in the waiting room of Allegheny Hospital
My younger brother, Ellis, had been on the transplant waiting list for seven years when the call finally came. By then he was twenty-six, a construction worker. We were lucky it was so soon, the woman said, most people wait much longer and I knew that was true from the pamphlets I’d read in the office: 2,000 heart transplants every year and still over 3,000 people on the list. At least it’s just my heart, he said, and not my brain. As if to him the choice was easy which was more important.
The first time I held a brain I remember thinking: how heavy. How heavy we are to one another. There was something about the creases and the emptiness of it all. Like my grandmother’s pie shells, waiting for pumpkin and mince in the early morning kitchen warmth. But it had been drained already, its owner long gone. Whose brain is this, I said, the museum presenter carried on, rattling off facts about the human body. He lifted it out of its bucket and passed it to me casually, continuing his speech. And in my sixth-grade arms it was huge and celestial.
½ hour, time spent as just one cell.
He came earlier than he was supposed to. Father was already gone by that time. This is your baby too, mother told me; in my arms he was warm and small. I had wanted to name him Treehouse. I held him tight to my chest and watched his eyes slip back and forth beneath his lids, already he was dreaming of miniature cities and the faceless voices of us. Mother slept too. Out the window, the sun started up. And he was mine and we were the last two people alive.
17 muscles to smile.
In the waiting room after Ellis is born I say, grandmother, tell me a story from when you were young. She begins the same as always: ours was the largest house for miles, but my daddy was a good and kind man, even to the coloreds. I am embarrassed because she says coloreds and there are black people in the waiting room with us. She doesn’t hesitate. This word means something different to her and wrapped up in it is her youth. Old Mister Bussy from down the road would come over to use our bathroom because he didn’t have his own, we had several, and while he was over he gave us organ recitals. I imagine venous pipes running up the walls of her childhood home, carrying music through all the rooms, metallic vines, ivory keys. His gallbladder was always bothering him or his liver or his kidneys. But how did he know that, grandmother, how could he feel those things. I didn’t understand knowing the state of inner parts. How does a gallbladder feel, what does it look like?
1,000 new skins every year.
Home to help her heal from her shoulder reconstruction, I caught my mother’s weight on my arm, pulled her from the tub. Her bathwater made the air dense and I could smell her skin, warm and roses. As she dressed herself to the sound of the drain, I noticed for the first time the way she was loosening in places. At some point we will give way and become our surroundings like vapors. I ask her how old she is. She says thirty-two and holding, just like grandmother says, and I know that one day I will say the same. Ellis is his true age and will always be. He is a man and to him, years are less harmful. He will become distinguished, his hair will salt and pepper. He will not dread cellulite and sagging and the unavoidable gravity of our bodies.
23,040 breaths per day.
On the back porch: we drink wine and talk like friends, the bird and bug noise swells as night comes on and summer is turning, you can feel it in the air. She tells us when she was seven she watched grandmother run over her cat, backing out of the garage. There was a mark left over, even after she saw her father use soap and hose, until the next year when the driveway was repaved with asphalt.
In the winter: we sit in the hot tub out back. When we run for the house, our pale feet make dark wet spots on the deck steps. It is so cold that two days later they are still there, our side by side footprints frozen to the wood as though something has seeped from us and stuck.
27 bones in the hand.
At grandfather’s funeral, mother makes me rest my hand in his to feel what has left him. She touches his eyelids. She is feeling for movement beneath skin, like fish trapped under ice. I want to pick up his casket and hide it from her, pull away her hands from searching for something already gone. Ellis runs the backs of his fingers against grandfather’s tie.
Afterward, in the evening backyard sun of our house the trees bared their bones and stretched capillaries to the sky just to keep the blue and clouds moving. The adults talked inside; we, on our backs in the grass, said nothing.
500 shades of gray can be distinguished by the eye.
On the ride home from my first All-State track meet in high school, he kneads my calves without me asking. My legs have too abruptly stopped running; they crave movement. Underneath skin, the muscles wrestle and pull at each other. He knows what it is like to be spent, to have given your all. He gets mother and grandmother prattling and mimics them close to my ear until I smile and stop thinking about the pain. Outside, the sky is bleak and it smells like snow.
Later, we drive the backroads and smoke. We lie on the hood and search the sky, the car is warm against our jackets. It just makes me feel so small, you know, I say. I can’t feel my face, he says. We toss empty beer bottles into the vast darkness over the road and wait to hear them fall and burst. We whoop like monkeys or sirens into the emptiness and our breath puffs out. I think that sound is the same as raindrops or stars falling, if we could hear it amplified, Ellis says. I toss one more up. It hits as the last of my breath dissolves into night.
100,000 beats of the heart in a day.
On the phone, an ex-lover. The place at the end of the line sounds loud, and dark, and distant. His band has just toured Europe. A girl he met in France had an abortion and he owes her three hundred dollars. That seems cheap, I say. He’s drunk and the connection is bad. There is female laughter and then he is gone. I wanted to know how far along she was, what three hundred dollars bought in a situation like that.
10 days, the lifespan of a taste bud.
Once he moved into his own apartment, he invited me over for dinner: Spam and lima beans. Mother called them special beans when we were younger. When he found out he’d need the transplant, we ate them again and the Spam too, on toast with mustard. It was all he wanted to eat and he said it made him feel poor, in the best way, and thankful. The beans tasted like summer in our kitchen when we ate fast to go back outside. They had always tasted that way and looking at Ellis in his kitchen, different light, his eyes tired from long nights, I knew their taste would never change.
Many years later: a man makes me lima beans for our first dinner together. And under his kitchen lights, time comes haltingly to my feet and sticks. The refrigerator clicks on and I stare at him suspended in that gelatinous moment, his hand reaching for a wine glass. We become Ellis and me in our summer play clothes, forking special beans and looking into each other’s sun-freckled faces. We become Ellis and me at his kitchen table, trying to make each other laugh for distraction, snow falling hard against the windows.
3,600 bits of information processed in one hour.
Ellis stayed at art school in Philadelphia for a year. Mother wanted me to visit to check on him, make sure he was fine. He’d started doing coke with his roommates and when I got there we did lines off a dinner plate in his bedroom. We walked the streets; sun licked hot on our backs. And for a while, in my mind, we were the same. We stayed outside until our skin summered and he said, let’s get more. So we did. He cut the leftover with baking soda to sell at a party later and I picked at my nailpolish. They saved Hiroshima for the atom bomb, he said, I read a book about it. I could tell conspiracy made him feel certain somehow, certain of something larger than himself and more in control. Even if his body was already trying to push out and poison itself. And later, I would realize that someone kept the boy breathing long enough, someone saved that body just for him.
15 million blood cells destroyed every second.
The donor: twelve years old and bringing in the trash. Something leaked out from the streetlights and the clouds pulled the rain from the ground. The car lost its grip from the road and forced itself onto their side yard. The old sandbox tumbled to pieces, a popsicle-stick bridge beneath the drunk driver; it spilled its sugary guts. Their yard became a vacation beach. He was still breathing and that’s what mattered, all the way to the hospital where they declared him gone. They would harvest.
The brain itself is incapable of feeling pain.
Ellis, when they split you open I could see everything. The scalpel etching the path my hands had traveled on your first day in this world, when I felt the bumps of your soft knee caps, your spine a tiny chain of mountains. The team cracked and pried your ribs smooth and gaping. They lifted out your heart. It was passed down the row of attendants and then to me, in the corner observing. Against my glove it seemed out of place, too small it didn’t look the size of your fist like we always thought it was supposed to be. Your old and broken piece, I wanted it to pulse in my hand so I would know it was really yours. It was disoriented, as if all the weight of you and all the weight of me sat motionless in my palm. It seemed like we should be worth more than this—slick and failing. Could they throw away our spare parts? It left a print on my glove that made me think of the summers when we ate mulberries straight from the trees, our mouths and fingers stained purple.
Post-operation: while I wait to be called back in, I count the number of times my heart beats in the hour for both of us. I imagine grandmother and mother there, just as they were at the beginning of you. The nurse on duty explains that we won’t know if your body will take or reject the implant, that the days post-op were crucial. My heart pumps against my ribs. And I know that somehow, if they can’t keep the twelve-year-old inside you, it will be okay—because I was the first and the last to hold you.
Chanda Grubbs is a second year MFA candidate at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. Although she hates Iowa winters, she does enjoy good wine, good food, and good books. Her dreams for the future include single-handedly bringing back NASA, perfecting the art of the gourmet JELL-O salad, and writing a musical.