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Gene II


I found the note in a box of stamps that I hadn't seen before. My mother had brought them down from the attic. I had been taking time between jobs and spent some of it cleaning out old junk for her. Going through the boxes that she found. And out popped a note from Benjamin Alexander, who turned out to be -- in his time -- one of the leading researchers on hemophilia in the United States. To think of my grandparents in his office with my uncle, and to imagine them reading this note to him as he laid in bed was enough. But then to imagine my grandmother folding handkerchiefs into a box and wrapping it for him; to imagine her sending it in the mail to his office as a gift of thanks for taking care of her son. That took things to another place. A place of layered guilt about poverty, about the assignation of genetic blame (hemophilia came down to my uncle through her mitochondria, after all). And then to remember my childhood obsession with blood cells, with diseases, with cures. I imagined them collecting stamps together and my grandfather in the basement of their tiny house, worried and sick for the entire length of his son's childhood.

It felt like a novel to imagine this kind of drama. A child with an ailment that had no cure. The kind of ailment that today has become a manageable thing (one basically takes a pill every day). The fact that that ailment determined the narrative arc of so much of that family.

It's hard to estimate the amount of time I spent looking at the stamps as a kid -- mirroring the solitary concentration and obsession of my mother's brother. They told me I reminded them of him; that I had been born in the year he died. So I emulated even then what I thought he had been like; took it as a compliment when they said I was quiet and thoughtful. Tried to imagine what he would think of me, and what it was like to not be alive.

I handled the stamps with tweezers, carefully. My grandfather had told me that I couldn't touch them or I would ruin them. He took careful inventories of them, but only a little bit at a time. I started using his notebooks. I carried them around and wrote about writing in them. His hobby had evolved into my hobby. His inventories became my inventories of the world.

It's hard to think of him. I remember so little about him except for his bigness. I remember the feeling of his potbelly against my head when I hugged him. I remember that quite clearly. And shaking apple trees. And -- who knows if this part is imagined or what -- I remember his lingering grief. Maybe he knew that I understood it. Maybe that's why we got along. Maybe I just reminded him of a healthy version of his son. I don't know which.