When we were young, my cousins and I got together at least once a week. We all grew up in big, Italian-Catholic families that were in a constant state of competition — the fathers vying to see who could smoke the most cigarettes, and the mothers to see who could have the most babies.
Holidays were enormous affairs, with cars parked on both sides of the street and coats piled high on my parents’ bed. While the men played gin rummy and drank from clear glasses cluttered with ice cubes, the women hovered around the stove, cooking food as though they were expecting the entire College of Cardinals to show up for dinner. Meanwhile, the children were sent outside to get some fresh air and sunshine, but mostly to stay out of the grown-ups’ hair. This was back in the days, of course, when the air was breathable and the sun was good for you, and when people could tell their kids to get lost without fear of lawsuits, leaked videos, or damaged self-esteem.
With few exceptions, the cousins were boys, and we spent a great deal of time ditching our sisters and figuring out new ways to make each other bleed. We would sword fight with broken broom handles, and climb fences that would have deterred death row inmates. When those didn’t do the trick, we’d use razor blades to cut our own thumbs, then press them together in a ritual that allowed us to declare ourselves blood brothers.
One of my cousins was an only child, so most of the time he had nobody to punch him in the face, or leave bite marks on his stomach, or snap the back of his thigh with a damp kitchen towel. As if unwittingly adhering to some minimum daily requirement for hemorrhaging, he was also the only one in the group who got nosebleeds. This would happen without warning, and for no apparent reason. We’d be wandering in a pack through an empty lot, or playing stickball in the street, when there would be a sudden commotion that would alter the sound and direction of our activity. I wouldn’t comprehend what was going on for several seconds, until someone blurted out, “He’s having another nosebleed!” Whatever we’d been doing stopped at once, rendered unimportant by the spectacle. We’d stare transfixed at our stricken kin, his head tilted back, fumbling with one hand to stem the flow, while cupping the other to catch it. And the sight would shock us, all over again, even though we’d seen it a dozen times before.
We could never understand exactly where the blood was coming from. The surface of the nose could bleed a little if scratched by a stray fingernail or an old can opener, or if you walked into a hedge. But even in our vast ignorance, we knew that liquids didn’t flow upward, and were sure it had to be draining down from inside his skull. This made it seem almost supernatural, and reminded me of the stories I’d heard about people who spontaneously developed stigmata — sores and wounds that corresponded to those of the crucified Christ. Bright red fluid pouring out as if from thin air, it was both a sacred and revolting event, one that we witnessed with fascination, but wouldn’t have wished on ourselves in a million years.
At the same time, as Catholics, the interjection of blood into our lives was familiar. Our homes were filled with religious icons: paintings, sculptures, and countless plastic trinkets, all depicting the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Many featured a floating heart, often crowned with thorns and dripping with blood. Sometimes the heart was outside his body, or could be seen through his robes, an unsettling image that tended to scare the life out of me.
There were also statues that were alleged to bleed from their palms and feet, although these were scattered around the planet, and rarely in a convenient location. And every Sunday, we watched as the priest raised the chalice for all to see, proclaiming that the wine it contained had been changed into precious blood.
This was the source of my confusion. In church, blood was something holy, something to be held up and looked upon with reverence. Everywhere else, it was supposed to be kept hidden, and discussed in only the most mysterious terms. My mother often said that hers was boiling, or that someone had made it run cold. My father complained about some malicious individual who was out for blood, or people who acted as though they had royal blood. They both claimed blood was thicker than water, but that you couldn’t get any from a stone.
I had no idea what any of that meant. All I knew was that, competition or not, we were really part of just one big, Italian-Catholic family, and I hoped we would always be together.
We were, each of us, blood brothers. Even the girls, I guess.
* * * * *
Saturday, May 17th, is World Hypertension Day.
External bleeding is easily noticed. High blood pressure, though, is much less obvious. It increases the risk of stroke, as well as heart and kidney disease, and can cause weakened arteries and vision problems. Please check your blood pressure, and if it’s elevated, find out what you can do to lower it.