It’s in the Blood by Elizabeth de la Portilla

Oct 18, 2021

Content warning: death

I rest on the plastic cushion. To my right stands the blood bank director, explaining alleles and radiation to me. My husband, Johnny, is at the end of the cot. I can see him just over the tips of my tennis shoes. The second tube of blood is nearly full. I agreed to fill six for compatibility testing. There is cautious hope my blood may match that of a two-year-old boy who needs a bone marrow transplant, a child I don’t know and will probably never meet, but whose life I can change. 

Still, I have my doubts about the whole enterprise. What’s this kid to me anyway? I don’t owe him anything. And yet, here I am, a victim of good intentions. 

The attendant finds a promising site. With her index finger, she taps my arm until a bluish vein pops up, like an earthworm after rain. Then comes a little alcohol swabbing, some iodine, the needle prick, and out gushes the blood; the tubing bobs in the air. I try not to think of the huge bruise I’ll have in the morning. I attempt not to feel antsy, but the antiseptic smell of the blood bank seeps through the colorful decor chosen to put donors at ease. The scent and blood remind me of my father’s death.

Many years ago, I sat by his side in an ICU ward. There were tubes in his arms, the blood flowing into his body, not out. He had always been the giver—every few months he would go and make a blood donation. He said it was the right thing to do. Besides, he’d get the morning off from work. This was something he had done forever. In the end, blood returned to him.

When he was first in need of blood, my little brother Tommy, who is very active in his church, put the word out to his congregation, and wouldn’t you know it—a whole van of Baptists came to the hospital with arms out, shirt sleeves rolled. Good people. My father became an old man in that hospital bed: sunken, shriveled, and cold. He had always been a slight man, never weighing more than a hundred forty pounds at any point in his life, but not like this, not skin and bones, and feeble.

For a slight man, he had a booming voice. It was a deeply resonating thing that made me shiver when I was bad. My father could make me cry with only a few words. If I disappointed him by not doing the right thing, such as not taking care of my younger siblings or not acting properly, his voice rolled over me like thunder. But his voice could be beautiful, too. It caressed his family with generous endearments more often than it was raised in anger.

Mostly though, I can hear it still as a hum or song early in the mornings. When I was a girl, his alarm always went off at 5:30. I’d wake up slightly, listen to him get out of bed, clear his throat, and start the day. Sleep would wind its way around me off and on for the next few hours until my father came to wake my sister and me. I was so conditioned to this that, if he forgot to set the clock, I’d wake up, unable to enjoy my dozing until I was forced to wake him. Once things were set right, I’d enjoy my snuggling under the covers for a short time more.

Sometimes I stayed in bed listening to him in the kitchen as he made the morning coffee. Humming or singing a church hymn quietly, he’d measure out the grinds, draw the water, and set it on the stove. Soon the coffee would start percolating, the aroma drifting throughout our small house. The cabinet doors squeaked as he opened them to take out cups and saucers. His walking back and forth in the kitchen was predictable. To the refrigerator for milk, the laying of spoons on saucers, and last, a cup of coffee for my mom who was still in bed. He’d sit on the edge of the bed, the old mattress groaning a little. Their muffled voices came through the thin walls. This was a quiet time, a discussion of what needed doing, who needed tending. I knew he had probably lit his first cigarette of the day, one hand holding the cigarette, the other on my momma’s thigh. My mom slowly waking up, stirring the sugar into her coffee.

If the morning was cold, he’d warm our socks over the space heater in the kitchen and then bring them to us while we were still in bed. “So your feet don’t touch the cold floor, hija,” as he’d say. Otherwise, it was a soft rap on the wall with, “Lisa, ya es la hora.” And in such a manner, many days of my girlhood started. As I got older, I’d stay in bed until the last possible minute, ignoring his admonitions, my sister and I dressing frantically before finally rushing out the door. Dad would stop us, put half an apple or a banana in our hands, nagging us to eat something. But as a kid, I liked nothing better than to sit with him at the table while Mom fixed pancakes, talking and joking in both Spanish and English. The two languages mixed into a mash of something which resembled a whole language. My father, quick-witted, would keep us entertained when we three, the youngest of five siblings, sat around waiting on a meal. Once, while a Beatles song played on the radio, he came into the kitchen wearing my mom’s wig and, using a broom as a guitar, sang along with the music. The house filled with childish giggles as Dad sang, “Yeah, yeah, yeah.”

A nurse comes by and asks if I need anything. I answer a blanket because my legs are freezing, and as the fourth tube fills, I think about the boy. If my blood matches and the procedure is a go, then what will he become to me? After his marrow is irradiated and mine introduced, his marrow will kickstart into producing blood again. Will this make us related? I have no children; it occurs to me this may be the closest I’ll ever get to having a child. We are all tied by blood, ties echoing through a common history.

Odd, the things that trigger a memory. One minute, I’m watching a bit of myself flow into a glass tube, and the next minute, my dead father is calling me awake. But I have learned that the living and the dead often share the same table. I feel them around me all the time, in the memories of my family, and in the talks I have with my five-year-old niece. The fourth tube is full.

I know nothing of the boy, except that he is two years old and Latino. His background, his family, where he lives, his name—none of these things are known to me. The details don’t matter. This is my chance to save him. There is so little risk to me, besides the marrow harvest. I will be sore for several days, but inaction is unacceptable because I know what it is like to watch someone die. His family will have to experience this if a match cannot be found. 

In the early days of my father’s illness, he spoke to each of us in turn. We sit as close as possible to his hospital bed and hold his hand as he gives us his reflections and concerns. To my younger brother, he speaks of how hard life was as a child. My father was picking cotton before the age of ten, his mother hitting the back of his tiny legs with a switch to make him pick faster. Harvesters are paid by the weight of the cotton in the burlap sack; slow picking means less money. He cries when telling Tommy this story, still feeling the rough twigs on the back of his legs.

I’ve seen my father cry only a few times in my life. Once, coming into my parents’ bedroom unexpectedly, I found him sitting on their bed holding their wedding picture, weeping silently. He would not look at me; instead, he hid his face in his hands. The picture lay in his lap. They had been a handsome couple, young, beautiful, standing close together, serious-looking and unafraid. I never asked him why the picture had made him cry. Like a coward, I backed up and quietly shut the door. I felt like an intruder. My father looked like a beaten man, bent over, quietly sobbing. I loved him so much, but there was so little I could do. My heart twisted inside me, feeling helpless to correct the disappointments of his youth.

The second time was just as unexpected. I was alone in the house; Mom hadn’t come home from work, Dad was due any minute, and my siblings were out and about. The mail had come and, in it, an acceptance letter from the University of Wisconsin at Madison for the fall term. I had even been offered a full financial aid package as well! My father had not gotten beyond the second grade, my mother dropped out in the eighth. Both worked menial jobs for the whole of their lives. There was not a single female in our extended family who had attended a university, much less moved away somewhere outside our hometown. A junior college is where most folks went for some type of technical training or where they took basic classes, hoping to transfer to a college or university at some later date. For me, this represented a way out: a way out of cleaning houses, typing letters, or marriage in order to have my own home. It was a way to see places, meet people, and maybe to make things happen.

Then my father came home. I rushed over, showing him the letter, explaining in a hurried voice that I could leave in the fall. That this wasn’t going to cost them anything, or at least only very little, and wasn’t he proud of me? Yes, he was proud. He dropped his weary body heavily onto a kitchen chair, his head hanging a little, refusing to look at me.

“I thought you would go to Del Mar, like your sister Aida,” he said.

“But Dad,” I answered, “this is a big school, not a two-year junior college. I could learn so much.”

“But, hija,” he insisted, “if you stayed here, you could live with us and not pay rent. I’ll buy you a car; you can come and go as you like.”

“Daddy, I’m not a little girl anymore,” I said anxiously. “You can’t keep me here forever.” I slapped the letter on the kitchen table, turned on my heels, and headed for my bedroom. I sat on the narrow twin bed, arms crossed, my mind whirling while trying to figure out how I would maneuver my way around my father. I heard him move away from the table and walk toward the room I shared with my sister Diana. He sat on the bed next to me, holding the letter in his hand.

“Hija, it’s not that I want to tell you what to do, but I’m going to miss you. You’ll be so far away. I love you, eres la hija de mi alma.” Then sobs came forth, tears running down his face. I sat with my hands in my lap, palms turned upward. Pink pads of skin against the dark brown of my legs. My father’s hands were clasped in his lap; the sunlight from the window dropped patches of light on his dark skin. ‘Daughter of my soul’ he had called me. I crawled into his lap and curled my arms around his neck.

My dad died a horrible death. His bone marrow stopped making blood. Though it seemed like a rather sudden thing, the doctors told us he had been ill for a very long time. His options were few; he was considered too old for a marrow transplant. His best chance was in platelet replacement. These were stalling measures at best. It was in the last three months of his life that he was noticeably ill. In fact, that summer he and I had gone to Mexico. Dad had retired in the spring and I knew he was restless. But there was no sign of illness.

Mexico was wonderful. Dad took me to the places of his youth—markets, parks, the teatro. He flirted with women and drank tequila for breakfast (“Don’t tell your mom,” he told me). In the evenings, we walked arm in arm down the boulevards, nodding hello to strangers. He was a friendly man, generous and giving. People liked him. He told us as children that we were supposed to be kind to everybody and help others because “in the end, we just have each other, and you never know when you are going to need someone’s help.” He lived by these words. He was not a saintly man, but a good one.

When his illness broke out a month after our return from Mexico, his words echoed in my head. People came from everywhere to offer help and support. Our kitchen overflowed with food. Family, friends, associates, and the old men from the church all came. “He was wild as a young man. He hunted rabbits with a slingshot.” “He is so religious, always willing to help at church.” “He loves you kids; you are his life.” “Boy, your dad could drink.” I nodded and smiled, encouraging his contemporaries and friends to tell me stories of my father.

My dad was all these things, but to see him in a hospital bed, shrunken, lost in a morphine haze, was frightening. How could he have been so ill, and I did not know? 

In October of 1986, Mom called, “Come quick, he’s collapsed.” By the time I got to the hospital, he was in a coma. “He asked for you,” she told me. “It was the last thing he said.” We took turns in the ICU ward, sitting in his room, holding his hand. I would bend over and whisper in his ear, “It’s Lisa, Daddy. I love you.” The tip of his ear felt cold against my lips. I stood over him that last night, the respirator moving his chest up and down, up and down. His heart had failed once already, and it would not recover a second time. His hair was uncombed, tubes were in his nose and mouth. Needles stuck out of his wrists. He lay in an ugly, thin hospital gown; one I knew he would be embarrassed to wear. I touched his cold, swollen arms and legs. The blood had left his extremities, making its way to the vital organs: heart, kidneys, lungs; soon what was left would puddle under the skin of his back. His body was trying to stay alive by killing off portions of itself.

 His heart stopped while I was at the hotel, asleep. My older brother called us with the news. We went down to see the body. I had to be convinced to walk into his room. I couldn’t trust my legs. The grief, the loss, had taken such a strong hold of me, my body was shaking with fear. I had to be held up by one of my brothers, prodded along like a toddler. My heart raced, thumping so loud, I could hear nothing else. Johnny’s hand was on my back. Voices slowly seeped into my head, urging me forward, “Lisa, come on, it’s okay. She needs to see his body.” I didn’t want to see what was left.

But it wasn’t horrible. The needles and tubes were removed, the machine silent. He lay there composed, his hair no longer a mess, a smile on his face, as if he was going to sit up and finish off one of his practical jokes with a “Boo!” We all had to laugh a little because it looked so much like Dad. It would be days before I could cry, before the grief could find its way out of my body. His funeral was a big affair; I didn’t think my father knew so many people, but the funeral hall was overflowing, and he would have loved the gathering. My brother-in-law said there were lots of car repairs sitting in the pews. My dad never turned away anyone who needed help.

The doctors telling us of Dad’s dying when he did was not a bad thing. He developed leukemia toward the end, and the radiation treatment for combating the disease would have killed him. I think about this as I lie on the cot, the last tube filling, tips of my tennis shoes peeking in the background. Radiation would have killed him, but it can save the boy. Both had leukemia, but there was hope for the latter. I was the hope. I could do nothing to save my father, to change his life, but I could be true to his beliefs. Maybe in this way, I could still prove to be a good daughter—to be his ‘hija de mi alma’.

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