I couldn’t understand what it meant to be a pilgrim; I couldn’t wrap my head around it. I sat in front of the largest dictionary I had ever seen and read its definition of the word “pilgrim” again and again, but for some reason I couldn’t grasp it. This was in the Allen Memorial Medical library; I was at Western Reserve University to become a hematologist.
The trouble, I began to see, was in the dictionary offering two definitions for the word. The first definition was “a person who journeys to a sacred place for religious reasons.” The second definition, which stood directly below the first, was “a person who travels on long journeys.” I couldn’t understand how something — in this case, a pilgrim — could be stripped of a defining characteristic — in this case, traveling somewhere “sacred” and doing so for “religious reasons” — and still be the same thing.
In India some Buddhist monks travel hundreds and hundreds of miles to take part in particularly potent religious festivals. They don’t fly, though, or drive or travel by train; they don’t even do something as simple as walk. They take three steps, fall to their knees, prostrate themselves, then rise before taking another three steps, falling to their knees, prostrating themselves, and rising. It takes some monks years to reach their destination.
One time I flew from San Francisco, where I’m from, to Cleveland then onto New York City where, a day later, I flew to Paris. After four hours in Paris, I took a thirteen-hour train ride to Berlin. It was a very long trip and not especially interesting, but my grandparents had bought me the necessary tickets because they felt a young woman should see the world. I ended up staying in my hotel room most of the week I was in Berlin because I didn’t know the language, and the sad, broad faces on the streets made me nervous.
Nevertheless, I suppose I was a pilgrim, too.
The dictionary was chained to a table at the far end of the large, open reading room that stood to the left of the library’s lobby. Two rows of eight tables filled the rest of the room, which was lined with shelf after shelf of reference volumes. The dictionary was as tall as my upper body and, when open, as wide as my arms held out. It was impossible for all but the strongest person to close.
* * *
When I checked my watch, I saw that I was in danger of being late for a meeting I had scheduled with Doctor Spandau, a hematologist at the Cleveland Clinic. I was required to interview three physicians for Biology 202, and Doctor Spandau was the second. Doctor Weiss, an anesthesiologist at Fairview General, had been the first, and Doctor Samuels, an otolaryngologist at Forest City, would be the third. It was late March.
The Western Reserve campus was filled with leafless, wind-whipped white elms. Every sidewalk, every street, every interior path was hidden under identical rows of the same tree. As I left the university on Euclid Avenue, the trees were replaced with buildings — department stores, pharmacies, card shops, the Haddam Hotel, Keith’s Theatre. There were more people on the sidewalk, and the street traffic had thickened.
The Cleveland Clinic was two miles away, on 89th Street and Carnegie Avenue. Had I taken the bus, I would have been there in a matter of minutes, but I was walking because I had lost my student bus pass and didn’t want to pay the fare. This meant it would take me nearly half an hour.
Did that also make me a pilgrim? The Cleveland Clinic wasn’t a sacred place, and I certainly wasn’t visiting Doctor Spandau for religious reasons. But compared to taking the bus, walking there was much longer.
I walked with my head down and attempted to untie the knot that had formed between my eyes. Removing the “sacred” and “religious” properties from the word “pilgrim” caused it to evaporate into the subjective. It might as well have meant nothing.
At East 105th Street, I breathed into my hands as I waited for the light to change. It really would be half an hour.
* * *
My roommate Elizabeth had lived in Cleveland all her life. When she learned that I was visiting the Cleveland Clinic, she told me that in 1929 it had caught fire and killed 123 people. A stack of nitro-cellulose x-ray sheets had mysteriously combusted, sending ginger-colored clouds of phosgene gas racing through the halls. The Clinic was subsequently renovated, and other buildings were added, but the disaster building remained in use.
“To this day there are people who refuse to use the Clinic,” Elizabeth said. “Some won’t even look at it. My mother, for instance.”
“That doesn’t mean anything,” I said. “It’s superstition.” But when I checked, I was displeased to find that Doctor Spandau’s office was on the disaster building’s third floor.
* * *
The Clinic’s lobby floor was divided in two. On one side, the tile was brick red; on the other side, it was gold. The room’s wood paneling was dark, and a line of matching wood chairs stood against each far wall. At the back of the lobby was a circular chamber marked “INFORMATION” in brass letters. There was a window, and inside the chamber I could see an older woman.
“Doctor Spandau, please,” I said to the woman. “I have a one-fifteen appointment.”
The woman telephoned ahead to Doctor Spandau then directed me to the elevators, which were outside the lobby. A minute later, I pushed open the door to Office 319.
The office was paneled with the same dark wood as the lobby, and its floor was the same gold tile. Against one wall was a row of short bookshelves; in the opposite wall were two tall windows, their blinds drawn. A large desk and, in front of it, a pair of leather guest chairs occupied the far half of the room. Standing behind the desk was Doctor Spandau.
“Miss Dorchester. Please have a seat.” Doctor Spandau watched me sit then retook his own seat; as he did, he gestured to the telephone on his desk. “I’m afraid I’m expecting a call within the hour, which means we might have to cut the interview short. But let’s start and see how far we get.”
Doctor Spandau’s answers to the questions I had prepared were clipped and perfunctory. As he spoke, he carefully straightened a fistful of paperclips, which he then placed, one at a time, along the edge of his desk. I found myself pausing after each question to quickly assess my performance. The pauses grew longer and longer until, finally, I couldn’t think of anything to say.
After a moment of silence, Doctor Spandau sighed. “I’d like to ask you a question now, Miss Dorchester,” he said. He put away the paperclips then leaned forward. “Why hematology?”
“I’m afraid I don’t understand,” I said. “Do you mean why did I choose to study hematology?”
Doctor Spandau continued to stare at me.
I flushed. “Well, I think blood is the most interesting thing about the human body,” I said. “In a way, it’s both the waterway and the cargo on that waterway. And because it’s liquid, it’s always changing.” I paused. “I don’t know, Doctor Spandau. I’ve always found blood to be extremely fascinating.”
“From a young age?”
I hesitated. “I suppose so.”
“Around twelve or thirteen?”
“I’m not sure.”
Doctor Spandau relaxed into his chair. His eyes, which had narrowed, continued to hold mine. “There isn’t anything exciting about blood, Miss Dorchester, nor is there anything exciting about ensuring its health,” he said. “It’s very serious and very important, and that’s it. Do you understand?”
“Do you have another question?”
“No, sir.” I drew a breath. “That is, I did want to give you a chance to talk about anything important I might not have brought up — if that’s all right.”
In response, Doctor Spandau slowly swept his office with his eyes. He wore a slightly critical expression that remained unchanged for each object in the room, including me. When he had finished, he exhaled then opened the top drawer of his desk. “Here,” he said. He handed me an issue of TIME magazine that had been paperclipped open to page 68. There were two large blocks of text that were headlined “Blood from the Dead.” “There’s a physician — well, there are two of them, but I’m only familiar with the one — in Michigan, Doctor Kevorkian, who has started extracting blood from the recently deceased.”
“For transfusions?” I said as I handed back the magazine.
Doctor Spandau looked strange for a moment. “Yes, of course for transfusions,” he said. “Why else would he want blood from a corpse?”
Doctor Spandau shook his head then replaced the issue of TIME in his desk. “Never mind. I’m bringing it up because I’m strongly against the practice. It’s inane, what they’re doing.” He folded his hands on his desk. “I’m not a moralist, and I’m not particularly religious, either,” he said. “I’m a pragmatist. For instance, I support the harvesting of donor organs because we need them. We don’t have kidney banks or cornea banks or artery banks. We do, however, have blood banks, and the fact is our blood banks have more blood than they could ever need.” He leaned over his hands. “Did you know we can only store blood for twenty-one days? After that, it becomes unusable. Blood banks throw out blood by the gallons — the gallons. There’s no shortage of donors. Why we would ever need to drain the blood from corpses is beyond me.”
Doctor Spandau shook his head. “There’s nothing particularly scientific about it, either,” he continued. “As the article states, we already knew it could be done; it seems a surgeon in Chicago, Leonard Charpier, did it in 1935. And the Russians have been doing it since 1930. Perhaps they need to do it — I don’t know. But I know we don’t. The only reason Doctor Kevorkian and his partner are doing what they’re doing is because it’s shocking and modern. It’s someplace new to go. That isn’t pragmatic; it’s the opposite. It’s frivolous and impractical, and that’s why I’m against it.” His face had achieved a flawless rigidity. “Do you understand what I’m saying?”
I didn’t know what to do. “I can see where you’re coming from, sir,” I said.
Doctor Spandau stared at me for a moment then sighed. “Is there anything else you’d like to ask me?” he said. “Anything at all.” He glanced at his telephone as he spoke. “Anything.”
There was a pause.
“Did you know,” Doctor Spandau said, “that during her first two trimesters a pregnant woman will increase the amount of blood in her body by fifty percent? It’s for the uterus, mostly, but also for all the extra work the heart has to do for a pregnant system.”
There was another pause. After a moment, I thanked Doctor Spandau for his time, gathered my things, and left.
* * *
I felt distracted and lightheaded as I stepped out of the Clinic onto East 96th Street. It was a distraction I had felt before; I knew that somewhere, some part of my brain was working to process my interview with Doctor Spandau. Perhaps process wasn’t the right word — scrub, maybe. Or detoxify.
I knew that my Biology 202 paper would be very short.
A block north, I turned east onto Euclid Avenue. It was approaching two o’clock, and traffic was intermittently heavy on both the street and the sidewalk. After twenty minutes, I was nearly to Stearns Road; I could see the Western campus a short distance ahead. It was at that moment that I heard a car horn, followed quickly by a terrifying metallic thump.
When I turned, I saw that a Ford Galaxie had collided with some unfamiliar model of Chrysler. The Galaxie’s engine was crumpled around the Chrysler’s front left bumper so that the two cars were a brutal checkmark in the Euclid turn lane.
There was smoke, which poured from under the Galaxie’s hood, and there was blood, too. It was on the Chrysler’s windshield, where the driver had struck his head. And it bathed the passenger’s leg. Somehow the door on her side had come loose and fallen away, and she had tumbled out onto the street. Her right leg was red, and every part of it — femur, patella, tibia, fibula, talus — was at opposite angles. Her dress had bunched at her stomach, and there was a pool of blood growing under her head.
She was screaming. Despite the noise of the city, her voice was as clear as a bell. She wasn’t forming any words, however — only a fierce, keening vocalization that made my teeth hurt.
To myself I shouted, God, please, help that woman! But she was still screaming when the ambulance arrived twelve minutes later.
* * *
On the last day I was in Berlin, I headed into the city to search for souvenirs, which I had promised my family. I was determined, however, to stray no farther than two blocks in any direction from my hotel. A block east, the strap on my purse broke. Behind me was an older man, who quickly stopped, knelt, and gathered from the sidewalk both my purse and the things that had spilled out of it — my wallet, a compact, a street map of Berlin, tissues, a notepad, a retractable pen. He then stood and offered it all back to me. The moment I took my things from him, he pushed his hand forward and, with the tips of his middle and index fingers, tickled the inside of my right wrist. He then stepped around me, smiling as he did.
I immediately returned to my hotel.
The entire trip back to San Francisco, I tried to think of an excuse for not buying souvenirs. But I couldn’t, and everyone in my family was disappointed.