It started out as a sore throat and a fever, then swollen glands. It ended up as a full-blown streptococcus bloodstream infection, with resultant heart enlargement, pneumonia, erysipelas, empyema, raging fever and delirium. I was five years old and in kindergarten when this infection began its disastrous journey through my body. The powerful antibiotics — sulfa, penicillin — were years in the future. I was given little chance to live.
A specialist was called from a medical center one hundred miles away. His evaluation to my parents: "I'm sorry to tell you you have a very sick child and there's very little we can do for her." I spent three weeks in the hospital following emergency surgery to drain pus from a lung. I went home to a year in bed. I learned to walk again, and faced months and years of restricted activity.
Of the weeks leading up to my surgery I do not remember much — a sore throat so severe I had to will myself to swallow over the pain; the sound of neighborhood children playing on the street below and feeling relieved not to be there as two red-haired brothers who lived down the hill and whose ways seemed a little menacing had recently shown up to give a tumultuous edge to our quiet games of Hide and Seek and Kick the Can. A number of years later in junior high school I found myself a classmate of their sister, a quiet, pretty girl I enjoyed from a distance and to whom I never breathed a word of our tenuous connection. A few other images: being enclosed in a tent of white sheets, and steam vapors generated from water simmering on a hot plate.
My grandfather was a much-loved presence in my life. He was an engineer in a factory one hundred miles away in eastern New York state, and every weekend he would drive over the Mohawk Trail to be with his daughter, my mother, and our family. During the weeks of my accelerating illness he would always come upstairs and spend time with me. On one of his visits I somehow got some crayon marks on his white shirt. I learned later that he had held that shirt back from the wash until he was sure I would get well.
During much of the year my grandfather lived in a rustic frame cabin on an island at the confluence of the Hudson and Mohawk Rivers. The "camp," as we referred to it, had its own well water for drinking — a sparkling clear water with a distinctive flavor. On one of the occasions when I was having trouble drinking liquids I begged for some water from "the camp." On his next weekend visit my grandfather brought me a gallon thermos full of water. I thought my troubles were over. Eagerly, I took a sip from the proffered glass. It didn't taste right somehow. I tried to swallow. To my dismay and disappointment, I couldn't get it down.
I remember with love and gratitude the best part of each painful fevered day. In the early evening, after I had eaten and drunk whatever I could, my mother would come back into the room and sit on the edge of my bed. I would turn over onto my tummy, my face turned toward her, and wait as she lifted the bottle of rubbing alcohol she had brought with her, unscrewed the top, poured some into her cupped hand, spilled it onto my burning skin, and began to rub in gentle soft circles in an effort to reduce the fever. As she rubbed, she sang. Mostly I remember her singing hymns. "Jesus tender shepherd hear me," she sang, "bless thy little lambs tonight. Through the darkness be thou near me, keep me safe till morning light ..." "Abide with me, fast falls the eventide," she sang.
I have had no occasion to check on the words of these hymns since then, but the words are engraved on my heart. They were prayers, too, I suppose. To me the sound of angels could not have been sweeter. The comfort of my mother's hand, the sound of her voice, dispelled all fear and pain, all questions of peril and uncertainty. A bond between my mother and me, already strong, was strengthened by the blessing of those moments, a given that would underlie the rest of our life together — a bond that would be stretched, shaken, by the stresses of adolescence and burgeoning adulthood, but could never be dissolved.
We do not know what makes one person survive a killer infection and another succumb. But I believe that my mother's care and the strength of her will are a crucial part of the mystery of why I did not die. My illness and recovery were an important part of her life story from then on, as they have been of mine, though I remember her claiming credit for a critical role in that recovery only once. By then I was a middle-aged woman. She was angry and hurt that I would not agree to a life choice involving her that I felt demanded more of me than I could muster. My childhood illness had been no part of our conversation. But suddenly she burst forth, "You'd never have made it without me!" I believed her. I believe her still.