NB: This was written in November 2013 and refers to my state of health on the day of the writing. Today I actually quite well.
When the great Samuel Clemens/ Mark Twain began dictating his autobiography, he explained that he had decided to skip the conventional chronological order. Instead he would tell his story, but he would let each event or idea of the day lead him to the next. If there was something in the newspaper that started a certain train of thought going, that train was the one he would board that day. Being the gifted writer that he was, this method made for a fascinating and coherent text.
I am following his advice to some extent, and today I am going to take it literally. I am sick. It is a Tuesday morning, and since last Friday I have been coughing and sniffling a little. I have run no fever and keep assuming this will go away. Which, no doubt it will. But by yesterday afternoon, my voice was so bad that I had Tom call Mama at my usual time to explain I could not talk on the phone. I am hoping the thing that has taken up residence in me was at its worst yesterday. We will see. I feel a bit better, but I am still coughing and sneezing. My ribs are sore from all the hacking of the past four or five days. At least I can talk again.
So I thought I might just say a word about health today.
I already mentioned the problem with my legs when I was young. [NB: Omitted in this series of excerpts.] Braces or growth spurts or something eventually solved that problem. A hint of pigeon-toes remained, but it was no longer the problem it had been.
I was also plagued with warts as a child. I wonder if these viral skin growths were more common then. I don’t notice them much anymore, but it used to be a fairly rare kid who didn’t have one or two. Today they say warts are caused by a human papillomavirus. In truth, they were caused, as we all knew back then, by letting a toad pee on you.
I had warts on my right hand, particularly on the index finger, and a few on toes. They were a source of great embarrassment to me. My parents treated them with over-the-counter drugs that eventually worked. I understand that warts usually disappear after a time, so maybe the gunk they put on did not help. But they did something and things got better, and that is all that mattered to me then or now.
I was luckier than my brother. Ted had warts that the doctor treated by freezing them off. My parents had a contraption that looked like a giant hypodermic needle that they kept in the freezer. Periodically, maybe every day for a while, they had to hold my brother down and spray the freezing contents onto the warts. This method did work, but my brother screamed and struggled. Medicine is not pretty.
The warts on my right hand caused me particular concern, because my right hand was already badly scarred. When I was two or so, I was learning to walk. I’m one of those kids who walked without crawling first. I don’t know, maybe I had a low center of gravity. At any rate, one day when we were visiting my mother’s oldest sister and her family, I kept walking across the floor, putting my hands on the top of an unlit gas heater, turning around and walking back, no doubt to coos and applause.
As evening came on, it got cool in the room. Someone lit the fire. No one noticed when I got up and walked across the room and put my hands down firmly on top of the heater to turn around. My screams got their attention. I was rushed ten miles to the hospital in my father’s truck, which had bald tires. I did not lose my hands, but my right palm in particular was badly scarred. You can still see it today, but when I was a kid, the scars were very noticeable. I didn’t need anything else like warts to draw attention to them.
Another hand-thing was that I had a birth-related essential hand tremor. My grandmother had it and my mother has it, so there must be some genetic component. Doctors have told me, however, that this sort of tremor is often associated with loss of oxygen to the brain during birth, the sort of thing more commonly connected to cerebral palsy. It was not incapacitating, but it drew attention. And the nature of the beast was that it got worse, the more I tried to stop it. My handwriting was always poor because of this, the one thing that prevented me from getting all A’s on my report cards all through elementary school.
Remember the walking-without-crawling? I learned some years later that children who skip the developmental stage of crawling can develop a variety of problems with things like dyslexia. There was some folk saying in Texas that went something like, ‘Walk before crawling, crawl before seven.” I did crawl before seven.
When I was three, I was playing with a second cousin in their backyard across from my grandmother’s house. We were running around and I ran through a pile of leaves. There was a broken jar in the leaf pile and it cut open my left foot. Another rush to the hospital with a screaming bloody child. This time I had stitches in my foot and was not able to walk for a while. Daddy, who could do just about anything, made me a pair of tiny crutches, but I was not coordinated enough to use them. So for a few weeks, I got around by crawling. I don’t know what that meant developmentally, but I suspect it was a happy accident. At any rate, I never had any of the problems associated with the early walking thing. The only lasting signs of the cut were a long scar on the bottom of my foot, hidden under normal circumstances, and the inability to bend the index and middle toes down on that foot. The cut had been deep enough to sever the muscles. Otherwise, I was okay.
When I first entered the monastery, one of my classmates was diagnosed with the developmental problems I just mentioned. His treatment consisted of crawling around and around the long monastery corridors every afternoon. Apparently it helped, but I think the barely suppressed laughter of his fellow novices did not.
I had the usual childhood diseases: measles, chickenpox, earaches, coughs, colds, sore throats and all that. When I was seven I had my tonsils removed, something they do not do so much anymore. I was all excited. The procedure scared me to death and I fought like mad to get the ether mask off. But after it was over, I got to lie in bed all day, eat ice cream – no, they really did give you ice cream – and read all the comic books people brought me as a consolation. I still remember lying on the folding bed set out in the big living room on a sunny summer day, reading my comics and thinking this was the life.
I had colds all the time and getting rid of the tonsils didn’t solve it. I was also prone to hay fever in the spring and the fall. This was a real trial to me and everyone else, because as a kid I could not quite get the knack of blowing my nose. So I sniffed and sniffed and wiped my dripping nose raw. It was not a good thing.
My father was a believer in hot toddies for colds. He mixed Coca-Cola with hot whiskey, honey and aspirin. I don’t know that it did much for the cold, but it certainly put me to sleep. And I really liked it. Really! Should have been forewarned about alcohol even then.
When I was a baby in rural Georgia, I had been colicky. My mother was told that they should give me white lightning, so my father and some other relative went out and found some accommodating moonshiner. They put some of the stuff in a bottle and I was happy as a lark. I have never heard of anyone who took their first drink at an earlier age than I did. I was born in May and left Georgia in October, so my first experience with hard liquor was before I was six months old.
Of course, since this was a Georgia folk cure, every cranky little child outside Atlanta may have been swigging the stuff since day one. Who knows?
Despite the burnt hands and the cut foot, I never broke a bone, though I was clumsy and tripped over my feet a lot. My mother had broken both her arms as a little girl, and I assumed most kids broke something. I didn’t and have made it to my 62nd year [at the time of writing] without broken bones.
My father suffered from all sorts of pulmonary problems and from cold sores. Ted and I both inherited these tendencies. I more or less grew out of the hay fever in my early adulthood, and I do not have as many colds or flu incidents as I use to. I have a great prescription to ward off the cold sores. Sometimes medicine isn’t pretty but it works.
There are other health things that show up much later and have a more central role to play in the story. I will save those until the time comes.
You may be happy to know that I can now blow my nose with some degree of skill. I still prefer to sniff.
My physical health was only a big issue once while I was in college. In the spring term of my freshman year, I got bronchitis and spent a week in the university clinic. Thought I was going to die! I couldn’t keep any solid food down, and I survived for four days on hot broth with big oily patches – chicken fat? – floating in it. I spent half the day sitting on the toilet. I lost fifteen pounds that week, pretty much all of it in liquid form.
One last thing about my health. When I graduated, I got my draft notice. I had managed to get my local draft board to classify me as a conscientious objector, 1-0, after several hearings. The fact that at the time I was thinking about becoming a priest was the deciding factor, I am sure. East Texas draft boards did not grant 1-0 status easily. The day of my final hearing, there was a young black man there waiting for his hearing. I would bet lots of money that he went to Vietnam. If so, I hope he made it back.
Although I was not being sent into any military service, I had to do two years alternative service. Hence the draft notice. When I went for my physical, it turned out that the hearing in my right ear is terrible. My inner ear is terribly scarred from all the earaches and stuff from my childhood. I have since had a doctor tell me he finds it hard to believe I am not in constant pain from it. Perhaps I am and just got used to it, like background nerve noise.
At any rate, that got me out of having to do any service at all. I flunked my physical. Had I known this was going to happen, I could have saved myself lots of grief and a bit of money traveling back and forth from Michigan to Texas for hearings. But it also meant I did not have to wait to pursue other ideas for my future. I had been putting off making any decisions until after my two years of service were done. Now there were no two years. What was I going to do?