The good news: The inoculations I received in 1985 for the four major “numbered diseases” were successful. The bad news: There are six numbered diseases and I caught the fifth one. Twice.
I was never a fit and robust child. While other kids were running around outside, shrieking and having a wholesome innocent childhood experience, I was inside trying to keep my Rainbow Brite from sleeping around with all the male toys and organizing my crayons by name, sharpness, and which colors were friends (no one ever liked Burnt Sienna). My caretakers were obsessed with keeping me “safe” and were not encouraging of any activity involving movement, sound, or my behaving like a normal child. “Sit down and shut up” was their mantra for many years. And it worked until I enrolled in grade school. We’ll assume that the first six years of my life were relatively illness-free, if only because most of my memories are blurry and mumbly.
Once I was in school, my health went on a steady decline. In addition to the discovered dullness of two senses, I was a germ and fire ant magnet. My physical well-being was always in question. From the ages of six to eight, I had multiple colds, sore throats, insect bites, several bouts of Fifth virus, and a full-body allergic reaction to penicillin. My mother had failed to protect me from terrible things. My sister was pissed that I required so much attention. My baby teeth were falling out. My glasses were pink. My life was a series of maddening annoyances. I couldn’t win.
I tend to be plagued with maladies that are not life-threatening but no one really knows about them. The great thing about chicken pox is everyone knows what it is, even if they haven’t had it themselves. If you’re a six-year-old and someone asks why you missed school, you can say, “I had chicken pox” and that someone will nod knowingly, pat you on the head, and send you along to do whatever six-year-olds do. When someone asked six-year-old Katharine why she missed school, she replied, “I had fifth virus” and that someone looked at her as though she’d told them she studied graphic design at Humber College instead of OCAD. Fifth virus manifested itself as a rash on my belly and face. I recall at least one occasion of my mother hauling me and my rash into school before the first bell to show my teacher why I’d be missing school. I was mortified as she told me to lift my shirt to display my itchy belly to Mrs. Elmore. I’m pretty sure Mrs. Elmore would’ve been content with whatever doctor’s note I brought in on a healthier day. But maybe I’d run out of officially sanctioned sick days. Or, since fifth virus is also colorfully known as “slapped cheek disease,” my mother didn’t want to be accused of physically abusing me. Everyone knows psychological abuse is better because the wounds are internal and long-lasting, especially if you continue to pick at the scabs 20 years later over leftover cheesecake in motel rooms.
The closest I got to the chicken pox experience was my surprise reaction to penicillin. I developed a full-body rash while taking antibiotics to recover from a bout of strep throat. I spent a week in misery, alternating between hiding under heavy blankets to break my fever (and escape Phil Donahue’s transvestite interrogations and Luke & Laura’s latest misadventures) and thrashing about in discomfort. After several experiences with giant fire ant bites, I’d built up some resistance to scratching. But, man! The temptation is hard to resist. Scratching an itch is instinctual. And when it’s done just right…well, there aren’t many things in life that induce so much satisfaction. The friction of fingernail on skin is a sensation that is not easily matched. Benadryl and calamine lotion cannot compare to the simple scratch.
Armed with the knowledge of my actual limitations, we learned how to keep me safe without subjecting me to a life of absolute stillness. My mother arranged it so that my encounters with other children were limited to classrooms and play dates with pre-approved children. I was feeling healthier, if still mostly inactive. If I missed school, it was because I was in my mother’s office watching Bewitched on my portable black and white television or sitting in the crippled children’s clinic to deal with my malfunctioning ears. It would be some years before my belly was exposed again in any public setting.
As an adult, I’m not sure how likely it is that I could catch chicken pox now. It seems unlikely as I don’t find myself surrounded by children very often. To be safe, I always cross to the other side of the street when passing a pack of grade schoolers. I avoid popular parks and any activity where children are in abundance. Mostly I stay inside, trying to prevent sexual promiscuity amongst my plush moose and organizing my PrismaColor markers by name, usability, and musical talent. Some habits are hard to break.