My throat is raw and scorched. The orange Jell-O my mother spoons into my mouth hurts going down, as if it were made from burning leaves. I try not to complain, though, since this is a holiday, and everyone in my family is excited to see comedian Jerry Lewis on the television later with his healthy, wealthy friends, singing and dancing for charity.
It’s the Sunday of Labor Day weekend, 1977. I am nine. In our house the Muscular Dystrophy Association Telethon is as much a holiday tradition as fireworks on the Fourth of July. Jerry raises money for families with sick kids and huge medical bills. We watch every year as the numbers on the big board turn to the next million, and though we don’t say it out loud, we are a family that needs help, too. Our illnesses are not as grim as muscular dystrophy, but the hard work on the farm and the frequent bad weather — droughts, tornadoes, freezes, blizzards, floods — put us on edge and make us predisposed to health calamities. Then there’s the guilt that goes with becoming sick, as if you’ve let everyone down by allowing your white blood cells to take over.
Mine has not been the only recent sickness. There was Mom’s hysterectomy, Dad’s farming accident, my brother Darren’s busted head, my other brother Derrick’s ever-present bronchitis, my sister Dana’s chicken pox, and my other sister Dina’s curvature of the spine, which required surgery. Our parents have meager insurance with high deductibles, and hospital bills printed on a dot-matrix printer arrive regularly in the mail, as sinister as the germs our mother tells us lurk on everything we touch. I lie on the couch in the living room and feel a deep sense of shame, because I’ve increased our debt by getting sick.
The doctors don’t know what’s caused my throat infection, but the cankers erupting in my mouth and trailing down my throat require antibiotic salve, which must be administered with a long cotton swab. I hate this process so much that my mother must sit on my chest to apply the medicine as my father holds my head still on the pillow. I gag, buck my hips, and try to turn away. My brothers and sisters hold vigil in the doorway, the littlest, Dana, in tears.
When the application of salve is over, I cry and spit, my head hung over the pot we make spaghetti in. Blood comes up, too, bright red and spreading across the bottom of the pot. It’s been a whole week of this, and I’m still not better. I vomit and grow thinner. I cannot eat because everything burns my throat.
My dad lights a Salem outside the front door. Mom straightens the pillow under my head and tries not to let me see her cry.
This all started months ago because the Indiana farmhouse we live in has no central air conditioning. In June my father used some of his overtime pay to purchase a window unit so all seven of us could get some sleep. We didn’t know the air conditioner’s filter had to be cleaned. Our mother believes the germs that collected there caused the blistering staph infection in my mouth and throat. This has confirmed the worst fear we have in our family: that we are lower-class, unclean, white trash.
As I fight off sleep on the couch, I can see the rest of my family working outside. My mother has stapled plastic sheeting over the windows because it is already cold out. (In four months a blizzard will arrive so fierce the livestock will walk over six-foot drifts to escape their fences.) The plastic makes everyone look as though they are underwater, the bright colors of their knit caps like melted crayon while they carry bales of straw from Dad’s pickup. My older brothers move quickly, racing to see who can carry the most. Even my sisters help. To be a Crandell is to use your body, to push yourself, to do your part. Sad that I am not outside with them, I look away from the window. My forehead is hot, and my throat feels shredded. I want to cry, but I’m not supposed to, because it will only make me weak, and I’ll get sicker, which will cost even more money.
By 9 PM Jerry Lewis is on our hand-me-down television, the big tote board at zero as he tells us he’ll be live from the Sahara Hotel in Las Vegas for the next twenty-one hours. He sings the opening song, down on one knee: “Smile though your heart is aching / Smile even though it’s breaking.” Mom shushes my siblings so we can all hear the TV.
At some point I fall asleep and wake to find the television is off and my family has gone to bed. Fitful, sweaty, and chilled, I drift in and out of a dream in which I hand my folks an enormous check like the ones on TV, and they clap and cry, and Lola Falana sings a song. When I open my eyes, I’m drenched with cold sweat, the house is quiet and dark, and I have nothing to give my parents but more sickness.
It’s this sense that I am a burden that fully wakes me, and I swing my feet to the floor. This isn’t even our house. We rent from a landlord who doesn’t like my folks. In fact, we are “cash renters,” which I will later learn means about the same as sharecroppers. Dad works both on the farm and in a ceiling-tile factory, while Mom flits from one fast-food job to the next and comes home smelling of fryer oil and yeasty bread. Sitting on the edge of the couch, I don’t even feel like a part of the family. Usually I sleep upstairs in the same room as my brothers; my sisters have the other upstairs room. But for now, I am apart from them all. My breathing has become shallow. I can hear the house settling and a ringing in my ears. Though I do not know what’s happening, I begin to hallucinate from the fever. Orbs of light near the doorway seem to move up and down, then side to side. My mother believes in ghosts, and when I’m with her, I want to believe, too, but right now I’m by myself and scared. I stand on wobbly legs and take a few steps toward the orbs.
My mother’s parents, Basil and Enid Ellis, have been dead just a few years. They lived in Terre Haute, in a house they’d built on a plot of land they’d bought from the coal-mining company. Basil died of black lung, and Enid died less than a year later — of a broken heart, people said. Neither was yet sixty-five. My grieving mother believed the picture of her parents, which hung in a round mahogany frame across the room from me, was actually alive. She saw their eyes following us.
The orbs change color, from faint ocher to a dingy blue and back. I can taste salty snot from my nose, and I shiver. The framed picture of my grandparents seems to throb like the pulse in my temples. It’s strange to be awake and alone in a silent house where seven people live. I mumble to myself and take a step back. The orbs have vanished. My arms prickle with goose bumps as I return to the couch, past Dad’s ashtray on an end table. The faint smell of burnt tobacco makes me miss him, even though he sleeps in the next room.
I slip under the quilts and instantly regret that I didn’t turn the television on, so I could watch Jerry singing and looking misty-eyed at the tote board. I’m trying to be strong. I’ve seen my dad go without stitches for a gash on his leg as wide as a billfold. I’ve watched my brothers stave off the flu by drinking the mix of honey, orange juice, and whiskey our dad makes for us. Sometimes, when we get colds, Dad applies menthol rub to a long tube sock, places it under the broiler in the oven, removes it, and then quickly wraps the steaming cloth around our throats. It’s so hot we get burns on our necks. We go to the dentist only to have teeth pulled.
I ease into semisleep, my jaw aching and glands swollen. Then something shifts, and I enter a peaceful state in which I know I’m asleep, but it’s also more than that. I think of the stories about the afterlife my mother has read to me from the National Enquirer. I dream of beautiful children rising from their wheelchairs and walking alongside me in tawny-colored fields while Sammy Davis Jr. sings somewhere beyond a deep-green copse of maple trees.
I wake again in the gray light of dawn. Someone is lifting me up. The sweat-drenched quilts fall away, and cold air rushes along my spine. I shudder, but I want to tell whoever it is not to put the blanket back on, because the chill is a relief. My sisters are crying, and Dad is running with me to his truck. He plops me into the seat, and I smell diesel and hear gravel spitting. Aware of others in the cab, I’m glad that they are with me, that we are together.
I come to hours later in the emergency room, a tube in my throat and an IV in my arm. The nurse says I can go home, but with stronger medicine, which I know will cost money my parents don’t have.
By midmorning on Labor Day, I’m lying on the saggy brown couch once more. On the television, while Jerry’s back is turned, a group of smiling people carry a massive check onto the stage. Someone taps Jerry’s shoulder, and he turns around in the middle of a gag. When he sees the figure on the check, his face grows serious, and he takes out a hankie to dab at his forehead. He can’t quite speak. A piano tinkles in the background. His eyeglasses come off, and he begins shaking the men’s hands and hugging the women. Another child in a wheelchair is rolled onto the stage, a girl in pigtails with a round face, and a couple tap-dances around her. The number on the big board is more than $20 million.
I can tell my sisters have been instructed to cheer me up because, with the help of our brothers, Dana pulls a rusty red wagon into the living room, and she and Dina set up my poster board from last year’s 4-H photography entry: ten photos spread across purple felt, their edges outlined with black pipe cleaners, the glue on a few of them coming loose. Dina tells me my pictures are pretty, but I know they are not. I got only a yellow participation ribbon for the photos of reddish-brown pigs, rows of knee-high corn, an orange combine in our wheat field, and several barn cats. In one photo our mother peels potatoes at the sink.
Our parents, who worked extra shifts all week, are trying to get some sleep, while Derrick and Darren have gone outside to fill the water tanks for the cattle and wait on the feed man to bring ground corn for the pigs. The doctor said I was dehydrated and that I’m to stay in bed, miss school for the rest of the week, and do nothing until the fever has been gone for at least three days. Every two hours I have to swallow awful pink penicillin that tastes like dirt.
Derrick comes back inside and tells Dina my temperature needs taking: 102.5 degrees. Derrick gets a bowl of ice water and a dish towel with burn marks and a tattered edge. He thrusts the towel into the icy water, wrings it, and places it carefully over my brow. I want to tell my brothers and sisters that I’m sorry for not helping with the chores, but, for the moment, with the television on and all four of them with me and my head soothed by the cold dish towel, I am happy — or, at least, more at ease.
On Labor Day afternoon Mom begins cooking. For us this holiday is bigger than Thanksgiving. In my mind we Crandells are labor: Dad’s in a labor union. Mom was in labor with all of us. We labor on this farm that’s not ours. I’ve labored to get better. But this is our day to rest.
When it’s time to take my temperature again, Dana sticks the thermometer into my mouth a little too enthusiastically, patting my leg as she’s seen our mother do. Mom counts down the seconds until Dana pulls the thermometer out and, with Mom’s help, reads my temperature. Mom cups her hand around Dana’s ear and whispers, and Dana announces proudly, “One hundred on the dot!” Dad is smoking in the doorway, weary but smiling. My 4-H poster leans against the wall, and from this distance the pictures look better. Mom tells us she’s made two dozen yeast rolls, along with fragrant beef stew, full of carrots and wedges of yellow potato. Dad turns up the telethon, sits at the end of the couch, and places my feet in his lap. Dina, Dana, Derrick, and Darren follow Mom to the kitchen to fill plates.
So we can eat in the TV room, Derrick and Darren arrange the worn footstool, the side tables, and a stack of Compton’s Encyclopedias to hold plates. Dad gets the real TV tray, and Mom props me up with bed pillows and positions a plate on my legs: mostly potatoes and carrots from the stew and a torn-up yeast roll — no milk or butter, she says. Dad has made me a glass of honey and orange juice and whiskey, which I’m proud to be drinking. I know my siblings wish they had some because it makes us silly. Dad comments on what an entertainer Jerry Lewis is, how his reunion last year with his former partner Dean Martin ought to be in the Smithsonian.
We have warm pie for dessert, and though my throat still burns, it feels good to have real food in my stomach. As the sun sinks low and we scrape our bowls, the telethon comes to an end. The confetti flies. The final figures click into place, and Jerry stands openmouthed at the strand of digits: $26,841,490. After it’s over, my siblings and I play I-See-Something-You-Don’t-See, and they let me win. Mom changes my quilts and my pillowcases. I take the awful penicillin and gag.
Everyone goes to bed, but I can’t sleep. I look in the direction of my grandparents’ photo, where nothing shines or moves — no orbs or strange lights. I try various tricks to help me sleep: saying the names of my siblings over and over in my head, picturing myself doing chores — feeding pigs, spreading straw for their bedding, running hoses for their water. I finally doze off.
In the morning my forehead feels normal, and the soreness in my throat is no more than a nuisance. With a blanket wrapped around me, I walk to the kitchen to eat a leftover yeast roll and a thick slice of apple pie. Everyone has gone to school or work. My mother has left a note to say she’ll be home to check on me at noon. I am to stay in bed, take my medicine, and not go outside; my brothers will feed my runt pigs. I drink some milk, though I’m not supposed to, and snoop around the empty house. On the desk where my dad figures out the family budget, there’s a bill from the hospital. It’s for my ER visit. On a piece of scratch paper, in his crisp handwriting, my dad has tried to calculate how we are going to pay the hundreds of dollars we owe — money I know we don’t have.
When my mother comes home at noon, she finds me crying. She puts me on the couch, covers me up, and tells me if I don’t calm down and rest, I’ll only make myself sick again.