One of my earliest associations with blood was to taste it by licking my bleeding finger. It was a little bit warmish, and had a metallic taste. The adults around were uneasy and wondered if it would ‘bring germs’. My grandfather was a butcher so I guess there were probably family instructions and concerns about cleanliness around spilt blood.
Blood is a strange word. It is a five letter word that describes a substance, but it is also a word that can carry weight beyond those seemingly innocent letters. It seems to be a noun of extremes – it drips through terrifying films of both fantasy and dreadfully real war, through plastic tubes to save lives, through meat that we prepare in kitchens without thought for its origin, through rhetoric that binds people together and that tears people apart.
These days, through leukaemia, we have entered a new relationship to that word. It is a world of blood tests, printouts of results, injections, hospitals, bags of blood – of anxiety, fatigue, reassurance, new learning, and medical skills we learn to trust. We fumble along, negotiating our way to learn the vocabulary of our new life, but pleased with our progress.
For my husband, whose blood is in question, it is a totally different experience than it is for me. I know the life limiting aspects of all this, and I am at times overwhelmed by them, but I have also developed an ability to acknowledge them and then put them aside to deal with when time makes it necessary.
I have to shamefully admit that for me, along with the pain, it also brings a new fascination with the microbiology that has been going on inside of us for these seventy plus years, while we lived unaware of it. At each specialist visit I sneak in a question or two about the chemistry of blood, and each answer adds to my sense of wonder and to my general excitement at the whole expansion of mind that science brings to us.
(At the last visit the haematologist did say he was glad at least one of the three people in the room was having fun. Perhaps I should revise that adjective to ‘shameless’.)
I have discovered with a certain joy that in our own blood and our very marrow, literally trillions of microscopic processes of life-building and entropy continue without us knowing they are sustaining us – and without them knowing what they are part of, either.
In my later years, I have marvelled at the opposite perspective of the previously unknown existence of whole new galaxies expanding outside of our small world and our small knowledge.
Now somehow, this intricate mutuality takes me to awe and wonder as our precious vital lives are contextualised in something so exquisite, so creative that just the idea of it opens us – and leaves us open to things beyond imagining. It is so good to know that there is more – that we as an enterprise are more than just what we can know and control and box up and nail down. As we realize our part in the energy of the great wave of unending life, hope carries us.
The Catholic world of my childhood, it has to be said, was a bloody one. Many religions connect blood with life in their imagery and rituals. I am not saying that was a bad thing, but it was disconnected to the meaning of real blood, and was too early an introduction to a serious depth of powerful imagery that could not be understood by a child – particularly by a city-child, who did not understand anything at all about the place of blood in sustaining and giving life.
blood of the lamb, blood flowing from the side, blood dripping from the face of the one we had helped to crucify by our sins, blood that made a woman unworthy and needing to be shriven after childbirth, the chalice of my blood, DRINK the chalice of blood, and that most mysterious feast day: the Circumcision of the Lord, explained to uncomprehending Christian girls as the first shedding of the blood of Jesus; certainly no feast day for the first menstruation of Mary….
Now in my growing age, I understand much about the place of blood in life and in culture, in birth, in war and in sacrifice. I perceive the inheritance we receive and then give again, both in body and in memory. As I see my husband, my dear husband, receiving the blood of another and regaining his life-energy, I am brought to thankfulness for this gift of blood, this gift of life. Blood and body. Body and blood.
A primary school friend once asked me to be sworn friends for life with her. We achieved this by pricking our fingers and transferring the blood to each other. (I wonder if she too remembers doing this). Those little girls in their innocent ritual were unconscious that they were ritualizing the physical exchange of the life force, and the bonding of one being to another, that today is delivered in hospital from a plastic bag through a tube, the gift of a stranger. In all the years I donated blood, I never realized how personal this gift is, how intense the gratitude for it, but it pleases me that in fact something of me lives on in another.
I am no longer able to give my own blood, and I am dependent for my happiness, and forever bonded and befriended with people I have never met and will never know. I take off my shoes here, where we are all held and hold together in grace. Every common bush afire with God.
I am just saying – Red Cross Blood Service 13 14 95. http://www.donateblood.com.au