Father got annoyed at us when we didn’t stay well. He usually stayed well himself and he expected us to be like him, and not faint and slump on his hands and thus add to his burdens.
He was fearless about disease. He despised it. All this talk about germs, he said, was merely new-fangled nonsense. He said that when he was a boy there had been no germs that he knew of. Perhaps invisible insects existed, but what of it? He was as healthy as they were. “If any damned germs want to have a try at me,” he said, “bring ’em on.”
From Father’s point of view, Mother didn’t know how to handle an ailment. He admired her most of the time and thought there was nobody like her; he often said to us boys, “Your mother is a wonderful woman”; but he always seemed to disapprove of her when she was ill.
Mother went to bed, for instance, at such times. Yet she didn’t make noises. Father heard a little gasping moan sometimes, but she didn’t want him to hear even that. Consequently he was sure she wasn’t suffering. There was nothing to indicate it, he said.
The worse she felt, the less she ever said about it, and the harder it was for him to believe that there was anything really wrong with her. “He says he can’t see why I stay in bed so long,” she once wrote to me, when I was away, “but this colitis is a mean affair which keeps one perfectly flat. The doctor told him yesterday the meaning of colitis, but he said he ‘had never heard of the damned thing, thank God.’ He feels very abused that he should be ‘so upset by people with queer things the matter with them and doctors all over the place.’” (Mother underlined the word “people.”)
Even Mother’s colds made him fretful. Whenever she had one, she kept going as long as she could, pottering about her room looking white and tired, with a shawl round her shoulders. But sometimes she had to give up and crawl into her bed.
Father pished and poohed to himself about this, and muttered that it was silly. He said Mother was perfectly healthy. When people thought they were ill, he declared, it didn’t mean that there was anything the matter with them, it was merely a sign of weak character. He often told Mother how weak it was to give in to an ailment, but every time he tried to strengthen her character in this respect, he said she seemed to resent it. He never remembered to try except when she could hardly hold her head up. From his point of view, though, that was the very time that she needed his help.
He needed hers, too, or not exactly her help but her company, and he never hesitated to say so. When she was ill, he felt lost.
He usually came up from his office at about five or six. The first thing he did was to look around the house to find Mother. It made his home feel queer and empty to him when she wasn’t there.
One night about six o’clock he opened the door of her bedroom. There was no light except for a struggling little fire which flickered and sank in the grate. A smell of witch-hazel was in the air, mixed with spirits of camphor. On the bed, huddled up under an afghan, Mother lay still, in the dark.
“Are you there, Vinnie?” Father said, in a voice even louder than usual because of his not being sure.
Mother moaned, “Go away.”
“What?” he asked, in astonishment.
“Go away. Oh, go ‘way.”
“Damnation!” he said, marching out.
“What is it?”
“Won’t you ple-e-ease shut my door again!”
Father ground his teeth and shut it with such a bang that it made Mother jump.
He told himself she had nothing the matter with her. She’d be all right in the morning. He ate a good dinner. Being lonely, he added an extra glass of claret and some toasted crackers and cheese. He had such a long and dull evening that he smoked two extra cigars.
After breakfast the next morning, he went to her bedroom again. The fire was out. Two worn old slippers lay on a chair. The grey daylight was cheerless. Father stood at the foot of Mother’s bed, looking disconsolately at her because she wasn’t well yet. He had no one to laugh at or quarrel with; his features were lumpy with gloom.
“What is it?” Mother asked in a whisper, opening her weary eyes.
“Nothing,” he said loudly. “Nothing.”
“Well, for mercy’s sake, don’t come in here looking like that, Clare,” Mother begged.
“What do you mean? Looking like what?”
“Oh, go away!” Mother shrieked. “When people are sick, they like to see a smile or something. I never will get well if you stand there and stare at me that way! And shut my door quietly this time. And let me alone.”
Outside her door, when I asked him how Mother was, he said with a chuckle: “She’s all right again. She isn’t out of bed yet, but she sounds much better this morning.”
Father’s own experiences in a sick-room had been very few. When he was in his early thirties, he had an attack of gout which lasted three weeks. From that time until he was seventy-four and had pneumonia, he had no other serious illnesses. He said illnesses were mostly imaginary and he didn’t believe in them.
He even declared that his pneumonia was imaginary. “It’s only some idea of that doctor’s,” he said. “Nothing the matter with me but a cold.” Our regular physician had died, and this new man and two trained nurses had all they could do, at first, to keep Father in bed.
The new doctor had pale-blue eyes, a slight build, and a way of inwardly smiling at the persons he talked to. He had a strong will in crises, and he was one of the ablest physicians in town. Mother had chosen him, however, chiefly because she liked one of his female cousins.
When Father got worse, the doctor kept warning him that it really was pneumonia, and that if he wouldn’t be tractable, he might not get over it–especially at seventy-four.
Father lay in bed glowering at him and said: “I didn’t send for you, sir. You needn’t stand there and tell me what you want me to do. I know all about doctors. They think they know a damned lot. But they don’t. Give your pills and things to Mrs. Day–she believes in them. That’s all I have to say. There’s no need to continue this discussion. There’s the door, sir. Good-bye.”
But somehow the discussion kept on, and much to his surprise Father at last became convinced he was ill. The doctor, leaving him alone in his bedroom to digest the bad news, came out in the hall, anxious and tired, to have a few words with Mother. As they stood outside Father’s door whispering quietly, they heard his voice from within. Apparently, now that he knew he was in trouble, his thoughts had turned to his God. “Have mercy!” they heard him shouting indignantly. “I say have mercy, damn it!”
Any sufferings that Father ever had he attributed solely to God. Naturally, he never thought for a moment that God could mean him to suffer. He couldn’t imagine God’s wishing to punish him either, for his conscience was clear. His explanation seemed to be that God was clumsy, not to say muddle-headed.
However, in spite of God and the doctor, Father got over pneumonia, just as, some forty years before, he had got over his gout. Only, in conquering his gout, he had had the help of a cane and a masseur called Old Lowndes.
While the gout was besieging him, Father sat in a big chair by the fire with his bad foot on a stool, armed with a cane which he kept constantly ready. Not that he used the cane to walk with. When he walked, he hopped around on his other foot, uttering strong howls of fury. But he valued his cane highly, and needed it, too, as a war club. He threatened the whole family with it. When visitors entered the room he brandished it fiercely at them, to keep them away from his toe.
Old Lowndes was allowed to approach nearer than others, but he was warned that if he made any mistakes that cane would come down on his head. Father felt there was no knowing what harm Lowndes might have done if he hadn’t shaken his cane at him and made him take care. As it was, owing largely to this useful stick, Father got well.
This experience convinced him that any disease could be conquered by firmness.
When he had a cold, his method of dealing with it was to try to clear it out by main force, either by violently blowing his nose or, still better, by sneezing. Mother didn’t like him to sneeze, he did it with such a roar. She said she could feel it half across the room, and she was sure it was catching. Father said this was nonsense. He said his sneezes were healthy. And presently we’d hear a hearty, triumphant blast as he sneezed again.
Aside from colds, which he had very seldom, his only foes were sick headaches. He said headaches only came from eating, however. Hence a man who knew enough to stop eating could always get rid of one that way. It took time to starve it out thoroughly. It might take several hours. But as soon as it was gone, he could eat again and enjoy his cigar.
When one of these headaches started, Father lay down and shut his eyes tight and yelled. The severity of a headache could be judged by the volume of sound he put forth. His idea seemed to be to show the headache that he was just as strong as it was, and stronger. When a headache and he went to bed together, they were a noisy pair.
Father’s code required him to be game, I suppose. He never spoke or thought of having a code; he wasn’t that sort of person; but he denounced men whose standards were low, as to gameness or anything else. It didn’t occur to him to conceal his sufferings, however; when he had any pains, he expressed them as fully as he knew how. His way of being brave was not to keep still but to keep on fighting the headache.
Mother used to beg him to be quiet at night, even if he did have a headache, and not wake up the whole house. He never paid the slightest attention to such a request. When she said, “Please don’t groan so much, Clare,” he’d look at her in disgust, as though he were a warrior being asked to stifle his battle-cries.
One evening he found Mother worrying because Aunt Emma was ill with some disease that was then epidemic.
“Oh, pooh!” Father said. “Nothing the matter with Emma. You can trust people to get any ailment whatever that’s fashionable. They hear of a lot of other people having it, and the first thing you know they get scared and think they have it themselves. Then they go to bed, and send for the doctor. The doctor! All poppycock.”
“Well, but Clare dear, if you were in charge of them, what would you do instead?”
“Cheer ’em up, that’s the way to cure ’em.”
“How would you cheer them up, darling?” Mother asked doubtfully.
“I? I’d tell ’em, ‘Bah!’”