up, churned into the mix by the power and pull of current and family, swallowed whole.

I like my life, how it slips along with few responsibilities, and even fewer demands—no one depending on me for food or rides or to get them up in the morning. But the truth is, after a week surrounded by parents and siblings, in-laws, and children under four, it feels a little empty, echo-y like a house you've packed up and are moving out of.

The day after I return from Niobrara I see a Red Cross poster. I prepare for the bloodletting carefully—forego a beer on the porch in favor of a bowl of fudge sauce laced with ice cream in bed, drink enough water to send me to the bathroom three times during the night, and don chunky shoes and a skirt I seldom wear because it makes me look fat.

I sit on the gym floor and complete the questionnaire. I have not spent more than six months in Great Britain and therefore am not at risk for mad cow disease. I haven't ever visited Africa, used IV drugs even once, gotten a tattoo or piercing in the last six months, had sex—paid, unprotected, or otherwise—for longer than I care to figure, or been diagnosed with hepatitis. What I lie about hardly constitutes a lie. It's a bar they’ve leveled because they had to assign it somewhere but they could have just as well set it a mite lower.

By the luck of bad pennies it's Nurse Heidi who leads me to the interview booth. When we get to the question about ever having had sex with a man who had sex with another man, I mumble, holding a disposable thermometer down with my tongue, "Not that I know of." She laughs. I like Heidi.

She draws a bit of blood from my finger into a tiny glass tube and places it in a desktop centrifuge. When the whirling stops Heidi stares at the pipette, then me, and looking perplexed says, "You must eat really healthy."

I am not prepared to have my nutritional habits exalted. Without thinking, I say, "A lot of chips and salsa."

Heidi raises her eyebrows, "That must be some salsa." She looks over my form again, examining it carefully. "How much do you weigh?" Heidi asks, even though I've written the precise requirement on the form. I'm silent the same way I never respond to my mother when she asks about money and boyfriends and church attendance—questions I can't answer the way she wants me to.

"This way," Heidi smiles. My chunky shoes pound the gym floor and the thwack echoes off the high walls that reverberate off the ceiling, rebound off the backboards. The gym throbs in rhythm with my footfalls. I suddenly realize what's responsible for my outlandish blood count: prenatal vitamins. They're intense—a hundred percent or more of every vitamin and mineral you'd care to ingest. I take one every other day because a friend told me they were good for your fingernails.

Heidi ushers me into a room just off the gymnasium. She points to the scale. What emanates from my mind isn't exactly a prayer, but more a silent wish that I hope something, somewhere might have the power to grant. Heidi flicks the weight until the bar bobs balanced. Despite having eaten my mother's pies and tea rings, burgers and creamed salads, even homemade rolls with real butter, for over a week, I'm a few pounds shy. I should've taken her up on breakfast.

I want to protest, tell Heidi the weight requirement is arbitrary and ridiculous, explain that I'm just fairly short and point out the sympathy belly I contracted during my sister's first pregnancy. But then I look at her and Heidi's eyes are kind, her expression firm, like a parent who knows what's good for you even if you don't. And I step down, thinking that maybe I got whatever it was I came for.

I start toward home but then veer north to the Clark Fork, the river that cuts through the town I live in now. If you try to do a good thing, even if it's for some pathetic, messed up reason, it's still a good thing. My blood could have saved stabbing victims, reckless teenagers, premature babies. It could have prolonged life. At least, that's what I tell myself as I lie on a warm rock, leaf shadows bobbing on the water, and watch the river dip and eddy, flow, inevitably, to the place all rivers flow.

Colleen O'Brien attempts to give blood in Missoula, Montana. Her work has appeared on and in "PMS Poem/Memoir/Story." She is currently at work on a novel set in South Dakota.

(c) Colleen O'Brien

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