My mother had some well-intentioned but grossly misguided ideas about parenting, among them her notions about how to take care of her sick adolescents. Charles, my only sibling, is a year and a half older than me. As young children, we often came down with the same illnesses. Charles had an extra bed in his room during my early elementary school years. In the mid 1960s, our grandparents bought a color television, a newly available luxury, and gave their old large black-and-white TV to my mother. Mom had a medium-sized set in her bedroom, and the living room was too formal for a TV, so the old black-and-white TV went into Charles’ room. When we were ill, Mom allowed me to camp out with him, and we’d watch television as we recuperated, often helping ourselves to the boysenberry ice cream in the freezer. We never seemed to fight when we were suffering through a cold or flu together.
We moved to California in 1970 when I was ten, and Charles’ new bedroom didn’t have an extra bed or a TV in it. In California I recuperated from illness alone in my room. At the onset of puberty, I began to get frequent and severe respiratory illnesses. I never watched television when I was sick during my adolescence. Instead I had a stereo in my room, and I would often fall asleep during the day with my headphones on, listening to Cat Stevens and James Taylor.
When I was in my early twenties, Mom told me she believed she’d allowed Charles and me to have too much fun when we were young and sick. She didn't want illness to be attractive to us, and as a result, when we were older she developed a completely hands-off style. I assume she called our doctor, because medications were delivered from the pharmacy, but I don’t recall her ever taking care of us in any other way. We got out of bed to feed ourselves breakfast and lunch, and went back to the kitchen at dinnertime to retrieve whatever the housekeeper had cooked for the evening, which we ate alone in bed. I had the London Flu in 1973 when it was a national epidemic. San Mateo County where we lived had the highest mortality rate in the United States from that flu. During this illness, my stepfather brought me dinner on a tray once, the sole demonstration of parental concern.
One time Mom ordered three types of cough medicine and presented them to me, failing to give me dosage instructions. I took all of them at once, not knowing any better. No wonder I fell asleep listening to Sweet Baby James and Peace Train. Several days into my cough-syrup haze, Mom realized my mistake and became enraged, as if I’d purposely overdosed myself into a stupor. I missed so much high school due to constant illness that on a report card one teacher praised my skills at catching up.
At nineteen I began to have episodes of illness caused by Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, and I’ve been sick much of my adult life. With the notable exception of help from one boyfriend and the care I received during a twenty-four-hour bug when visiting my father and stepmother, I’ve always taken care of myself. I never expect anyone to help me when I’m sick, and except when recovering from outpatient surgeries, I rarely accept offers of assistance.
Mom’s assessment of the time Charles and I spent recovering from illness was not accurate. The camaraderie I felt when we were ill together as small children was a gift, and it provided me with happy memories of us watching reruns of I Love Lucy and Perry Mason, when there would otherwise only be memories of coughs and clogged noses. My mother’s desire to make sickness unattractive was unnecessary and based on an erroneous belief. Although it wasn’t her intention, Mom succeeded in making me resilient and self-reliant when ill. These traits have proved invaluable. I know I’ll be fine on my own no matter how sick I become. Illness has caused many other miseries, but I’m never concerned about how I’ll take care of myself. I’ve been doing it since I was thirteen.
I’m fifty-seven as I write this, and there’s no point in being upset about bad parenting that took place four decades ago. Soon I’ll have my first inpatient hospitalization to remove my spleen. I’m worried about various aspects of this surgery, but not at all about how I’ll recover alone as I heal. And for this unexpected result of an abysmally poor parenting choice, I’m grateful.