Mon Jun 4th, 2007 at 07:32:57 AM EST
The globe-trotting TB guy all over the news is driving me crazy. I'm sitting here right now with the flu. I woke up this morning, only the second day of it, with that tight feeling in my chest. And something else I can't describe, but it's as real and oppressive as the air right before a thunderstorm.
I know this feeling like I know my own face. I've had it more times than I can count -- it's bronchitis on its way and I get it most times I get sick, if I'm not really careful.
So I'm sitting up typing, trying to distract myself when all I want is to be laying down. But I shouldn't lie down, so I thought I'd tell you about when I had tuberculosis, which is why I'm worried right now. Which is why I get bronchitis at the drop of a hat. Which is why I hate TB guy.
From the diaries - afew
I guess I was probably six when I started to get sick. No one knows where, when or how I caught it. I lived alone with my grandmother and was ferociously protected from all her fears, both real and imagined. In those years in the US, TB was largely thought to be gone. Not entirely eradicated, but not really a problem. This was before the resurgence in the US in the late 80s.
It's odd how quickly we erase bad things from our collective memory. It hadn't been so very long before that tuberculosis had been public enemy number one. It was largely considered a poor person's disease, thriving in overcrowded areas and blossoming in those with poor nutrition. But it could get anybody, really.
It's been around a long time, probably forever. Evidence of TB has been found in fossil bones dated as far back as 8000BC and in certain Egyptian mummies. Hippocrates wrote a warning to his colleagues, advising against taking on late-stage TB patients, since the patient would surely die and damage the physician's reputation.
We've called it many things -- consumption, wasting disease, phthisis, and the white plague. A form of it that affects the skin, scrofula, was called King's Evil in the middle ages, as it was thought that the touch of a king could cure it. This practice went on in some places (::cough:: France ::cough::) until 1825.
It was the number one killer in much of western Europe and the US throughout the 18th century. Towards the turn of the century, the sanitorium craze took hold. It turned out that, while nice for the patients usually, the real benefit was getting them out of the general population and slowing the spread. The cure for TB was not found until the 1940s.
That was my grandmother's generation. She was from Scotland and the youngest of 10 children. Her parents were 45 when she was born. So she was raised with the older ideas and was keenly aware of class issues. Such was the stigma of TB in her mind, and the pain of whatever prejudices she had endured in the past, that she didn't tell me what I had once it was diagnosed.
I don't think she knew what I had when I started getting sick. I was one of those kids who had allergies and was always sniffling anyway. And my mother was gone, so perhaps a certain listlessness was expected.
My mother had had a nervous breakdown and been sent to Scotland for "awhile" when I was four, leaving me with my gran and her "colorful" sisters who, in all honesty, were the ones who had driven my mom over the edge in the first place. I was told she'd be back "soon." About two years later, my gran took me on a trip over there.
One of my gran's many fears was flying, so we took the trip by train and boat, a real adventure. I remember the traveling as a happy time, even though I wasn't allowed to talk on the train. My gran had told them I was four, so as not to have to get me a ticket. Even then, I displayed what turned out to be an intrinsic feature of my personality -- I'd blab anything to anyone. So safer just to not have me talk.
The ship was magical. For one thing, I had a ticket, so I could talk all I wanted. For another, my grandmother abruptly changed into a whole different person. I went from being constantly under a microscope to complete freedom. Once we were on the ship, she acted almost as though she had nothing to do with me. From complete control to complete neglect in the space of a gangplank. It was marvelous.
The time in Scotland seemed melancholy, even while it was going on. I had my sixth birthday there, but it wasn't a celebration. It was nice to meet my grandfather who gathered me in a hug. I remember his smell of tweed and cigarette smoke and still associate it with comfort.
And I needed comfort. I'd sustained myself all this time without my mother by imagining our reunion. This reunion was nothing I'd imagined. This mom was not the same loving, carefree, go-go dancing mom who had left. This mom was still loving, but so quiet. A mom who woke up all the time when she should be sleeping and fell asleep all the time when she should be awake. A muted, helpless, broken mom. I resigned myself to sailing back with my grandmother.
The journey home was not so memorable, except for one thing -- a waiter named Nino. I had even more stories to tell on the trip back and the staff took me into their warm, kitchen world. I told them about the trip and my mom and my birthday. I told them how my grandmother was worried because we had no money to eat on the way home. I told them of her plans to contact her brother when we got to New York and hope that he would wire money to Chicago to pick up when we changed trains there.
Nino decided that this would never do and started sneaking us food every night. Anything that could travel well. We ended up with enough of a stockpile that we didn't need to buy food the whole train trip -- we still had lots of oranges when we got home.
I think I came home from that trip different. A quieter child than the one who had left. A few months or a year later (it's hard to remember time from back then) I started to get sick and it almost felt right -- like an inevitable conclusion to the journey. Maybe my gran felt the same and that's why it took so long to figure it out.
Plus, we had no health insurance. I have no idea how long I'd been sick with my gran treating it like she would something normal, but I remember the ordeal of finally giving in and going to the doctor. It was right after I started coughing blood.
The turn for the worse seems sudden to my memory. Just the day before it seemed, I'd had enough strength to go to the bathroom on my own, albeit not without resting and catching my breath on the way. And then I just couldn't. Couldn't walk out of the house with my gran, get on the bus, walk to the clinic. On top of the expense of the doctor, a cab was called. I remember being carried to the cab. I remember my gran's suppressed irritation. She wanted to deny I was sick. She wanted to hope I was moping. She wanted believe it wasn't as bad as it suddenly looked.
Things changed after that trip to the doctor. I don't remember many of the medical details, to tell the truth. But I remember the constant buzz of my family's craziness suddenly ceased. Everyone was suddenly quiet. Everyone was nice to me. I remember the sisters taking turns in shifts to watch me while my gran worked -- the religious one sitting in the corner reading the Bible, the snooty one with the pearls bringing me tea in my gran's best china. I remember nights and days blending together. Dozing off with one of the Aunts there. Waking to find it dark, my gran asleep in a chair, the quiet hum of some air machine that had been installed in the room.
The television was moved into my room, too. A more ominous event than it sounds. I hadn't been allowed to watch TV until then. And books, I was laden with books. I'd always loved to read, which was suddenly seen as a blessing. A far-away cousin sent me Robert Louis Stevenson's A Child's Garden of Verses and it became something more than a book to me. I not only kept reading it, I slept with it. It almost seemed like a friend, that book. Someone understood.
I don't know how long I was sick, but I missed most of second grade. There were many more trips to the doctor and long bus rides out to the Public Health. I was on medication for at least a year. I was still on it when my mother came home when I was eight. By that time we were both somewhat our old selves again, but different, too.
One of the oddest things to come out the whole ordeal was that I got to play flute. Someone in my gran's family had heard that it was good for strengthening the lungs, so as soon as I was well enough to go back to school, I was signed up for flute lessons.
I ended up playing flute all through my school years. It seemed to have worked, too. As I said when I started, I've been prone to bronchitis ever since, sometimes getting it 2 or 3 times a year, and doctors are always surprised how much oxygen I still take in, even with it. I have no idea if I'm right, but I credit the flute.
So it wasn't all bad, but still. I hope that globe-trotting TB guy hasn't spread this new strain. I hope no one has caught it from him. In my more generous moments I hope his doesn't become active. In moments like now, with the flu and bronchitis threatening, I hope someone stronger than me gives him a good ass kicking.
Cross-posted from Unbossed