I hear the chatter and squeals of children coming from over the back fence in the middle of a spring day in the middle of the week while out front, in the street, there’s a parade of kids on tricycles, scooters and bikes. It’s maybe 1 p.m., and normally — remember normal? — they’d all be in school or day care.
The kids in the parade sound joyous and they look happy as ducklings, but the parents escorting them look somber. And with good reason. We’re going through a time of worry and fear that we’ve never experienced before — far worse than the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 or the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
We spot our neighbors who have kids and yell, “How ya doin’?” They answer with shrugs and, “What can you do?” You would like to offer help — maybe conduct an art class for the little kids in your backyard when weather allows — but that’s probably not welcome, and you probably shouldn’t even suggest it.
We are social distancing, per instruction of public health experts, in the hopes of slowing the spread of COVID-19. We are so behind on testing for the virus — a terrible failing of the nation’s biomedical infrastructure and political leadership — that the social distancing seems to be the only thing that makes sense now.
As I write this at home, the window near my desk is open, and here come more children with their mothers, the kids chattering like chipmunks as they stroll down the sidewalk. I’d like to offer them the oatmeal raisin cookies that came from the bakery where my daughter works. She had to clear out the shelves and pantry because the owners decided to shut the place for a while. But the cookies will stay here. I can’t open the front door and offer treats.
The other day, when I heard the chatter and squeal, it brought back a memory of a kind of quarantine that was imposed on me when I was a kid.
In a scrapbook somewhere there’s a yellow report card that shows I missed 42 days of school in the 1962-1963 school year. It was second grade and childhood infections came at me in a rush, starting in November.
First, there was tonsillitis. In those days, the solution was a tonsillectomy. My father drove me to a hospital and within an hour or two, I was in an operating room with blue wainscot walls, harsh light from round lamps, doctors and nurses in masks and gowns. The room smelled like chemicals.
“Now, Daniel, count backwards from 10, like they do for the astronauts,” a man, probably the anesthesiologist, said. Someone put a rubber mask over my mouth and nose.
“Ten, nine, eight … ” I didn’t get far into the countdown. The room started spinning and swirled into black. I woke up in a ward with screaming children — kids with maladies unknown, kids in pain, nurses tending to them. The TV was tuned to cartoons: “Rocky and Bullwinkle,” “Huckleberry Hound.” I was drowsy but couldn’t sleep. I ate ice cream. I went home the next day.
But the screaming children’s ward had probably given me an infection.
The order eludes memory now, but the mumps, measles and chickenpox all decided to invade in succession. The measles might have been the worst of it. It was — and still is — one of the most contagious diseases. My parents confined me to a bedroom, and my mother kept the shades pulled. No sunlight slipped into the room for a couple of weeks. Parents apparently used to do this to keep measles from leaving their children blind. Though blindness is associated with measles, keeping a kid in the dark is not considered a way to prevent it.
At the time, I felt special in a weird and scary way — being kept isolated, with no visitors, and in the dark. I didn’t see my brother for a month.
I got measles just before the measles vaccination program started. Prior to 1963, an estimated 3 to 4 million people got measles each year in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Among reported cases,” the CDC says, “400 to 500 died, 48,000 were hospitalized, and 1,000 developed encephalitis (brain swelling) from measles.”
So I was lucky.
I missed a lot of school. I missed playing outside with other kids, and hearing their chatter and squeals through the windows made it worse. I got terribly bored and probably bratty at some point.
My second-grade teacher, Mrs. Kenneally with her cat-eye glasses, sent home schoolwork, and she even visited me once. My mother, Rose, stayed close and comforting through it all, feeding me, bringing me juice and pills and comic books.
Did she worry about getting the measles from me? I never thought to ask her.
I’ve tried to imagine her face in the dark bedroom all those years ago, when Rose would have been in her late 40s. Maybe the darkness cloaked it, but, during all that time, I don’t remember her ever looking worried. And that, I later learned, was one of the toughest parts about being a parent. It’s the toughest part right now: Staying strong through a hard time, taming your worries and fears so that your kids don’t feel that the world you’ve built for them is falling apart.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Dan Rodricks is a long-time columnist for the Baltimore Sun.
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