For those of my readers who are interested in my history writing, here’s an excerpt from a recent History Compass post:
I’m a historian because I’m haunted. The words and names from the archives surface in my thoughts and dreams…as I immerse myself in their world, their stories become mine. Am I like a clan storyteller, curating and re-telling the memories from long ago? Or am I merely that eccentric cat lady with no life of her own, her piles of papers and a worn laptop offering ample space for escape from the real world? Though I now sit in an overstuffed chair in my suburban living room with the ambient sound of a lawnmower outside, I am not really here. I am at the sickbed. Hearing a young child’s chest heave and rise, reminding me of my son.
The cough brought our pediatrician running down the hallway. It was the third time I’d brought in my newborn baby out of concern for his stuffy nose and congestion. He had stopped nursing. There was the faintest tinge of blue at the corners of his lips.
Dr. Yu speedily unzipped my son’s pajamas, and placing a stethoscope over his tiny chest and heart. Then stepped back for a moment, watching the labored rise and fall of our son’s breathing, his ribcage dipping down nearly to spine each time he coughed. We all watched. Each intake of air a deep gasp from within his belly. What happened next is a blur of memory, my fear eclipsing exact recall. A rush to the nearest Children’s Hospital and an exam by an infectious disease specialist. Isolation due to the risk of contagion. Learning that our son was infected with a disease that was often fatal, with a name that only faintly registered in my memory: pertussis. As we were to learn later, it’s the “P” part of the DTP immunization that most babies receive at their two month checkup. Our baby was only four weeks old.
The specter in my research today is not pertussis, but a different letter of the vaccination alphabet. The “D” for diphtheria is hovering around my living room as I shuffle through the account of physicians’ failed attempts at treatment. The disease called the “strangling angel” caused leathery membranous wings to grow in the throat, eventually coating the mouth, nasal passages, and windpipe. Its sounds are much like those that I remember from pertussis: the forced breathing that is dreadful, but not as dreadful as the silence. Those long moments when all sound stops.
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