What do I remember from that year after I came home and my father carried me upstairs to the room with twin beds my sister and I had shared?
I was now to occupy it by myself while she continued to sleep in the guest room as she had during the last desperate weeks before my surgery. I had two nurses, Barbra and Daisy. Daisy was my favorite — a gentler, more even-tempered woman, less strict with her young charge. Barbra was usually pleasant but occasionally overbearing.
A woman's magazine at the time was running a series with cartoon depictions of bad behavior. One month the caption for a cartoon of a scowling child was, "This is a Whimper-Whiny," and then in large red letters the query, "Were you a Whimper-Whiny this month?" If I fussed over any aspect of the regimen Barbra was directing, she would hold up the magazine page and ask, "Were you a Whimper Whiny this month?" I was not amused.
She sent me into enraged despair when at one bedtime she warned me that if I didn't behave she wouldn't let my mother come in and kiss me goodnight. I evidently did not change my ways, and I heard my mother's voice at the door come to give me her usual goodnight kiss. Barbra went out into the hall, closed the door and after a few moments of murmuring voices, returned to tell me my mother was not coming for her accustomed kiss. I couldn't believe it! How dare Barbra carry out her threat, and how could my mother accede to such betrayal? Years later, still troubled by this offense, I told my mother how painful that episode had been. She said it was for her, too, but she didn't think she should go against Barbra's discipline since she was in charge. I still rankle at the thought.
A more cheerful memory. One morning my mother brought into my room and laid on the end of my bed a small baby in a white knit nightgown — my baby brother, his little knees making bumps as he kicked against the gown. It is the first memory I have of this new member of our family, kicking and gurgling there on the end of the bed while I watched spellbound. I must have been told that I had a baby brother. I loved watching him, as on many mornings my mother would bring him to my bed.
He was an unalloyed joy to me — or so I thought until many years later when I was in a mothers' therapy group. At the close of one of the sessions, the presiding therapist asked me if I could stay a few minutes. After some initial conversation, he asked me how I felt about the new member of the mothers group — an attractive, bright younger woman who had recently joined the group. To my astonishment I began to sob uncontrollably. By the time the therapist and I got this decoded I realized that the arrival of this young bright attractive woman echoed for me the arrival of my baby brother who took a disproportionate share of the attention which I thought had been rightfully mine.
Other memories. The frequent visits of the doctor, who, after listening to my heart with the stethoscope, would draw ink marks on my chest to show the gradual decreasing size of my enlarged heart, while joking that he would know next time he came whether my mother was giving me baths.
I remember learning of the death from lockjaw of one of the girls in my Sunday school class. She was not a regular attendee; I did not know her well, but her death seemed somehow unreal. When, on occasion, she had come to church with her parents, the three of them sat several pews in front of us — two adult silhouettes and one shorter, with dark curly hair. I had come so close to dying. Now it was she who had gone over into the mystery of death and I was alive.
And what was lockjaw? Could she not open her mouth? I clenched my teeth in puzzlement and dismay. Several years later I returned from a week at Girl Scout Camp with a Band-Aid on my foot from having stepped on a rusty nail. "What did the camp nurse do about it?" my parents wanted to know. "She washed it with Lifebuoy soap and put mercurochrome on it." They took me to the doctor, who gave me an injection of tetanus toxoid, to ward off any possibility of sicknesses like lockjaw. I thought of my Sunday school companion — Had there been no potentially life-saving injection for her? "Maybe they didn't catch it in time," my mother suggested. Inwardly, I winced. Hurry, someone. Get her the medicine. But of course it was too late.
A time when, bored and alone upstairs while the rest of the family was eating dinner, I felt emboldened to try for the first time to walk on my own. With shoes on my feet, I stepped out into the upstairs hall and set forth. The first step or two went well enough, but then I felt my knees about to give way, and with a great clatter of shoes on the bare wood floor, I hurried back across the hall and fell relieved onto my bed. A moment later my mother's voice called up in alarm, "What's going on up there?"
A new wave of panic. What to say? "I was just banging my feet on the wall," I shouted, hoping that would do. To my surprise and relief, it did.
I had many visitors during my long convalescence. Some of them brought gifts. According to my mother's count, I was given seven books of the same paper dolls, each of which I cut out with pleasure and careful attention. I seem to remember laying many paper dolls in a long row on the other twin bed in my room, pulling a cover over them and bidding them all good night. I have a friend, several years younger than I, who tells me that from time to time she enjoys cutting out paper dolls — that there are now on the market paper dolls representing historic periods and characters. I murmured something to the effect that it sounded like fun and that I had much enjoyed paper dolls as a child. But I have never been tempted to browse in the paper doll section of toy stores to see if there were any that held allure for me. I think my appetite for paper dolls was fully satisfied during my year in bed.
I recall a friend of my mother's coming to call one evening and bringing me a small windup tractor. I had great fun running it over the lumps and folds of my rose-colored blanket.
And then there was the elephant vase — a small ceramic planter, cream-colored with touches of green and brown, in the shape of an elephant, which came to me bearing a thriving green plant. When the plant died I cleaned up the planter and put it on a shelf of favorite things, where it stayed until the night we forgot my mother's birthday.
I don't know which birthday it was for my mother. I was about seven, my sister a year older — both of us probably too young to remember anyone's birthday but our own. My brother wasn't yet two. So I suppose if one is affixing blame, it was my father's fault.
What I do remember is that we were all sitting at the dining room table, part way through the evening meal, when my father suddenly clapped his hand to his forehead. "Oh, no!" he exclaimed. He looked at my mother in terrible consternation.
I looked at her, too. She sat there at the other end of the table, with a kind of tender, wounded smile.
"I'm sorry, dear," my father said, and then, to us, "It's Mother's birthday." He got up from the table and went to her and kissed her. "I'm sorry, darling," he said again. And again he looked to us — my guess is that we looked more stricken than our mother — and said, "We'll get something for Mother tomorrow."
I nodded, but it would not do. I was grieved for my mother. I suppose I felt guilty, too, by some sort of complicity. And even at the time I wondered how she had stood it all day long, and how many times she wondered why no one spoke of it, and whether the day became weighted with that burden — The children don't know it's my birthday, but he ... and then a trace of panic — What if he doesn't remember at all?
In my mind there was no exoneration for any of us. We had failed my mother. I went upstairs and scoured my treasures for a holdover gift. I chose the elephant vase, clean and bright, its surface crackled and shiny. I hastily wrapped it in used and wrinkled tissue paper, brought it downstairs, and presented it to my mother
She exclaimed — how lovely it was. She hugged me, expressed her gratitude for such a fine gift. She never let on that she had seen it before.
I don't remember what we got her the next day — whatever it was could not, to my mind, undo the damage. But I remember the elephant vase. Because my mother took it upstairs with her, put it on her bureau and it stayed there, lifted of course for dusting and cleaning, the rest of her life.
When she died I reclaimed it and it is again mine, sitting on a windowsill, reminding me how, often inadvertently, we hurt those we love, and how, by the grace of God in human love, they forgive us — so that it is more than "all right." It is somehow sacred — to the one who gives, and the one who receives.
I missed all of first grade. But a teacher for the homebound came to my house — a kind, able woman with silvery hair and a light lilting voice. One day she brought a pasteboard notebook with lined pages. On one page she printed the word "house" at the top of the page. "Now, what I want you to do this week," she said, "is look through some magazines and cut out pictures of houses and paste them in this notebook. Then I want you to print the word 'house' under each picture. Do you think you can do that?"
"Yes," I said, excited by the prospect of this activity.
The following week, after affirming my several duly pasted pictures and labels, she printed "girl" and asked me to do the same cutting and pasting and labeling. In ensuing weeks she assigned me other words - boy, chair, dog, table — to cut, paste, and label. I performed each of these assignments with joy.
One day she brought with her a slim book. She invited my mother to join us. The teacher opened the book and smoothed back a page. She handed the book to me, the pages spread wide. I saw there were words along the top line. I said them aloud: "house, girl, chair." They were my words! I looked up at my mother and the teacher. My mother had tears in her eyes. The teacher was smiling. She said to my mother, "It's a wonderful moment, when they learn they can read."
She sat down beside me on the bed. "Now I'll read the in-between words and you read the words you know." She began, "The ..."
"Girl," I said.
"... sat on the ..."
"Chair," I said.
"Dog," I said.
"... jumped up onto the ..."
"Chair," I said. And on we went. Too soon she was getting ready to leave.
Then she said, "I'm going to leave the book with you this week. Your mother can help you with the in-between words, and when I come next week maybe you can read the whole page to me."
I clutched the book to my chest and my mother walked the teacher to the door.
I won't try to reconstruct that week, only to say it was like finding the secret panel that opens the door to a room you know is there but haven't learned how to reach. My mother and father had read many stories to me. My sister, in second grade, carried a musty looking reading book home from school. I heard her reading it aloud. "The sun is up. The sun is up."
I not only learned to read the whole page. With my parents' help with the in-between words, I read the whole story. I pored over the pages, learning more and more of the in-between words. I was not only getting stronger, I could read! I not only reveled in the stories I read but I claimed citizenship in a whole new world - the world of words. And something else even more profound: I had a future beyond the world of pills and thermometers and steam tents and visits from the doctor and meals brought to me on an oval orange tray.
As I have pondered over the years what combination of factors led me, after bearing, caring for and, in time, sending successively off to school four children, to make a serious effort to become a writer, I have thought of the particular alchemy of those days and what they symbolized for me. I have read that many writers have been sick as children, spent periods of convalescent time at home. That can be a burden, or a gift — of time to ponder all kinds of things, probably an early sense of the fragility of life, the rich meadows of the imagination. When I received during my long convalescence a copy of Robert Louis Stevenson's "A Child's Garden of Verses" and read the poem "The Pleasant Land of Counterpane" with its opening line, "When I was sick and lay abed," I took to that poem as a moth to flame. You, too? I thought. I know you. We are kin.
The meadows of the imagination. My mother told me that in my delirium I talked about going to heaven to be with Jesus. I'm sure that part of the meaning of that magical week of learning to read was the visible evidence that I was going to live. And what was witness to my refound life? Words. Words were the key to unlock the prospect of new life. Words were my companions, the nourishment of my dreams. They were mystery and exhilaration and joy, my means of discovering what the world was about, what life was about, who I was, now that I wasn't going to die. And so, when I grew up, at first tentatively and then, with increasing confidence and joy as I felt more at home in my chosen world, I became a writer.