UD’s Day

I had to be on the Red Line to Dupont Circle to meet my friend and former student Carolyn and her boyfriend for noon lunch at Bareburger. They live in Zurich and are in DC for a few days.

Mr UD dropped me at Grosvenor metro rather early, and it occurred to me that I probably had time to give blood at the National Institutes of Health Blood bank. Medical Center metro is the next stop after Grosvenor, so I had to decide quickly.

It was an extremely beautiful spring day – cloudless blue skies and lilac trees in flower – and this stirring setting jarred against the dark reading I’d been doing that morning — my friend Hal Sedgwick’s lengthy, meticulous description of his wife Eve’s nineteen years of breast cancer. I was in the middle of his account, reading a paragraph here and a paragraph there, in bed, at the breakfast table, and now on the train.

And somehow the combination of this painful reading, and my having, a few nights ago, watched the three-part PBS series on cancer, propelled me straight over to NIH.

*************

I give blood at NIH because my father spent his career there, and I guess it’s a form of communion. Certainly it’s a form of nostalgia, walking the long spartan corridors with random Impressionist posters slapped on their walls.

When the documentary began describing Nixon’s war on cancer in the 1970’s, I recalled Dad’s remarkable luck and timing: Government money poured into his lab in those days. A 1974 New York Times article mentioned some of what he and his colleagues were up to.

In the United States the National Cancer Institute’s Dr. Herbert J. Rapp has obtained some success by injecting BCG directly into tumors. His experimental procedure is to inject tumor cells into the flanks of a guinea pig. After six days the animal will die from the spread of the tumor cells even if the original tumor is removed. However Dr. Rapp found that if on the fifth day he injected BCG into the animal, the tumor would disappear in 60 to 70 per cent of the guinea pigs.

My father had it all, I thought, as I pulled out my passport to show the NIH security officer. I often say this to myself – My father had it all. – because I often try to figure out why a man with four healthy children, a loving wife, and one of the world’s best, most meaningful jobs, committed suicide.

I clipped my laminated identification card (they got my photograph from the passport) onto my jacket and boarded a campus (NIH has always called its grounds the campus) bus to Building Ten. Its enormous lobby now houses a clothing and jewelry market! Last thing I thought I’d see in that space.

“What size shirt do you want?” You score a free shirt with a message on it about the importance of giving blood just for checking in at the NIH bank’s front desk. I got one big enough for Mr UD, but felt vaguely guilty about taking it, since it seemed to me likely I’d fail one of the many tests you have to pass before they let you give blood.

Amazingly though, UD sailed through one after another challenge: blood pressure, blood iron, pulse, temperature; and she aced the written exam too. So no weaseling out of it.

****************

UD‘s MO when she actually gets to the couch and the nurse pressing and pressing and pressing her veins has always been exactly the same. She pops over to the little recovery room and selects the stupidest gossip magazine she can find. The trick is to be so utterly distracted by What Really Happened on Brad and Angie’s Plane that one fails to notice a needle going in. This approach has always worked for me.

Once the needle settled, I felt comfortable enough to chat with the nurse who sat beside me for the duration. She yawned and said her commute was getting to her. “I live in Baltimore. Have to get up at 5:30 in the morning. Traffic’s real bad. But this area – Bethesda – is completely unaffordable.”

I looked at my very dark red blood as she took the pouch away. I marveled at its color.

***************

Back on the metro, I returned to Hal’s unflinching and sorrowful account. He drew to a close as my train approached Dupont.

On Wednesday April 15th I rented a car and drove to the Liberty Grove Crematorium in New Jersey. It was a simple place, rather industrial in character, but very tidy and clean. After a while Paul Giffone arrived (with a station wagon I think) with Eve’s body in a plain cardboard coffin which he unloaded with the help of the man at the crematorium. Together they placed the coffin on a kind of gurney. At my request they opened the coffin so that I could see Eve one last time. I had brought a Tibetan necklace of colorful felt beads that I had bought for Eve at the Rubin Museum’s holiday craft fair the previous December and that Eve was happy with. I placed the necklace inside the coffin, resting on Eve’s chest. Then they closed the coffin, wheeled the gurney up to the door of the furnace, and moved the coffin onto a kind of conveyor belt which carried it into the depths of the furnace. They closed the door of the furnace and went into the adjacent office leaving me alone, as I had asked. I don’t remember how long I was there – maybe an hour or so. I read aloud the text of the Sukavati, which T had given me. Then I recited the mantra of the Heart Sutra many times. At some point in my recital I had a distinct feeling, with no real sensory component, of a kind of expansion emanating from the furnace into the room and beyond. It seemed to me as though something was being released from Eve’s body, which was no longer there, and expanding into space. It felt to me like an expanding bubble that would just keep on expanding and expanding. It wasn’t an experience I had anticipated or would attempt to explain but the feeling of liberation was real.

Blood Blogging…

… is a regular feature of University Diaries. UD is a veteran blood donor, and she donates at the National Institutes of Health. This is just down the street from Suburban Hospital, where Sargent Shriver was admitted yesterday.

NIH is also the place where UD‘s father, an immunologist who studied cancer, spent his career. She likes to give at NIH because walking its campus and halls reminds her of his happy years there.

So after lunch with Georgia, once her student and now her friend (they went to Le Pain Quotidien in ‘thesda), she asked Georgia to drop her off at NIH.

This being the federal government and all, she and Georgia had to get out of her car, and get patted down, and (while someone checked the car’s trunk and back seat) show identification, in order to get visitors’ passes. UD apologized to Georgia, who said, “I’m happy to do this! I’m too uncomfortable with the procedure to give blood myself, but the fuss makes me feel as though I’m doing my bit.”

Once at the Clinical Center, UD walked its eerily empty halls (holiday today) to the distant blood bank. The security guards had assured me that the blood bank was open.

It was closed. But the Plateletpheresis Center was open, and UD was, she explained to the woman working there, up for that.

“Hm. It’s pretty late for you to donate today. Would you be willing to make an appointment for later?”

After they put together a platelets date for UD, she again trekked the long corridors of the Clinical Center, all the while recalling her lab-coated father.

The afternoon was cold and gray; the trees were gray, with a few white trunks. She descended the very slow Medical Center Metro escalator with its cold white archway, and she thought of a line she’d just read in the Norman Maclean Reader, the book she was carrying with her.

His prose never moves far from a sense of despair, a fear that life merely happens, incapable of being charged with meaning and grace.

Latest UD posts at IHE

Archives

Categories