As I lay there feeling the cold move through me, one of my fellow donors decided this would be a good moment to once again make a few more observations about my character. Everybody laughed.
I lay there bleeding into my little bag as tears ran down my face.
“Does it hurt?” asked a nurse, noticing that I was in distress. “Are you in pain?”
I told her I was fine.
A month or two later I saw Sissy’s obituary in the paper. Like me, she was a teenager, not much more than a child. My mother asked me if she’d been a friend. “No,” I said. “I barely knew her.”
Last week — a few days after participating in a blood drive here in Maine — I reached out to Sissy’s younger brother, Jim, and asked him what he remembered about the effort to save his sister 45 years ago. He still misses her, terribly, of course. But he also recalls the way people came together to help, and what it taught him about community, about society and what was possible.
“Remember at the end of ‘It’s a Wonderful Life,’” he emailed me, “when George Bailey returns home after his transformative experience with his guardian angel to discover how many folks genuinely cared about him? It was like that.” Jim told me that the gratitude he feels for the community that came together for his sister remains, even though her life ultimately could not be saved.
I’m grateful, too, for what the attempt to save a girl I barely knew taught me about the complexities of good will. Sometimes I derive an almost diabolical sense of joy when I think about the way my own blood may have saved the lives of individuals who hate people like me. I imagine those who have done the most to make my life harder, being filled up with Jenny Boylan blood. As my mother used to say, “Love is the wise man’s revenge.”
It’s not hard to do a deep dive into the racism and homophobia and transphobia that are part of the history of blood donation in this country. The Red Cross stopped segregating blood by race only in 1950. And to this day, men who have sex with men are prohibited from donating blood for three months after their last encounter — this in spite of the fact that every donated unit of blood is tested for the presence of H.I.V., hepatitis, syphilis and every other blood-borne disease.