Dear Reader, If you’re following along at home, you’ll notice that there is another bodily ills excerpt, which post-dates this one. So two should be one and so on, but no matter. I am tempted to re-name this section: How Reading Led Me to Incorrect Conclusions about The World, but it doesn’t have quite the same ring, and besides, the main subject is illness and its close companion, suffering. Howard Norman has observed that I have the tendency to compress events, amply demonstrated here. TW: see above.
As a child I was fascinated by tales of life-altering illness. In the books I read, such illness was accompanied by the development of moral courage and heroism, and most importantly, it attracted the admiration of others for one’s staunch attitude in the face of suffering.
Gwen had kept a volume of medical encyclopedias from the early sixties she’d acquired during one of her aborted attempts at becoming a nurse. I pored over its descriptions of illnesses, injuries and abnormalities of all stripes. There were colour transparencies showing organs, bones and blood, as well as engrossing pictures of suppurating sores and skin diseases. A whole section was dedicated on how to prepare for and survive a nuclear attack. I felt mildly envious of the pictures of children practising their responses to an H bomb: hiding under desks, their hands covering their necks, or with their neatly attired families in their bomb shelters, the mother in her immaculate dress preparing meals from their tinned supplies. I understood little of world affairs, but I understood enough to know that Kelmscott was so quiet and boring that I would never have reason to participate in such a drill.
I was particularly affected by the illustrations of the onset and development of polio, beginning with a girl having sore throat and a fever, being taken away by an ambulance, and emerging with callipers. As a child growing up in a household of smokers, I was always getting sore throats, and wondered, each time, if this were the day the ambulance would come for me. I pictured my parents standing worried over my hospital bed, hoped I wouldn’t need physiotherapy like Alan Marshall in I Can Jump Puddles, but was sure I would emerge with wisdom and patience, like Katy in What Katy Did.
If that weren’t enough, I was introduced to the consequences of child blindness caused by disease, first in Scholastic books on Helen Keller and her fascinating teacher, Annie Sullivan; and then by Laura Ingalls Wilder in her Little House series. In the latter, the scarlet fever which had beset the Ingalls family when Laura was thirteen resulted in her annoyingly perfect older sister Mary first having to have her long blonde hair shorn off, and then becoming blind as a result of the fever ‘settling’ in her eyes. This tragedy galvanises the family: makes them close, forces Laura to work hard in school to become a teacher to help contribute money to send Mary to Iowa School for the Blind, and (it is implied) causes Laura to become a writer, as she is suddenly required to be Mary’s eyes, narrating everything for her benefit.
How I longed for, and feared, a similar tragedy! I tried (and failed) to teach myself Braille, or even the raised alphabet, from the back of my Helen Keller book. I wandered around supermarkets behind Gwen, eyes squeezed shut, pretending to be blind, just in case.
When I was seven, my youngest cousin, Lara, was born. She was a chubby, healthy-looking child, at first, with halo of bright red hair, but she had a bronchial wheeze and developed a hacking cough. After being told she was a neurotic mother by a raft of GPs, my aunt happened to have two-year-old Lara with her at the children’s hospital while getting her son seen to after a playground accident.
‘I’m not worried about him,’ the treating doctor said, ‘but does the baby always breathe like that?’
Later that evening, my aunt and uncle were told that the suspected asthma was in fact cystic fibrosis, a genetic disease that at that time had few effective treatments and a high fatality rate.
I understood from the grave tones in which Lara’s condition was discussed that her health was poor, and her prognosis serious, but to me she seemed mostly normal for a long time. She had a sunny and sweet temperament, and didn’t seem particularly interested in the excessive attentions she was given by adults, nor the indulgence allowed her if she wanted extra lollies or ice cream, denied to the rest of us not suffering from a life-limiting illness. She didn’t want to go on the below-ground trampoline that was my greatest envy: it had been bought in the hopes it might loosen the mucus in her lungs better than the physiotherapy with which her tiny ribs were hammered morning and evening, and which developed admirable arm muscles in my aunty. So my cousins and I took advantage instead, while Lara waited around inside, wanting us to play more sedentary games which, I am ashamed to say, I often avoided.
As a teenager, I sometimes resented that Lara was tolerated for things I had been criticized for: that is, she wasn’t smacked, or told no (very often), and if she complained, she was not informed she was a whinging child who needed something to really whinge about. Her food fussiness wasn’t a sign of moral degeneracy. I thought she was being spoiled, the way everyone treated her. She didn’t even seem that sick.
Until she did.
When she was seven, Lara started getting sicker. She was skinnier than I had been in my most extreme anorexic phase, and the kids at her school teased her about her knobbly knees so relentlessly she was taken out of school altogether. She became lethargic, watching her older brother and sister squabble and laugh and play without the longing she used to have: now she was too tired. She found drinking the powders and pills she took to help her digest harder to stomach.
And then, in January 1985, just after her eighth birthday, she died.
Gwen and I drove to my aunty and uncle’s house. I was scared of seeing my cousin’s dead body, but she seemed less dead than very, very still, neat in her bed. Her forehead was cooling as we kissed her goodbye. At her funeral, the coffin she was placed in was tiny, and it was not the effort of the weight of it that made the funeral directors lower it slowly down. Her brother and sister were considered too young to attend: only my cousin and I, being both fifteen, were allowed. There were prayers and the prayers did not comfort me.
I expected, based on all the books I’d read, that this type of tragedy would galvanize the family. As it was a time in my life where everything else seemed to be disintegrating, not least of which a reliable sense of self, I was keen for our family to unite over this terrible and unfair event. It seemed particularly galling to me, as someone taken to fervent bouts of Christian belief from time to time, that it befell the most religious of my mother’s family. The sufferings of Job were not incomparable: after losing Lara, my aunt and uncle’s only son, Konrad, developed the epilepsy which was the symptom of a to-be-fatal brain tumour.
But the loss of Lara rent the family, the increasing illness of her brother a further demonstration of the unrelenting unfairness that had befallen us. My grandparents raised the pitch of their mutual ire; my mother retreated into beer, cigarettes, and misery, and my aunty and uncle doubled down on the religiosity that promised that Lara wasn’t gone, just waiting for them in heaven.
Against their incomparable suffering, my own, which was chiefly mental, was not of a scale deserving of attention from my family. The primary events which had caused the mental suffering, such as my parents’ sudden separation, incidental molestation, and Gwen’s conga-line of men streaming through our various rented houses, were not recognised by my family as being any cause for comment. Indeed, I felt their criticism of me increased. My alternative dress now included stare-inducing dyed and radical hair; taking Gwen’s lead, I regularly drank myself into oblivion and took up indulging in more-or-less consensual sex with neighbourhood boys; and I found an outlet for my unnameable angst through epic episodes of binging and purging which left me with detailed knowledge of the least smelly public toilets adjacent to food courts in the metro area.
When I did finally land in an adolescent mental hospital later on in the year Lara died, this was not mentioned at the Sunday lunches I was allowed to attend on weekend leave; instead, the usual teasing or mocking I received from certain relatives morphed into a watchful silence. A person was meant to deal with unpleasant feeling through acceptable methods such as imbibing quantities of home brew or flaying oneself into martyrdom. A person was, above all, meant to keep it to oneself instead of putting on a show, or making a spectacle of yourself, or in any other way making the invisible visible to all.
One happy result of my multiple mental hospitalisations was that I finally stopped thinking there was something wrong with me, and started thinking there was something wrong with the family I’d grown up in.