Preface: “What’s All This Blood, Dad? I Don’t Understand!”

It may seem odd—counterintuitive, even—to preface a book about father-son bonding with a story about discovering my mother’s menstrual blood. My editor, in fact, initially advised against it. But sometimes insights come in the most unlooked-for places. So, here goes:

I am seven years old and living in a tiny walk-up apartment with my parents in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and I see in the toilet one morning what seems, to me, to be a bucket of blood. I panic.

My father left for work an hour ago, but my mother has been in the bathroom most recently, so I run out into the kitchen, where I think she is making breakfast, screaming, “Ma! Ma!” The radio is on, with one of her favorite programs, “Don McNeil’s Breakfast Club,” but she’s not there. So that increases my panic level to full-blast. She said she would be in the kitchen. And at this time of day she is always in the kitchen, and so I expect her to be in the kitchen, and she is not in the kitchen. So now she is missing. And I am thinking, “Is my mother lying somewhere a bloody mess? Is she dead?”

She’s not in her bedroom, nor in my bedroom, nor in our little living room. No blood spots anywhere I look, either. I check the closets. I peek under the beds. I look in the drawers and the cupboards, just to be thorough. No Ma. No blood.

So I run downstairs and out onto the porch. And thank God, there’s Ma, talking to Mrs. Doris Lindenbaum, her best friend, at the time. My mother’s best friends come and go in cycles. They are in and out—and in—as is Doris Lindenbaum now, the best friend of the moment.

And of all of the women I remember as friends of my Ma, Doris Lindenbaum is my favorite because she has a kaleidoscope of blue lines on her legs, which are called, says my mother, “varicose.” When my mother has poker games at our house, usually the first Thursday of the month, I sneak into the kitchen and, when no one is looking, crawl down under the table, cluttered with chips and cards and coffee and Coke, and I study the lines of varicose that Doris owns.

My mother’s other best friends have varicose, too, but Doris beats out everybody. Doris is tops. There’s a map of the world on Doris’ legs—snaking every which way—from ankle to knee, to that place way up under the tunnel of her dress where those dark, alluring mysteries lurk. At some point a few years later, I will learn from an older boy to refer to this secret under-the-dress spot as “Joy City.” But even when I am only seven, I know deep in my heart that there is something warm and wonderful going on up there, under that dress, that will someday yield unforgettable pleasure.

So I see Doris Lindenbaum on the porch that day. It is early. But I don’t have the patience to wait to say to Mrs. Lindenbaum, “Excuse me,” or “How are you doing, Mrs. Lindenbaum? How is good old Marc?” Marc is her son who is in my grade at school. An odd sickly kid; gets beaten up all the time. Or, “What are you doing here so early in the morning, Mrs. Lindenbaum? Will you join us for breakfast?”

And neither do I have the patience or the good sense to say to my Ma, “Can I talk with you privately, Ma?” or “Ma, can you spare a moment? I’m a little upset and I need to ask you about a few matters pertaining to a bucket of blood I found this morning in the toilet.” You know, something preliminary.

All I know is that my mother may be bleeding, losing all that blood, and if she’s bleeding, she may be dying, and if she’s dying, I am going to be a boy without a mom, which is going to make me upset and change my life.