When I was a little girl, I got sick a lot: headaches, colds & flu, chicken pox, measles, mumps, lots of upset stomachs. Of course, just about anything, except headaches went through the whole family. Looking back, I’m sure even the headaches more than likely spread to at least one other person.
I was almost always itchy. Sometimes Mom taped Popsicle sticks to the inside of my arms, to keep me from scratching. Julie and Johnnie were all itchy, too, because of allergies. Dr. Regan didn’t believe in allergies, when I was little, he said I just had Noxzema and a runny nose and just needed my tonsils out. That’s why Mom sewed pockets on all my clothes; before I left the house, she said, “Do you have your Kleenex?” I never left home without a pocket full of Kleenex, each one folded in quarters.
One time I got super sick over at Uncle Frank’s house. When I breathed in, I was sure my insides looked the same as when somebody sucked in instead of blowing out on a balloon. I just layed down in the way-back of the station wagon, all the way home, no talking or singing, just trying to breathe tiny breaths, so it would hurt less. Mom took me to see Dr. Regan.
“See,” she said. “This is the way she gets sometimes. I think she has asthma.” Mom had the same look on her face when she was thumping her finger on a newspaper showing Dad something in the Sunday newspaper. Dr. Regan listened to my chest and told me to breathe in deep, which hurt to high heavens. Then he swiveled over to talk to Mom in his secret adult-whisper-voice. I liked Dr. Regan; he always smiled at us girls all lined up buttoning each others’ dress backs after he took a look at us. I could have loved him, except for when he rolled his chair over to the door, opened it up and whistled; that’s how he signaled the nurse to get a shot ready, all the while smiling like nothing out of the ordinary was happening, the voíla, here’s the nurse, with her little metal tray full of shots. This day he wasn’t whistling. He pinched his lips together tight and made the skin on his jaws ripple up behind his jaws, like Dad’s did the time I put cat tail fuzz in the mailbox, and it floated out all over him when he dressed up spiffy on his way to a funeral.
“She’s got bronchitis. A bad case. Not asthma.” he barked at Mom. I never heard anybody talk to Mom like that, so I scootched up tall and tried to say something clever so he would smile. Dr. Regan just looked at me through his eyebrows and kept rippling his cheeks, like I did something wrong. Then he pushed his chair back with a harumph deep in his belly, walked over to the door, opened it, and whistled. Shoot!
My friend, Betty got whooping-cough, which turned into romantic fever. She said that was really bad; lucky for her it didn’t get to be romantic heart disease. Mom gave me a mustard plaster for bad colds, and put my feet in the boiling hot water: to get rid of the germs. I’m pretty sure Mom thought sickness could be tortured out of a person. Sometimes Mom gave me nose drops just for the fun of it; that burned just as bad as a mustard plaster, only on the inside of my face and under my brain.
I had the dog-cough lots of times. That was kind of fun, ’cause my voice came out like a dog barking, which made the Little Kids laugh. No fever and I felt just fine, so Mom let me go to school; almost all the dog-cough was gone by the time I got on the bus, so I never got to show off my dog bark to my friends.
Some sicknesses kept me out of school for weeks. Nancy’s and Doug’s Mom brought them over to our house, just so they could get the mumps, measles, and chicken pox. Mom said it was better to get these sicknesses when you’re little, ’cause they can be super-serious if you don’t get them until you’re as old like she was. Mumps made Deanna’s face look like a giant piece of popcorn, and Bonita had chicken pox in so many places that she even had them on her throat and in her ears. Measles were no fun either. It was just possible that Nancy’s mom had the same torture technique as my Mom.
Once one kid started throwing up, it was like dominoes, pretty soon everybody was sick, carrying around a bucket and heaving. Mom got the bright idea that we all needed an enema, so she lined us up in the bathroom, one by one; another form of torture-cure. She only did that once, ’cause we only had one bathroom. Never, ever give four kids an enema with only one toilet ’cause that form of torture can turn into a disaster that you don’t even want to hear about.
Nobody in my family got anything super-bad that we couldn’t get over, like my friend Diann’s brother, James, who had polio and had one shriveled up arm, that he couldn’t use, or Vickie’s friend Theresa who was born with a teensy-tiny arm. We collected dimes for a cure for those kinds of sicknesses, which ended up being one of the reasons Dr. Regan whistled; so we could get a polio shot. That was torture, but better than getting polio. Mom said some people died from polio.
Today we take for granted the vaccinations and medications to prevent what were once considered normal childhood illnesses. Thank God for medical research and mothers’ patience. I’m sure Mom considered nine kids cycling through normal childhood illnesses as some sort of torture, a living purgatory, or at least forced solitary confinement. She never let her smile waver. Well okay, maybe a quiver or two.