Here is the story that, for many years, I wasn't supposed to tell – the single thing my father asked me not to write about.
On a clear, cold day in January, 1955, my grandfather drove my father to a sanatorium in Plymouth, Wisconsin, where he would remain for the next eighteen months. My father followed the nurse, Miss Monica, to the bed that had been prepared for him, a bed on the ground floor, which was the women's ward. The men's wards spanned the second, third and fourth floors; Miss Monica explained that the youngest of the men were generally housed on top, where there was less chance they might run away. But the fourth floor was over-crowded, and a number of the young men already there were, well, wild. So wild, in fact, that by spring, the two wildest had crawled out the windows, scaled the walls like monkeys, vanished into the trees.
My father was nineteen. It is likely that he contracted the tuberculosis from my grandfather. No doubt my grandfather had gotten it from his cattle, as did so many of the farmers in those days, in that area of the country. The TB settled in their lungs, or in their joints, or in their spines. Absolute bed-rest, along with antibiotics and isolation, was the standard treatment of the day. Under these conditions, the body fought the disease by gradually containing it within a calcified node. At that point, the growth could be surgically removed – in my father's case, more than a year after he'd first been admitted to the san.
The san. My father describes the day he was admitted in the careful, paint-by-numbers tones of a man not used to revealing personal things. It is his gift to me. "A clear day," he repeats. "Clear and cold. January twenty-first, nineteen fifty-five." He is standing in the doorway of my bedroom, halfway in, halfway out. It's early evening, just after supper, and I'm already back in bed, where I've spent most of the day. Lumps the size of frozen peas have buckled my shins, and even the short walk back from the dining room has left every muscle below my knees burning. I'm supposed to be using my crutches, but I can't tolerate the weight on my forearms, which are also inflamed. I lie rigid under ice packs, the bedside lamp turned out.
At twenty-one, I'm on an indefinite medical leave from my senior year at the University of Maine. Sometimes, out of boredom, I poke at the typewriter my mother has placed hopefully on a card table beside the bed. She encourages me to write, to identify the birds that visit the window feeder, to read the dog-eared books she brings from our limited public library. She is looking for that silver lining. She is certain the cup is actually half-full. In fact, I am in constant pain and nobody can say why. Steroids seem to help: injections of cortisone, oral prednisone, but I have to take more and more to get relief. I have lost all reflexes below my waist. I can no longer pick up my feet. My hair is falling out, and I have dropped almost thirty pounds. There have been, of course, the theories: lupus, multiple sclerosis, lead poisoning, psychosomatic illness, Hodgkin's disease, an over-prescription of penicillin during my childhood. There have been, along with each of these theories, their attendant and exhausting diagnostic procedures.