A SEA OF GURNEYS
by Lisa Lynne Lewis
A line of parents was already waiting in the assembly room by the time school let out for the day. Diane made her way through the rows of gurneys staffed by workers from the local blood bank, past the PTA volunteers wearing matching T-shirts that said, “What’s your type?”
The posters publicizing the blood drive were all over campus. Since the accident two weeks prior Thomas’s face had been everywhere, his blond hair hanging shaggily across one eye as he smiled for the camera. He was in her daughter Leila’s fifth-grade class. They’d gone to school together since kindergarten and had played on the same soccer team during first grade, the two of them standing next to each other in their team photo. How quickly he’d become the poster child for every parent’s nightmare, Diane thought.
The information had seeped in from multiple sources, each update adding a new terrible layer of specificity, hard-edged details glinting like shards of glass. A crossing-guard out sick that day; a car that came around the corner too fast. Thomas, already halfway across the street, unable to move out of the way in time. He’d been thrown onto the hood by the impact and lacerated his spleen. At his mother’s request, the PTA had quickly organized today’s drive to support the blood bank that had been his lifeline at the hospital.
A few days earlier Diane had run into Carrie, the PTA president, at the supermarket. Their relationship had never really progressed past the hello stage; in the concentric rings of popularity among the mothers at the school, Carrie orbited near the center, Diane, on an outer ring.
“Hi, Diane!” Carrie said, turning back from unloading her cart. She was wearing turquoise cropped pants and a flowered cardigan. “How are you? I don’t know if you heard—I’m putting together a meal sign-up sheet for Thomas’s family. Let me know if you’re interested.”
“Yes, definitely,” Diane said. Of course Carrie, polished and efficient, would be at the center of the coordination efforts. Diane was suddenly aware of how unkempt she must look in her faded jeans and flip-flops. “Have you heard anything about how Thomas is doing?” she asked.
“His mom said he’s doing pretty well, considering. They were really worried about the internal injuries.” Carrie paused, smoothing her hair back behind her ear. “It turns out he has one of the rarer blood types—he just about depleted the supply at the hospital.” She sighed. “When she asked if we could host a blood drive at school, I told her we’d make it happen.”
Diane nodded sympathetically. Carrie and the other PTA moms had been doing a tremendous amount of work behind the scenes. She felt a small flush of inadequacy; her own plan to donate blood suddenly seemed a paltry contribution. “I’ll be there,” she replied.
Diane stood in the doorway, surveying the school assembly room. It looked like a Red Cross shelter furnished with rows of gurneys rather than cots. Carrie was walking down one of the rows, heading away from her, writing on a clipboard. Along the walls, children in black-and-white class pictures from years past smiled down on them.
Underneath a row of photos from the 1970s, the PTA had set up a snack table with crackers, cookies, and juice. Diane recognized Sherry, the room parent from Leila’s class, who was arranging juice boxes on the table. She looked up and gave Diane an enthusiastic wave. “Glad you could make it!” she called. Diane smiled reflexively and waved back. It was unsettling, this incongruous cheerfulness. When she’d first heard about the accident, she’d immediately pictured Leila suffering the same horrific injuries, sprawled across a car hood, limp and unconscious. It had been enough to make her weak-kneed. She was awed by Thomas’s mother, her ability to channel her anguish into something positive, requesting a blood drive even as she kept vigil with Thomas in the ICU. Diane doubted she’d have the same presence of mind if she were in her position. She had a vision of herself keeling over in panic and pain, keening like a trapped wild creature.
Up on the stage, a few parents were helping organize the kids who were waiting while their parents donated blood. They’d transformed the space into an arts-and-crafts area, with three long tables and two dozen chairs, along with piles of colored markers and construction paper for making get-well cards. Even from across the room Diane could hear the kids, loud and unconcerned, exuberant in their innocence. Leila was there with a couple of kids from her class but didn’t appear to be interacting with them. It was as if she’d been dropped into their midst, her slumped shoulders accentuating her aloneness while the activity and conversation flowed around her.
When Leila was younger, she’d always insisted on colorful barrettes and ponytail holders. She’d given those up a few years ago; now, her dark hair hung heavily around her face like a barrier against the rest of the world. Diane knew better than to get up and check on her. She thought about the argument they’d had that morning and sighed.
By the time Leila had finally gotten dressed and come downstairs for breakfast it was already 7:30 a.m. She seemed to move with an exaggerated slowness, scowling at every reminder to hurry up, until Diane wanted to gather up her folders and finish packing Leila’s backpack herself. Finally, she’d hunted down Leila’s high-tops and brought them into the kitchen, where Leila was still eating her cereal.
“I’m not a baby!” Leila said angrily when Diane deposited them next to her.
Diane walked over to the counter to refill her coffee cup. She knew without looking that Leila was glaring at her. “Don’t forget you still need to brush your teeth,” Diane said. “We’re leaving in three minutes, and if you’re not ready, I’m going to have to wake you earlier tomorrow.” She turned toward the doorway, glancing quickly over at Leila. As she started down the hall she nearly tripped over the cat, which lay stretched out on the linoleum, engrossed in its morning grooming ritual.
Leila looked up and gave Diane a dirty look. Her bowl was still half-full, her juice glass untouched. “Stop ruining my life,” she muttered.
“Three minutes!” Diane called back.
In the car on the way to school, she tried to bridge the silence. “I heard you have a special assembly coming up. Is that this week?” She tried to catch Leila’s eyes in the rear-view mirror, but she was turned toward the window, chin resting in her hand. She didn’t reply. Diane gave a small sigh and decided not to push it.
Every morning now was the same. Diane felt the familiar regret. What hadn’t they argued about lately? Even topics that seemed safe, like what to buy at the grocery store, quickly led to conflict.
On Monday, Diane had asked if there was anything Leila wanted to add to the shopping list.
“I hate the bread you always buy,” she said.
Ignoring the tone, Diane asked again if there was anything she wanted. She waited for Leila to answer, watching as she slowly unknotted her iPhone cord.
With the cord untangled, Leila put in her ear buds. “Get whatever you want. You always do anyway.”
“Then don’t complain that there’s nothing to eat,” Diane retorted.
As a toddler Leila had been talkative and happy, easily amused by the world. Her exuberance had been infectious, and Diane, who’d never had the urge to hold someone else’s baby, became enthralled by her, marveling at how her own natural reserve melted away in the brightness of Leila’s personality.
Becoming parents hadn’t been enough, ultimately, to keep her marriage to Dennis together, but they’d stayed cordial after the divorce. Leila saw her father regularly, spending alternate weekends with him. Dennis had noticed the changes in her too, the emergence of a warier, more self-conscious version of her preadolescent self. Yet when Diane tried to talk to him about it, he seemed flummoxed. “I don’t know what it’s like to be a preteen girl—isn’t that more your area?” Remembering the conversation, Diane felt a flash of resentment. It didn’t seem fair that he could so easily delegate it all to her, as if simply being female made it easier to weather Leila’s growing storms.
The girls in Leila’s fifth-grade class seemed on a faster track to adolescence than the boys; last year, they’d all started wearing training bras or stretchy camisoles. A couple of them had even gotten their periods already. Leila hadn’t yet, and thank goodness for that, Diane thought, although she knew Leila’s hormone levels were stealthily building towards it. Diane felt helpless against the rising tide. She tried to remind herself that Leila still loved her, still needed her, even when she vibrated with moodiness.
Diane gathered up her paperwork and walked to the next station. The blood-bank worker there wore scrubs and running shoes, as if he’d jogged over, and a large button that said, “Remember—it takes all types!” Diane extended her right hand and waited for him to prick her ring finger and analyze her blood. Iron-rich, he pronounced, but too thick: had she had a lot of coffee today? He handed her a bottle of water and instructed her to drink it before proceeding to the next station.
As she stood to make way for the next donor, Diane thought again of the cruel arbitrariness of the accident. Despite the oddly festive atmosphere today, she knew the other parents must feel it too. They’d organized prayer vigils; they’d dropped off dinners at the family’s house. Casseroles and cannelloni and comforting pots of soup: food left as offerings.
How quickly tragedy could infiltrate a tidy life. At night, Diane conjured up new horrors that could befall Leila: car accidents, stranger abductions, random violence. The possibilities massed at the edge of her consciousness. Even when she was pregnant she’d worried about all the things that could go wrong, the abnormalities and deformities described explicitly in her pregnancy books. Reading about possible complications, she’d marveled that anyone managed to give birth to a healthy baby. There was simply too much danger in the world. As a parent, you had to push it into the background to avoid being overwhelmed. Having Leila had permanently branded Diane, marking her with a panicked sense of responsibility.
At the next station, Diane recounted her personal health history in response to the list of questions. No tattoos in the last year, no recreational drug injections, no sex for money since 1977. “And none before then either,” she added, briefly amused, grateful for the small diversion.
At last she lay on the gurney, immobilized for fifteen minutes as the red tube snaked to the collection pouch below. It would siphon one pint—enough to refill her now-empty water bottle. With each beat of her heart, her blood pulsed through the tubing. All the dozen gurneys were occupied by similarly-tethered parents. She recognized some of the moms from Leila’s class and several dads too. It seemed strangely intimate, lying side by side, all of them drawn here by a need to do something, anything, to help Thomas’s parents bear their burden.
Looking over toward the stage she saw that Leila was standing apart from the other kids, facing the sea of gurneys. She looked like she was about to cry. She was staring at Diane with a feral intensity, noting the blood draining from her right arm into the quickly filling pouch. Diane thought she could see in Leila’s pained expression a kind of anguish at seeing her prone and hooked up to tubing, as if she’d been injured and needed care. Leila had pulled her sweatshirt hood up over her head, as if the charcoal fleece might provide a barrier against the world.
Diane had a vision of her at age four, similarly hooded as Tigger in a black-and-orange striped hooded jacket and matching fleece pants. The jacket had zipped up the front and had ears sewn onto the hood. It was Halloween, and Diane had used an old eyeliner pencil to draw a black nose and whiskers on Leila. Even afterwards, there were many days when she’d worn the jacket, her hood with its fleecy ears eliciting smiles at the grocery store or on other errands around town. Leila, as she used to be, bouncy and exuberant.
Diane thought of sharing this memory with her, bringing it up casually on the car ride home, but even as she considered it she knew it would go wrong. Leila would respond with stony silence, leaving them both resentful. Marooned, yet again, on opposite sides of the gulf that now separated them.
Up on the stage Leila seemed smaller somehow, her shoulders hunched in protectively. Diane thought she could sense the warring impulses within her: her craving for independence, her simple, fundamental need for her mother.
“How are you feeling? Any lightheadedness?” the blood-bank worker asked. Diane’s view was blocked as he stood over her.
“No—I’m fine,” she said. She looked around him to see Leila still standing there. Diane ached for the pain of her transformation, the angry retreat of her difficult journey through adolescence. Underneath her prickliness she was still so vulnerable.
Her guard was nearly always up now. It was only occasionally, when Diane would come to Leila’s bedroom to say goodnight and find her already in a state of near-sleep, that she was willing to accept her touch. Leila’s body would be taut, but slowly, she would let herself relax as Diane traced the knots of her spine, the sharp wings of her shoulder blades gradually flattening as Diane smoothed away the tension Leila kept hidden away. Diane knew better than to speak at these moments, grateful for their quiet communion.
The blood-bank worker came over again. “All done—you did great,” he said, cradling her outstretched arm. “I’m going to unhook you now.” Diane felt a small tug as he withdrew the needle before wrapping the area with several layers of stretchy bandage. “You’ll need to leave this in place for a few hours.”
The woman on the gurney next to her had her feet in the air and a cold compress on her forehead. An apparent fainting risk. Slowly Diane sat up, then stood, the worker still nearby and alert for any signs of unsteadiness. Diane glanced at Leila again, wanting her to see that she was OK.
But Leila was no longer facing her. Diane watched as she put on her backpack and leaned forward to shrug it into place. She yanked at the base of her sweatshirt hood to loosen it from the straps, then jerked her head forward to free her hair. Even from where she stood, Diane could sense her irritation. It was the emotion Leila fell back on most often to vent the roiling awkwardness below.
At the snack table, Diane accepted a cup of juice and took a sip. Apple, Leila’s favorite when she was young, although Diane couldn’t remember the last time they’d had any in the house. She sat quietly as the two volunteers at the table discussed the upcoming PTA fundraiser. Carrie came over and whispered something to the volunteer handing out cookies and they both laughed. Diane closed her eyes to try to block it all out: the happy volunteers, the rows of gurneys, the children’s faces in the photos lining the room.
Leila’s needs had once been so straightforward: a hug and a band-aid for a skinned knee, a cup of juice for crankiness. Now there were no simple fixes. Diane felt her own sadness well up for not being able to ease her pain. She wanted to throw her arms around her daughter’s stiff shoulders, to surround her with warmth and strength. This was her role, she realized: to try, to continue to try. She held onto her paper cup as if it were an offering, wishing it could somehow hold all of her fierce love that even right now was threatening to spill over.
Lisa Lynne Lewis is a contributing writer for Literary Mama and has also been published on Prime Number Magazine and in Better Homes and Gardens and Redbook. She has an MFA from Mills College and is an alumna of the Tin House Summer Writer’s Workshop. She lives in Southern California with her family.