“My request was more symbolic than practical. I knew that even then.”
By Steven Schwartzberg | The first time I donated blood was August, 1973. I was 14 years old and weighed 100 pounds. I met neither the age nor weight requirement for blood donation. They took it anyway.
The blood clinic was at Long Island Jewish Hospital. My older brother, my only sibling, was a patient in the pediatric unit. The blood was for him.
Mark had been diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia eight months earlier. With today’s treatments, as many as 90 percent of children survive it . But in the early 1970s, the grim medical consensus was incurable.
That didn’t stop my parents from trying, of course. Doing nothing was unthinkable. This meant that for most of his illness, Mark suffered not only the cancer itself, but the physical and emotional torments of no-holds-barred chemotherapy—a much blunter tool 40 years ago than it is now. After a few months he entered remission, with its tantalizing suggestion of a miracle. But the hiatus lasted less than two months. After that, the descent was quick.
Back again at Long Island Jewish, Mark received blood transfusions daily. I would watch the blood drip down a clear tube and enter the catheter, the needle piercing his bruised, emaciated arm. I watched him lose weight and hair. I watched the tender beard gracing his boyish face thicken, perversely, as if it hadn’t heard the news. I watched his skin turn yellow from jaundice.
My request was more symbolic than practical. I knew that even then. Still, I asked if I could give blood to him. With a surprising minimum of hassle, the request was granted. The lab even labeled the transfusion bag with my name in bold letters, so I would know when he received it.
By the time Mark received my blood, he was too medicated for pain to be aware. He died a few days later, three months after his 17th birthday, four weeks before I turned 15. He would have been a high school senior.
No aspect of my life escaped Mark’s death. Not at home, where suddenly I became an only child, and my parents coped with the unimaginable as best they could. Not at school, where any prior sense of identity was trumped by being the kid whose brother had died. Not even in the privacy of my own psyche, where, either by coincidence or mordant karmic timing, Mark’s illness exactly overlapped with the dawning of my puberty and the secret, anathema confirmation that I was gay.
Our previously unremarkable home had become the epicenter of an earthquake. Seismic waves radiated outward, throughout our suburban town, where Mark had been a popular, bright, and personable teenager. They also radiated inward, relentlessly. When you’re fourteen, an experience like this enters your marrow—a transfusion mainlined into the streams of blood and circumstance that steer the course out of childhood.
It took 25 years, but by 1998 I felt for the first time I was done with my grief. Not that Mark’s death was with me every moment, or that grieving defined my life. The acuity of the loss might lie dormant for months or years but suddenly resurface, charged with unspent urgency.
For the first few years, I couldn’t speak Mark’s name aloud with my parents,so raw was their wound and so inadequate any new skin covering it. After I left for college I would telephone on his birthday, or the anniversary of his death, and my mother would say, “Thank you for calling today ,” and I would answer, “Yes, of course, I wouldn’t not call today.” The rule, as obvious and non-negotiable as gravity, was that no more could be spoken, no more could be tolerated.
But slowly things shifted. A few more years, and Mark’s name could again be spoken. Then, gradually, memories could be shared, tears shed, laughs remembered, the earthquake and its aftermath examined. Thirteen years after he died, I watched my parents pull off a feat more daring than anything offered by Cirque du Soleil: they re-engaged in life fully, with a zest that I remembered from childhood.
When AIDS deaths starting piling up among my friends and companions in the 1980s, my grief became entwined with losses from the epidemic. This time it was not possible to give blood, only sweat and tears.
But something else was preventing me from resolving my grief for Mark—an obstacle so glaring that once I figured it out, I didn’t see how I’d missed it for so long. Since the moment of his diagnosis, I’d never heard anything negative about him. Never heard anything, in fact, short of adulation. Death had frozen him in time, and sanctified him.
This is what we do with our beloved dead, especially when the loss feels untimely or tragic. We elevate them to perfection. We wipe away the flaws, remove the blemishes. We do this out of love. We do this out of superstition. We do this because we are desperate to hold on and because letting go feels taboo.
Dethroning Mark helped me. It provided the antidote for a toxin that had lingered since entering the root of my manhood. Death had sealed my older brother in perfection. How could I ever compare?
Soon afterwards, I found a way to say goodbye to him, with love and gratitude. Even, I sensed, with his blessing. Memories and thoughts of course continued, but grieving, for all intents and purposes, came to a close.
It is December, 2014. I am visiting New York City, and through fortuitous circumstances, I meet for coffee with two women who were friends of Mark’s. We have not seen each other for nearly 40 years.
At first, the talk follows the pattern of most every other conversation I’ve had about Mark over the decades.My role is to receive their tributes. How much they admired and liked him. How funny he was. What a good athlete and smart student. How deeply his death touched them, how it set the model for other losses to come. Once again I am cast as diplomat, back from an unsought posting in the strange land of early bereavement, in order to soothe and reassure, to convey that my parents and I all fared okay, to hint at what is rarely spoken but often lurks beneath the words: should they ever encounter what appears insurmountable, they, too, can make it through.
We’re chatting amiably, skipping through the decades, when Deborah pauses and asks me, “Did you know that I was his girlfriend for a while? That we made out?”
Suddenly I am wide alert. No, I didn’t know. I press for details, like a detective finding new clues in a case long closed. She is open to talking about it, even eager. When? Where? What were the circumstances? How far did it go?
She had a crush on him and would loiter near his school locker, waiting for him to change books between classes. She describes their tender sexual fumblings. They smooched in my house, lying on a couch. I ask whether it was the living room or the den; I want to picture it exactly. I forgive her for not remembering the sofa fabric or color of the rug.
She asks, “Is it okay to be talking about this?”
I offer one answer, and keep one private. Both are truthful.
The one I offer: It is more than okay. What a gift.
After 41 years, how beautiful to peer into a new corner of my brother’s life, one that I knew nothing about, and one that is deeply humanizing. For a flash I can see beyond the mythologies, the gilded enshrinement. Here is a forgotten glimmer of his actual, flesh-and-blood, ordinary being. I can feel him, my brother, with an intimacy we were not yet capable of sharing as boys in real life.
And the one I keep to myself: I was wrong. I am not done with my grief.
Part of me does not want to hear Deborah’s revelations. Not because it’s difficult, but because it punctures my story that grief had reached a natural conclusion. I see, instead, more subtly, that I chose to shut a door on it, because finally I was able to.
The door could pop back open. Maybe even fly off its hinges and break the bolts. I suddenly understand, with melancholy clarity, that this far down the road grief is a choice, but every option comes with a price.
It’s been a sweet visit. Wistfully, after coffee, I say goodbye to them. And, once again, to him.
The next morning, I read that the Red Cross will begin accepting blood donations from gay men, a practice they stopped in the early years of AIDS.
This time when I donate, my name will not be on the bag. It does not matter who will receive it. I’m happy to be able to give.