I was born with asthma. During the first five years of my life, Mom and Dad rushed me to Emergency six times. I almost died four of those times—or so mom told me.
She kept me alive. She put her finger down my throat when it clogged. Thumped my back. Rocked me. Gave me mantras to recite in the midst of an attack.
“Distract yourself,” she told me. “If you think about breathing you won’t be able to. Just think about something else. Ice cream cones. Raggedy Ann. Look at picture books.”
Distracting myself helped. In fact, those library books helped me learn to read when I was four. Ever after, The Little Engine That Could, Ferdinand, and The Story about Ping have been dear to me. One may explain why I push myself to accomplish things. The other two, why I so love animals.
Another thing Mom told me was to “tough it out.” The fact is that I did this so well for so long that ultimately, as an adult, I had trouble acknowledging pain or extricating myself from difficult situations. I kept toughing it out. Maintaining a stiff upper lip. Much of my adult life has been given over to enduring and so I've caused myself unnecessary pain and stress.
But back then, when I was a child, Mom’s advice kept me alive. As a child of three, I knew that I had to will myself to live.
As I grew older, the asthma didn’t lessen in intensity. In kindergarten and first, second, and third grades, I missed three out of nine months of school. I’d miss a day or two or even a whole week at a time.
Every time I returned to school, I was behind. The other kids had moved on from where I’d been. They knew more spelling and arithmetic. They reeled off answers to the Baltimore Catechism questions.
Teachers would call on me, with or without raised hand. I had no ready answers. So the kids thought I was dumb. On the playground they shouted, “Dummy. Dummy. Pain in tummy.” I hid behind the trashcans.
I was always trying to catch up and always exhausted from trying to breathe. So exhausted that I couldn’t think of answers.
Mom wanted to change all that for me. So the summer before the fourth grade, she and Sister Corita who’d taught me in the third grade—and would have me for the fourth—encouraged me to try for perfect attendance that year. Each of us committed to doing something.
Sister Corita would watch me carefully in class. If I looked overly tired, she’d send me to the cloakroom to nap.
Mom would watch me carefully at home. She’d send me to bed immediately if I came home from school drooping. She’d make sure I got lots of extra sleep on the weekends.
I’d rest whenever it was suggested to me. I’d try to breathe slowly when an attack started and not panic. I’d “go the extra mile,” as Mom said.
She promised that if I pulled this off, I’d get a charm bracelet like the one the scout leader had. Incentive enough for going that extra mile. In June of 1946, at the completion of fourth grade, I actually got two rewards: a certificate for perfect attendance and a bracelet, which jangled seven small, silver objects whenever I moved. Wow!
The frosting on the cake came in fifth grade. The class voted on who were the five smartest students. Out of twenty-eight, I was number five.
I beamed all the way home. I wasn’t a dummy. I was number five. Five! Imagine.
Photographs from Wikipedia