Having survived eight years and four months since eviction from the womb, I was invincible, I decided, because no matter how many scrapes, viruses, bacteria, bumps, bruises, scratches, car accidents and wars were on my itinerary, I‘d had my shots. Acellular pertussis, haemophilus influenzae b, polio, measles, mumps, rubella, hepatites A through B, diphtheria, tetanus, chickenpox, boosters — enough needling to protect against anything. As the ritual punctures came and went, gradually I began to suspect that it wasn’t just the shots that made me cry, but the antiseptic ceremony itself. It was the gasp — before the needle had entered even the room — as the stethoscope‘s frozen steel found my sternum; the nurse entering quietly in turquoise and white; parabolic mirrors in fluorescent light; injection paraphernalia on the counters. And that smell — roughly the same smell smelled in life’s first public moments, the first smell ever, as we‘re expelled from the dark and warm and liquid into the bright cold hospital air.
As of this fourth month of my ninth year, hospitals in America hadn’t yet devolved into the cutthroat, bottom-line, insurance-company-rimming businesses of today, but rather were institutions that existed to provide medical or surgical care and treatment for the sick and the injured. Where today‘s myringotomies are usually performed on outpatient-clinic conveyer belts similar to those used in corporate poultry-slaughter emporiums (in at 8, back on the streets by noon with a Blue Shield logo tattooed to your forehead and a pocketful of “preferred” painkillers), myringotomies of 1971 included a couple days of supervised recovery time, right there in the same building where the surgery’d been performed. (“Modern medicine,” they called it.)
In the aftermath of my Valentine‘s Day surgery (myringotomy: lancing the eardrum to suck out stubborn fluid trapped in the eustachian tube), I shared a hospital room with a little boy who, like myself, looked to be 6 or 8. Every few hours, a nurse came in, gave one or both of us a bartender’s shot of terrible-tasting cough syrup, and left. Manufacturers of the cough syrup — I think it was cough syrup — had painted their product bright Red No. 2 and printed the word cherry! on the bottle. And, with a little imagination, it did taste like fresh, ripe Bing cherries, fallen off the truck that morning, Michelin-mashed and simmering in a maggoty stew of undiscovered roadkill. And little Jimmy, who appeared to have grown up in a Norman Rockwell painting, said “Mmm!” after he swallowed his. But I didn‘t like it. No one could have, with the exception of Jimmy, and the possible exception of an ex-junkie friend who claims to have once downed four bottles of Vicks NyQuil and allowed (in that he couldn’t move) a group of friends to draw on his face with Sharpie® permanent markers. (He doesn‘t like it anymore.)
NURSEY: Time for your medicine, Jimmy!
LITTLE JIMMY ROCKWELL: Mmm!
NURSEY: Time for your medicine, Davey!
LITTLE DAVEY: My name’s Dave, and I‘m not gonna drink that nasty old medicine anymore. It tastes like . . .
NURSEY: Take yer fuggin medicine, you little prick, or I’ll rip your face off and pour it down the hole!
LITTLE JIMMY ROCKWELL: Mmm!
I‘d had bad-tasting medicinal syrups before — paregoric, even — but this was the worst ever. So late that afternoon, on the nurse’s fourth visit, I asked her if, instead of gagging on vile cherry chemicals all day, I could trade for a shot — one shot, needle-style — of something that would do whatever the cough syrup did.
“Yes,” she said pointedly, giving double time to the s. Her eyes dilated and a tremor curled her lips, betraying the decades she‘d waited to hear just such a question from just such a boy. Oh God yes.
And before I could reconsider, she clicked her heels, spun and scampered down the hallway like a 6-year-old.
No sooner had the nurse left than Jimmy Rockwell Senior showed up with a big dorky handmade red-construction-paper envelope sewn with fat white yarn, and shook the contents onto Jimmy’s bed. Red and pink construction-paper hearts fell all around the pale-blue blanket. (Blue so that the Candy Striper staff — teenage girls who dressed like elves and gave sponge baths — could distinguish gender.) Young Jimmy was happy. And suspiciously cheerful. Even when he coughed.
The nurse returned with a menacing tray: alcohol, cotton, syringe, sealed vial of injectable fluid. She‘d also become cheerful. Looked younger. Hummed.
“Ooo!” said Jimmy Senior, frowning (yet smiling) at me. “Looks like someone’s getting a shot!”
“He asked for it!” said little Jimmy.
Yes, I had. Life was fair. I‘d asked for a shot, and I was getting a shot. I’d made the nurse happy (and young). She drew the curtains on the Jimmy side; had me stand beside the bed, lift my gown, bend over and put my elbows on the mattress. One puncture, no more cherry. I held on to the stainless-steel bed frame. I was lucky. In Vietnam, kids were getting dismembered with land mines, burned alive with defoliants. Here in America, all I was getting was no more cough syrup.
(Cold wet cotton glissando skin-dance, in circles; bracing; bracing; bracing . . .)
“All done,” said the nurse, withdrawing, sighing, so sad the moment had come and gone so quickly. “That wasn‘t so bad, now, was it?”
The curtains parted to reveal both Jimmys reverently (and cheerfully) regarding my dry, impassive face, a face stunned into an uncrying indifference it had never worn before.
“You took that like a man,” said Jimmy Rockwell Senior. I nodded politely, hoping he was wrong.
The Norman Rockwell Museum at Stockbridge (www.nrm.org)
Doctors Without Borders (www.doctorswithoutborders.org)
Recipe for wild-cherry cough syrup (www.recipegoldmine.comhealthhealth174.html)