I vividly remember having the measles. It seemed to be the final insult in a year that had brought me nothing but grief. My father had died only months earlier leaving me confused and bereft as our family struggled to find its footing. We had moved into a house that was nothing like the ones we had been considering at the time of his death, but it had brought us great comfort in the short time that we had lived there. We had gone full circle, returning to the neighborhood and the school that we had left only a year before. The people who lived near us and those who attended our church had been welcoming and we had been gradually settling in to a new way of life without Daddy.
My mother’s selection of a home for us had been a very wise choice, but we were still navigating through a year of milestones that reminded us over and over again that the man who had been such an integral part of our lives was gone. Somehow we had made it through birthdays, Thanksgiving and Christmas, starting the new year with the realization that we were going to actually make it on our own. Still I was feeling those sudden bursts of grief that seem to come and go in the first year after a loved one’s death. I often felt sorry for myself and my family, silently hoping that our tragedy had only been a dream. As the months went by it had become more and more certain that our new reality would never again include our father, so when I felt the first symptoms of illness that winter I thought that I was just having another bout of sadness. I felt so tired that I uncharacteristically retired to bed early.
By the following morning I was raging with fever and my head felt as though it was going to explode. I felt so dizzy that I hesitated getting out of my bed so I called my mother for help. My throat felt dry and scratchy and it seemed as though every bone in my body ached. I had at times dramatically wished I were dead like my father, but that was just a way to garner attention from my overworked mom. Now I wondered if my bizarre request had somehow been granted because I truly felt as though I had one foot in the grave.
My mother took a quick look at me and asked me to lift the top of my pajamas. Underneath the soft flannel was a scarlet colored rash that caused her to shake her head and declare that I had the measles. She immediately went into action, calling our family doctor who agreed with her assessment and advised her over the phone rather than having me come to his office. He did not want me to expose the rest of his patients to my highly contagious disease, so he and my mother discussed how to best treat my illness.
It was a bitterly cold winter that year in keeping with the somber tone of our household. The heater seemed to whir away continuously and I was so happy that our neighbor, Mr. Sessums, had put it in fine working order for us. I felt quite snug under quilts that my grandmother had made and somewhat relieved that I did not have to go to school on that day. My teacher was a woman who terrified me and any time spent away from her was welcome in my mind. I willingly stayed in my bed and fell into a deep sleep.
When I awoke my room was quite dark and I wondered if I had slumbered all day. Mama informed me that I was not to look out my window, watch television or turn on the lamps in my room lest the lights damage my eyes. She explained that having measles was very serious and that I needed to follow her instructions to the letter so that I might recover quickly and without any long term side effects. Since my fever was still quite high I had little inclination to disobey her. For the most part movements of any kind sent my head into a tailspin and so I languished in my room listening to the sounds of my family going about its routine.
As my seemingly endless bad luck would have it, Houston had one of the biggest snows in its history only a day or so after I was afflicted with the measles. I could hear my friends and family celebrating the uncommon occasion up and down the street. My brothers had snowball fights and built a snowman with my mother. They breathlessly recounted how glorious their fun had been from the safety of the hallway. Their cheeks were tinged with a bright red glow of excitement and I wanted more than anything to experience the adventure that they described to me.
Mama reminded me again and again that I was not to even peek through the blinds to view the white stuff on the ground. She was a good nurse but I truly doubted that her extreme caution was necessary. When she and my brothers returned to the winter wonderland to make snow angels I saw my opportunity to find out for myself what a true snowy day looked life. I gingerly squinted through a tiny gap in the wooden slats of the blinds and saw a glorious sight unlike any I had ever experienced in my hometown. The yards were covered with a lovely white dusting of frozen precipitation. Snowmen smiled in front of every home and children were bundled up in winter wear that they hardly ever had occasion to use. The sound of laughter filled the air as the winter party delighted young and old alike, everyone it seemed but me.
My mother never knew that I had so blatantly disobeyed her. For a time I worried that as punishment for my transgression I would become permanently blind, but when that never happened I felt justified in seizing that daring moment. Soon enough I was back in school and forever immune from catching the measles, something that seemed to make my mother quite happy. I would not understand the full extent of what I had endured until later in life when I was pregnant with my own children. It was then that I was told of the dangers of catching the measles while carrying a baby in the womb. None of those fears would apply to me, and later when they were born my girls would receive an immunization that would insure that they would never have to worry about catching the measles as I had.
The World Health Organization has officially declared that measles have been eradicated in the United States. My childhood experience is a thing of the past, an historic event that no longer happens in our country. Much like my grandfather’s stories of smallpox, my recollection of having the measles is a curiosity that my children and grandchildren will never truly understand. Thank God for that.