“You gonna clean my balls?” my grandmother asks, slowly sliding into the closest espresso stained wooden chair. I hold my breath. She sees. “Somebody’s got to do it & damn it I want you to.” I nod reluctantly & put my book away.
Fresh from surgery for a large lymphatic tumor, she has thick drainage tubes that end inside cheap plastic spherical containers underneath her arm. The balls collect the blood, fluid, & clots of tissue leaking from underneath her right breast where the tumor once was. She unties the odd, handsewn waist carrier made from white cotton. She lifts her arm & rests her hand on the far side of her neck.
I get up, walk to the chair closest to her, petrified I will pull too hard, the tube will come out, that I will cause more pain by simply grasping the tube between my forefinger & thumb. I tug on my chin and sit at the table. I do not want to see the volume of blood accumulating in those damned plastic balls. I want her to be strong again, healthy—her skin soft and unmarked, her eyes their usual bright blue with fiery green sparks. Instead, here she is. Weak, dulled, frail. I decide to stare directly at the drainage stuck in the tubes—the task at hand.
I bend forward; grasp the first tube. Her blood has nearly filled the ball—the tube is full of it as well. I scoot the heavy wooden chair as close as I can to her body. Between forefinger & thumb, I strip the tube pulling gently, wanting—no, willing the tube to clear. It does not. I sigh. “I’d do it myself, but that goddamn breast is in the way. I can’t see shit,” she says while staring at the boxing match on TV.
I swallow hard & grab the tube again. “I just don’t want to hurt you,” I say through clenched teeth. “Hell, honey, that breast’s all numb. You ain’t gonna hurt me none.” I stretch the tube as thin as possible. “I bet you’d feel it if I end up pulling the tube clean out.” She chuckles a bit. “Not pulling like that you won’t. But your papa. . . . ” She leans closer, making the tube pull away as she whispered, “I thought he wanted to hurt me, the way he pulled on that damn tube.”
I look up at her as I finally start to pull blood out of the tube. “I don’t think that’s what he was doing. His face went white when he started touching it. I think he just wanted it to be fast.” I stop & lean back against the chair a moment, then start again. I focus on her body—on its curves, the elastic & pale wrinkled skin, the inflamed red stretches from the bulky padding rubbing against her delicate underarm.
I stare at the artificial holes underneath the arm that are cavernous & deep. I stare so long I begin to believe this is how I will save her. I savor this closeness, this moment of trust between us. I pull down the fluids in the tube while I thrust what I can of my life force straight into those plastic supplies going up into her body.
I want to tell her so much while I am working—I open my mouth several times to begin. I want to reassure her. I want to convince us both of her full recovery. But I do not know where to start, how to make the sounds with my throat that mean anything. I continue to squeeze the tube.
The sportscaster covering the match my grandfather is watching in the next room is terribly loud. I am focused enough to hear the coffee pot brewing over all the cheers of the spectators after a fierce uppercut. The dining room starts to smell like Folgers while the two of us sit, silent & hopeful. Both of us waiting. My fingers & then both hands began to ache from the repeated squeezing motion. Soon my shoulders join them.
I start to focus on my written instructions like a mantra. Strip the tubes. Detach the balls. Measure the blood. Measure the fluid. Record both. Dump. Reattach. Strip. Detach. Measure twice. Record. Dump. “How’s it coming?” she asks, breaking the hypnotizing rhythm of my thoughts. “Well, it’s tough getting all the blood out. Guess it wants to go back home instead of in the kitchen sink.”
She grunts immediately. “I’ve had this goddamned breast cut open three times now—twice before with different cancers. If that goddamned blood wanted to stay inside it’d stop growing that nasty shit. Then the doctors will leave me the hell alone.” She shifts in her chair & reaches toward the table with her free arm. I do not have to look to know she is getting her latest pack of Kents.
My thumbnail runs down the length of the tube. “Near the end of the first tube.” I say, forcing cheerfulness into my voice as she flicks her thumb over the igniter. “Good, then I’ll rest my arm a bit.” I lean back, for the first time reminded that she had to keep her arm elevated the whole time I work. “Sounds good.”
She has taken the cannula out of her nose & hooked it to the side of the portable oxygen tank without turning off the gas, which she does every time she smokes. I walk to the kitchen to measure, & then dump the blood down the stainless steel sink. All I can do is stare while her blood mixes with tap water as I rinse the measuring cup, then watch all traces flush down the drain.