So I left my dear readers in suspense last time, but not for long. My story picks up with a Monday morning scene that was part of our mom’s standard operating procedure, handed down from her mom, who had raised nine children.
When you raise a large family, you need to have some systems in place to counter the chicanery, laziness, or sneakiness that your beloved offspring can succumb to from time to time. For Grandma Haggerty, my English grandmother, it was gettting her kids up early each summer day, whacking them (either figuratively or literally as the situation dictated) with the classifieds, and sending them out with the 3-4 nickels needed for trolley fare and a ham sandwich at Horn and Hardart’s in Philly. It was clearly understood that returning home with a job, or with a full day of serious job-hunting under your belt were the only acceptable outcomes. My mom and I used to smile at this example of Grandma Haggerty’s no-nonsense attitude, and I guess it didn’t jive with the fun, roller-skating on Halloween stories I had heard earlier, but she was so nice to me that I always had to give her the benefit of the doubt. I figured she had her reasons for anything that smacked of military police protocol.
My mom was no different; she had her laissez faire side, and her central command side, just as I did when I became a mom. Her standard protocol for Monday morning sick call was to say one sentence that generally sorted out the false alarms from the serious cases: “Get ready for school, and then we’ll see.” When you were not that sick, you came back quickly in your school uniform, hair brushed, and eager to eat breakfast and end the charade. And to Mom’s credit, there were no repercussions for your attempt; you simply knew that the jig was up and made sure you did not miss the bus, which would void the pass you got for your lying. When you were truly sick, you came back rather slowly, did not want to eat a thing, and were too weak to argue your case. The system worked pretty well, actually, and with seven kids who at various times hated school but loved watching daytime TV that was only accessible at certain times (no Hulu or Netflix), a system was definitely needed to make sure that your child was simply not jonesing for a Let’s Make a Deal or I Love Lucy fix. This was especially true on the Monday morning after a long vacation.
So of course I went back upstairs, slowly got my uniform on, and made attempts at brushing my hair. This I suppose might have been the biggest clue to my sick state. Some of my sisters did minimal hair prep to go out into the world, and some did almost none, foregoing brushing their hair for several days. I however was the Breck Girl of 313. I literally spent hours setting, brushing, conditioning, straightening, dippity-doing, and in general making sure my hair looked good every day, school year or summer, (including weekends), and this was my custom since 2nd grade. So when I came down with a less than perfect coiffure, and a pale and weak demeanor, I suppose my mom knew that I was truly sick, and sent me back upstairs to bed, a very rare occurrence for any of us. I imagined the conversation something like this:
Dad: So, do you think Liz is really sick?
Mom: Not sure. Still trying to assess the situation.
Dad: Well does she have a fever?
Mom: Just a slight one, but that’s not what really concerns me. There’s something else.
Dad: Oh? What is it?
Mom: Her hair—it was a tangled, nasty mess. I have never seen it like this.
Dad: Ooh, that sounds serious; better keep her home.
The next day I was no better, and by the weekend I had begun to go downhill. I had seen our family doctor about mid-week, and he was concerned, but I suppose he figured my illness must be running its course and should be winding down soon. He also had seven kids and was therefore experienced from at least two different angles.
By the time the weekend came however I was not improving, and was by then sitting up in bed to help me breathe. I had no interest in food, fun, or even in Let’s Make a Deal or I Love Lucy. And my hair continued to be a tangled mess with no attempts at repair.
My parents were concerned at my lack of vitality, but so far they and the doctor were not too alarmed. However that Sunday they ran into our doctor at Mass, who asked if I was any better. I was at home in their bed, sitting up and trying to breathe. I was watching the clock, and moved to their chair, thinking that I could not keep up this labored breathing too much longer, but that I would try to hang on till they returned home. Each breath was a struggle, and I recall either thinking out loud, talking out loud, or praying. I really was not sure which I was doing, but I was crying out for help if God was indeed listening. I hoped He was, but at that time I had no concept of a personal God who was concerned about me. My view of Him was sort of an overworked CEO who would be glad to help you if He could, but who was busy running the world. It would be several years later before I came to know Him as the God who sees. (A China friend, Mike Gaudet, helped me understand this tender side of God, and I shall always be grateful to him for that).
When at last I heard the car roll up the driveway, I felt a sense of relief, but still had no idea what was going to happen next. The doctor was coming to our home, I was told. He had asked Mother about me in a providential meeting in the church vestibule, and did not feel good about my lack of progress; he came to our home to take a look at me. I did not know that he was planning to take me to the hospital; I in fact knew very little about what was happening to me except that I could not breathe.
When the doctor arrived and examined me, it seemed that he was sure that I had pneumonia. Before I could process all the whispering in the hallway outside my parents’ bedroom, the doctor came back in, scooped me up in his arms, wrapped me in a blanket, and carried me down our big wooden stairway. I tried to wrap my limp arms around his neck, but could barely do so. If you have seen the scene in Notorius with Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant, you get the idea (sans the romance of course).
The doctor placed me in his tiny sports car for a ride to Washington Hospital, which was to be my residence for the next month. In my mind, I figured I would be there for the afternoon, or maybe spend the night. It is funny how you can be in the middle of a medical drama, but notice random things. I recall thinking how odd it was that Dr. Hadlock had a sports car, and that this seemed strange for this serious man, and father of seven. I also thought it odd that I was riding with the doctor, and that my father was behind us in his own car. In those days, grownups and kids did not fraternize much. Dads didn’t call their sons Buddy, and Moms didn’t get involved in daughters’ girl friend (or boy friend) troubles, let alone settle their spelling grade disputes, as they do today. Years later I realized that the doctor knew that in the event that I needed to be resuscitated, he would be able to do that. In those days, non-medical people rarely knew CPR. (As I write this it occurs to me how very different the world is today from the world I grew up in, in almost every aspect).
I recall the fifteen minute ride to the hospital that cold, windy January afternoon, and how I still could not breathe, but was glad that the grownups were now taking drastic measures. I had no big philosophical thoughts; I simply wanted to be able to breathe. Minutes after being admitted, I was in an oxygen tent, and feeling better. Although pale and weak, I had confidence that I would improve and be home soon. My parents still had worry lines on their foreheads, but all of us seemed to be operating on the assumption that my recovery was now imminent. None of us had any idea that this was only the beginning of the scary journey.