This is one of the few digitally archived photos available that prove I ever had a childhood. There are others, but this, like those, is a picture of a picture... which means someone, probably not me, either scanned in or took a picture of the original with their phone. It's an especially telling picture; one that explains not only a lot about me, but about some of the dynamics that helped forge most of my childhood. You'll notice that it's a birthday party. My brother's actually. And that's me, wanting my piece of the spotlight like only an almost 3 year old can. (Sorry, Brian.) That's me, on the left and my older brother on the right. We're sitting on our dad's lap. He was still fixing airplanes at Lunken Airport, where Proctor & Gamble executives used to fly in and out on their corporate jets.
Wasn't I a cute little duffer? I always thought so. It was quite the shock to my system when I learned that not everyone thought so. Of course, one of the reasons that maybe a pitiful few didn't like me was because it took a while for me to get socialized to the point that I realized I wasn't the center of the friggin' universe.
If you're paying attention to the picture, you might notice that I look on the pale side. I'd been sick when the picture was taken. I was sick a lot. A cold/ flu that never seemed to end, that kept me (and my parents) awake at night; hacking coughs, trouble breathing, a come and go high temperature. Doctor after doctor misdiagnosing it. At one point they took out my tonsils just in case that was the problem. (It wasn't.) I wasn't breathing well, but it never occurred to me that I was sick because no one TOLD me I was sick and I hadn't been around other kids enough to know that not everyone was experiencing life the way I was.
By the time I was 5, I'd been sick for most of my life. I almost didn't get into kindergarten on time because I was small for my age. I was in Kindergarten when I was finally diagnosed correctly, and was sick so much of the academic year that I was nearly held back because of how much I missed. (I was ultimately allowed to make up everything and went on to 1st grade, which just goes to show that kindergarten teachers have infinitely more faith than say, grad school administrators who insist on making me finish late when the delay wasn't my fault but I was well able to catch up. But that's another story.)
The diagnosis: chronic asthma, made worse by allergies. These words are far more common now, as are the treatments. But in the late 1970's chronic asthma was considered rare. I was pretty much allergic to the entire outside world. I was started on an aggressive treatment of allergy shots, daily inhaler use, and some other medicines. I was sent to camps and workshops to learn breathing techniques and strategies that were designed to maybe reduce the amount of medicine I was taking. (It worked.)
My parents were also told to limit my exposure to dust and pollen as much as possible. They pulled the carpet out of my bedroom. I had to give up my stuffed animals. My mom mopped my room, floor to ceiling, every single day. If anyone in a 5 yard radius was mowing in the summer, I wasn't allowed outside. And since we had a next door neighbor who couldn't help but mow his grass, whether it needed it or not, I was always inside.
When I was 8, the doctors finally gave my parents the green light to let me outside other than school or church. I had a lot to catch up on, and mostly I didn't. I've never been great at sports; years of having to stay inside and inactive made it that much harder for me to pick up everything from swimming to riding my bicycle. I didn't know it then, but I had picked up a Fear of the World. After all, it was trying to kill me, right?
It took me a long time to figure out that I'd developed not so much a fear of dying as much as a fear of living. I knew it what it felt like to almost die. Seriously. The body's panic center goes into hyper drive when, for example, you're unable to breathe, and working harder at it only makes it worse. A full blown asthma attack feels like drowning on the absence of air.
I've been thinking about that time a lot over the last almost three months. I returned from San Antonio on in early March and I've been under some kind of social distancing/quarantine regiment ever since. Not because I was told to, or because I'm sick, other than the garden variety Ohio Valley Funk that nearly everyone living in Louisville gets in the Spring. But because it's been the right thing to do. I was accused early on of not taking it seriously when I voiced concerns that mass shut downs without a plan in place was a form of economic warfare. I have been accused of being manipulated by one grand conspiracy or another because I wear a mask when I go out and I support social distancing as a way to reduce the spread of COVID-19.
The economic warfare has gone on anyway, just in macro. The grifters in charge of the country have used the stimulus bills to rob the country blind while throwing pennies at some of the rest of us.
But I come back to this picture. Not because I was a cute little duffer, or because it's a good picture. But because at this point, I hadn't learned to be afraid of life yet. And it does make me wonder, what will come out of the pandemic. What will we learn? Will we learn? I'm not enough of an optimist to believe that this apocalypse, like the others before, will be the grand turning point. This isn't even my first apocalypse; and if you're reading, it's not yours either. Even if you're too young to remember 9/11, it was an apocalypse that has impacted us for the worse. So learn some breathing exercises. Adopt some strategies... ones that keep you calm. We may be "re-opening" whatever the hell that means, but this apocalypse is far from done. And it won't be the last one.