When I was a little kid growing up in 1960s Spokane, I associated blood with the rough-and-tumble world of brothers. Though I had no brothers of my own, I could always go to my best friend's house to be among some. Conversely, Chris Porter came over to mine to be around sisters, for he had just one and I had a surplus-five. I almost never saw blood at our house. My sisters played board games, not ball games. Twister was about as rough as it got. Sure, we had Mercurochrome and a tin of Band-Aids in our medicine cabinet for skinned knees and mosquito bites so scratched over they bled. The Porters, by comparison, had an actual first-aid kit, stocked with pads of gauze the size of sandwich bread, splints, and a tourniquet. A tourniquet! How cool was that? Their house was a two-minute bike ride away, a place expressly outfitted, I now realize, for boys to burn off energy. Outside, Chris and his three brothers had a basketball hoop mounted in a cement-filled tire, a tree fort, and a garage filled with every sort of sports weaponry imaginable-lawn darts, baseball bats, and cracked hockey sticks still good for whacking crab apples into the neighbor's yard.
In the downstairs rec room there was a pool table and a punching bag and a floor so often cluttered with stuff-strips of Hot Wheels track, zillions of Matchbox cars, plastic soldiers. Erector Set buildings, Lincoln Log barricades-that Mrs. Porter routinely used one of those wide janitorial brooms to clear a path for herself to the pantry area, mercilessly toppling the mini metropolises in her way. She had a don't-mess-with-me severity my mother lacked, an I-don't-have-time-for-this quality, but the most radical difference between the two of them was that Mrs. Porter worked outside the home, something no other woman in our neighborhood did. She was the part-time nurse to her husband. Dr. Porter, a GP with an office nearby. Though always back home by the time school let out, Nurse Porter was never off duty. She knew back then, for instance, that I had what would now be called "white coat syndrome"-the skyrocketing of blood pressure and anxiety during a doctor's appointment. I liked Mr. Porter, but Dr. Porter terrified me. To get around this, during a lull in Chris's and my playing, she would sweep in, strap the blood pressure cuff on my arm, and, before my heart could start racing, she'd have already pumped and squeezed out the result. "See?" she'd say to me. "Perfectly normal." Oh, she was crafty, that Mrs. P. And unflappable. I remember once being out under the carport with
Chris when little Melissa Parker ran up wailing in a voice that could've shaken the fort from the tree: "Andy cracked his head open!" Sure enough, her bloodied brother, wheelbarrowed by two friends, soon bounced up the driveway. The Porter boys and I watched, straddling that gulf between horror and fascination, as their mom calmly sprang into action. Alas, so much blood for what ended up needing so few stitches! Time and again, as spectator and sometime recipient, such injuries reinforced in me the same equation: Blood was a guy thing, not a girl thing. Little did I know that there was a tide of female blood in my own home, and it seldom ebbed.
As the only boy in an Irish Catholic family, I was deeply conscious of how differently my parents viewed a son as opposed to daughters. The fifth of six kids, from the earliest age I felt genuinely prized, an individual whereas my sisters were often lumped together. We were "Billy and the Girls," like a pop band in which, long before I could talk, I'd been named lead singer. The Hayes daughters were raised with the expectation that they'd eventually marry and have children. I was led to believe I'd go to West Point, as had Dad, carry on the family name, and one day take over the family business, a Coca-Cola bottling plant. Only-boy-ness also meant having no hand-me-downs, whether clothes or bicycles or books, plus exclusive access to Dad, who took me alone to the drive-through car wash and to "he-man movies" such as True Grit. As the supplier of soda pop to all of Spokane's sporting events, he received free passes to hockey games, boxing matches, the annual rodeo, and off we'd go. It was as if manliness were a destination to which Dad regularly led me. Father and son, we'd sit in the bleachers most Sunday afternoons, sharing bags of roasted peanuts and time away from "the squaws," as he called my sisters and mom. We'd make it home just in time for dinner. As it was every night, the dinner table was like a game of musical chairs, the girls constantly popping up to fetch this or that while Dad and I remained seated, never lifting a finger.
I'd had my own bedroom since the summer after my seventh birthday. Before that, I'd roomed for as long as I could remember with my sister Shannon, who was then unceremoniously moved in with "the baby," four-year-old Julia. Shannon was two years older than me and the sister to whom I was closest. Togetherness hadn't ended with our getting separate bedrooms. Her best friend, Mary Kay, was Chris's sister, so our paths often also crossed at the Porters', as well as at school and catechism class. Our connectedness as children was one of complements: Her emotions bubbled over, I held mine in. It's something we still joke and talk about today: Shannon cried enough for the two of us, if not the whole family. And yet, as the fourth daughter, she was always somewhat misplaced, not allied with the eldest three and rarely getting the attention from Mom and Dad both Julia and I received. Though younger than Shannon, I tried to act like her protective big brother.
To the senior daughters, Colleen, Ellen, and Maggie, I was the baby brother they doted on but who also got in their way every day in the tiny bathroom we all shared. We called it "the yellow bathroom," for it was tiled the dusty color of lemon drops. We never shared the bathroom to the extent of bathing or using the toilet in front of one another; the locked door guaranteed privacy. But in the final minutes before bolting out of the house for school or church, we all ended up in there at once. In the large mirror above the twin sinks, my sisters and I were a jumble of pressing bodies, a photo booth filled to capacity. From memory, I pluck a typical scene: It is a school morning in 1969. I'm a second-grader at Comstock Elementary. We've all got to be out of the house in fifteen minutes.