Like many children of the 80s, the era of optional child restraints, plentiful second-hand smoke, and grapes not cut in half, I had a few brushes with death. I flew my kite into a utility line, I got an Atomic Fire Ball stuck in my throat when I tried to talk and eat it at the same time, and I rode my bike into the side of a moving car at an intersection. I either had a guardian angel to save me from my own stupidity or I used up my entire lifetime's stock of luck by the time I turned ten.
But the time my mother talks about the most, the time of my life that to this day, post-cancer-treatment and all, she says is the closest she came to losing me, was caused by our first and only real Christmas tree.
Christmas is a bad time to realize you're severely allergic to conifers. And red shag carpet is a bad thing to have when you have a real tree you're suddenly sickened by. By the time I was allergy-tested in January, following a sinus infection that had had me sidelined for four weeks, my top allergen was so embedded in the fibers of that floor covering that needles would appear in my mother's vacuum cleaner bags for a year.
It was by far the worst I've ever felt in my life. I believe that period of time in third grade was the reason for my present-day claustrophobia; until I began a new corticosteroid nasal spray in March or April, I could not breathe through my nose. I slept little; I could never fall asleep if I had to breathe through my mouth. I was the only child I knew who didn't miss a single episode of both The Tonight Show and Late Night with David Letterman in the winter of 1982 and 1983. Years later, when we had to choose a celebrity to write to for an English project in middle school, I chose Johnny Carson instead of Alyssa Milano or Kirk Cameron. His was the last voice I heard on many a night during that long winter.
My mother was alerted to the seriousness of the problem when I wandered through the door after walking home from school one snowy afternoon, white as the proverbial sheet and shaking inside my coat. I don't know what my temperature was, but I know it made Mom call a neighbor who had been a nurse. Accompanied with it was the worst headache of my life, a pain so bad it made me throw up and begin trembling so deeply our nurse neighbor told my mom she thought I was going into shock. The weather had gotten bad, and my mother was alone, and she gave me my first-ever dose of Tylenol and prayed at my bedside that we didn't have to fight the snow and ice to go to the hospital. The Tylenol worked, God listened, and I was referred by our family doctor to a crew of specialists.
Food began to taste funny. Everything from chocolate milk to toast acquired a sickly, cloyingly strange taste that I recognized. It was the same smell I noticed when I was away from my parents' smoky house.
"This chocolate milk tastes like meat," I told my mother one day.
"Yeah, like hamburger smells sometimes when you let it go brown in the refrigerator and have to throw it out."
An x-ray of my sinuses confirmed that every cavity in my head was full of fluid. And since it wasn't coming out, it was starting to become horribly, devastatingly infected. The kind of infection that could cause long-term health problems. My mother put her head in her hands and sighed in the clean little examining room at the ENT. Repeated courses of strong antibiotics could kill the infection, but the swelling was persistent and preventing me from truly getting better. Allergy shots would take a while to work. I was put on prednisone and told if that didn't work, I might need surgery. A surgery on my sinuses not commonly done in children that may or may not work.
The doctor help up his hands.
"Then we wait and see."
It was an interesting time. No matter how sick I was, I was the kind of kid who was fascinated by the wonders of my condition. It did not occur to me that I was very ill, but I did realize that breathing through both sides of your nose at the same time is a highly underrated thing that people take for granted, and I performed experiments to see what physical activities and body positions would cause my nose to open up. I became very knowledgeable about pharmaceuticals, asking the pharmacist questions about various potions' taste, side effects, and, after a particularly nasty response to erythromycin, whether or not they would make me throw up in public.
When the infection went to my lungs, I was given cough syrup containing codeine. After the first dose, the edges of my world became pleasantly fuzzy and soft. I had a revelation about human existence.
"We're all made of clouds," I told my mom that night, watching Superman: The Movie on cable.
"We're all what?"
"Made of clouds. See? My arm is see-through," I told her waving my arm in front of my nose. "But Superman on the TV? He looks real."
"Unh-huh. I think we're done with the cough syrup."
I also saw Death himself. One night, a night that sleep actually had come for me, my mother woke me to take a dose of prednisone. As she stood over my bed with spoon in hand, telling me to open my mouth, I saw a skeleton next to her. He was dressed in black and holding a scythe. I was frozen with fear and could not move, could not blink, could only stare at my mom and open my mouth. As the spoon came toward me, so did the skeleton. He fell toward me and I either passed out or went back to sleep, I was not sure which.
I hoped it was a dream.
"Did you wake me up to give me medicine last night?"
"No reason." I had been brought up mostly Baptist with a twist of Pentecostal; I knew the grim reaper when I saw it. I prayed nightly for my soul until the doctor asked Mom if I'd been having any hallucinations or night terrors; apparently, kids on steroids can.
I began to feel better in the spring. A new nasal spray had come on the market that allowed the air to return to my sinuses. Windows were opened, the house began to air out, and I shed my winter layers for t-shirts.
"Wait a second," Mom said, after she passed by my bedroom when I changed shirts. "Lift that shirt back up."
I lifted the shirt over my head and heard my mother gasp. I was in front of a mirror and I turned to it to see what she saw.
Ribs. Every rib in my chest and back poked out loud through the skin. My collarbones stood at attention when I lowered my arms. Hips and elbows and knees were sharp and prominent. Mom started crying and, scared, I cried too.
I know now that when you're a parent, you can go a long time looking at your kid before you really see your kid. I had spent the winter so bundled up my mother had no idea I had become so thin. Bath time had become a quick affair because she was so worried about me catching a chill. I was, yet again, scurried to the doctor.
No medicines this time. I was prescribed food instead. As much of it as I wanted, whenever I wanted it. Plus a new type of protein shake used primarily by athletes, twice a day. The problem was I still didn't have my appetite back. I went from having a terrible smell in my nose all the time to having no sense of smell at all. Oranges sprinkled with salt (yeah, I know, gross) were the only things that I ate with joy, and no one has ever gained weight from eating oranges sprinkled with salt.
And then I discovered Big Macs.
I may be the only person you've ever heard say this but: Thank God for McDonalds. I got a coupon at school for a free Big Mac for an essay I wrote, and my sister grudgingly took me through the drive-thru. Having her driver's license had stopped being cool after she found herself to be my official chauffeur. I dug into my burger on the way home, fully expecting to hate it but planning to lie that I loved it just to ick my sister out. She thought they were the most disgusting things on the planet.
I sipped my Coke. And nibbled my fries. And took that first bite. I expected it to taste like nothing, like everything else I ate. But it didn't. The pickles. The sauce. Two all-beef patties. Lettuce, cheese. It was salty, it was sweet, it was tangy. It was heaven. It was also gone before we got home.
"Can I have another one? Not today, but someday?"
My mother smiled more than any woman should smile after hearing her child profess a love for fast food.
And so it goes that I had a Big Mac almost every day in the spring of 1983. Healthy? Probably not. Though I did argue once to my skeptical father that all 4 food groups were represented. (Pickles were once cucumbers, after all.) But I did gain some weight. It took me years to get back to something resembling normalcy on my growth chart, but a daily Big Mac goes a long way toward making one's ribs no longer show.
I've mostly given up McDonalds now. I think when you hit 35, it either loses its appeal or you realize just how God-awful it is for you, and you do your general health a favor and stop loving it. However, after a cold, sinus infection, or bronchitis, I simply have to have a Mac. My body has remembered the peculiar and fabulous appeal they had for me once following the worse illness of my life, and I simply don't think I'm recovered until I hit a drive-thru and feed my body and soul with a little horrible deliciousness inside a sesame-seed bun.
They may be bad. But they tasted...gooooood.