It wasn’t that I felt responsible for the sickness of others, it was that something compassionate in me chided my conscience for being repelled by the sights, sounds, and smells that accompanied the suffering of others.
Again, my Mom introduced me to this world.
We had a housekeeper when I was little. She came out in the afternoons and was waiting there at home when I got home from first grade. That was back in the day when it was safe to walk a mile or so to school.
Her name was Carrie. I remember she was old. My childhood vision of her was that she was skinny and a little shriveled. Then she began to be a little more shriveled.Then she stopped working for us.
Mom told me she had cancer and had to stay home. Mom became a hospice volunteer (remember, this was a long time ago and I don’t think the term “hospice” was even in use much back then… but that’s the kind of person my mom was).
In the days of strict segregation in the South, my Mom never hesitated to drive on a regular basis into the poor “Negro” neighborhood (it’s not “PC” to use that term now but this was the early 1960’s) to take food she had prepared, and groceries, and necessities to Carrie and her family. Clothes for everyone. Christmas presents.
Sometimes she took me with her. I felt uncomfortable on so many levels. We got stared at in that neighborhood. I was not used to being the “different” one. I didn’t understand the aloof animosity that I felt had emanated from the folks on the sidewalks and the neighboring porches. In my childhood naivete I had no concept of prejudice, and was years away from understanding the wounds that others bore because of it.
Carrie lived in a wooden shack (or so I would have called it) that sagged under the weight of age and disrepair. Contrary to my internal impulses I didn’t act at all hesitant to stride boldly up those rickety steps, across the stoop, and through the squeaky front porch screen door that clung by the barest of screw threads to a dry-rotting door jamb. I squelched my squeamishness.
It wasn’t that we were in a poor neighborhood of people different from me, or a house that looked, felt, and, yes, smelled so different from my own. It was Carrie herself. That kind old woman who had once held me close that day that I had sobbed – after walking home from first grade, I had seen the bloody splotch in the middle of the street that Carrie had tried to rinse away with a bucket or two of water. My sweet pet beagle had died that day.
Now she was dying. She was wasting away. Too weak to move. She had the odor of death (Something with which I would become all too familiar in Emergency Rooms and ICU’s in the years of my as-yet-unforeseen future).
I wanted to run.
But I clutched my weapon (in this case, a sack of second-hand clothes). Charged that hill. Vanquished the enemy. Won the battle. Held my ground.
Still holding. Awaiting further orders from The Commander.