I don’t remember almost dying as an infant, but apparently, I did. My mother recounts the story of my Soviet birth ripe with exaggerated old-world details. She describes laboring in a room with nine other women, all of whom took turns pushing their babies out, while an orderly with a thick mustache mopped the floor with dirty water. She witnessed one woman give birth to a stillborn baby. There were no Lamaze classes, epidurals, sonograms, or oversized beach balls to ease contractions. When it came time for my mother to push, the doctor told her she was not dilated enough. In modern day America, this common complication is generally confronted with the use of medicinal or mechanical cervical ripening. In 1974 Kiev, however, this goal was accomplished with a technique my mother uses her hands to demonstrate. She positions her hands into a prayer position, then darts them rapidly towards me, and spreads them open, keeping her fingers connected, creating a teepee shape. Labor Progression: Soviet-style, rubber gloves, optional.
I was born with copious amounts of black hair covering my head, my shoulders, and my back; in other words, a healthy Soviet specimen! My mother and I remained in the hospital for two weeks, the standard length for normal deliveries. Typically fathers were not permitted to visit their newborns at the hospital, but my father boastfully prides himself on being the exception to the rule. He bribed a nurse to hold baby me up to the window, where he stood in the hospital courtyard, squinting through the August sun, to gain a peek at his swaddled Soviet monkey.
My 20-year-old mother and my 24-year-old father spent their first two years of married life in a two-room apartment with my paternal grandmother, my father’s sister, her husband, and their 12-year-old diabetic son. At six weeks old, I got sick and promptly “a professor” was summoned to conduct a house call (because obviously, you couldn’t take a sick baby outside).
My mother’s six-week-old baby LOSING WEIGHT landed her on top of an imaginary list of terrible mothers. She survived a pregnancy with hyperemesis gravidarum (throwing up the entire nine months) followed by a labor and delivery where her crotch was hand-ripped open by a gloveless doctor. When it came time to breastfeed, she said, “I never had enough; my milk was transparent – it was blue! All I had was skim milk and you were always hungry.!” American Millennials would say she was not “crushing it at motherhood.”
My sickness had nothing to do with her blue milk. The professor diagnosed me with pneumonia and demanded my parents take me to the hospital right away.
Upon arrival, my father, Russian Super Dad, (and honorary blood expert) demanded the doctors give me a blood transfusion. He was certain this would cure my pneumonia. When he tells the story, he flexes his biceps to demonstrate how he physically offered up his arm. “Just look at these veins,” he points to the pulsing blue highways under his skin. I am 44 years old and to this day, my father offers up this moment as the Magnum Opus of his life, the day he single-handedly brought me back to life with his blood.
“You should see the size of the shpritz* they pricked me with,” he says with exaggerated animation. “I think those doctors took a gallon of my blood. Maybe more. I didn’t know where they were going to put it; you were so small. I think they gave it to half the babies in that ward.”
My mother thought her blood was inferior because it was Type B, rather than Type A, as if blood types were grades on an exam. She justified how her Type B blood made her a sicklier person, with a weaker immunity, compared to my father with his first-rate Type A.
“They replaced all of your blood with mine,” my father says, “and as if by magic, you instantly got better. The doctors were amazed; your cheeks turned pink and you got your appetite back.”
In retelling this story there are medical details missing and the inner scientist (um, hypochondriac) in me desperately craves further answers. The doctors said they wanted to run tests and hold me for observations but my father said, “If there’s nothing wrong with her, I’m taking her home.” He wrapped me in the plaid wool blanket and marched out of the hospital. Clearly, I was never sick again.
The blood transfusion eternally bonded me to my father. I have always thought part of why he loved me as intensely was because it was his blood coursing through my veins. He envisioned his blood cells multiplying inside my seven-pound body, saturating my veins, penetrating each capillary, and immunizing me from all illness for an eternity. I’m not sure if that was accomplished, but whenever I had any triumph in life – a 100% on a test or passing the road test on my first try – or getting into every college to which I applied, my father always had the exact same retort: “That’s my blood!”
*shprtiz – Russian for “needle.”