My mother opens my nightgown and sticks the thermometer under my arm. “Hold it tight against your side and don’t move,” she says, checking her watch. “How long?” I ask. “Five minutes, as always. Be patient,” she says. After an eternity, she takes out the thermometer and frowns at the mercury. “Mare de Deu! Thirty-eight point five!” she cries, shaking down the thermometer.
I know what this means: anything above thirty-seven degrees centigrade leads to what my mother calls “a good sweating.” It begins with my swallowing an aspirin dissolved in a teaspoon of water. Then my mother lays a lasagna of covers on me—a couple of thick woolen blankets topped by a feather-stuffed duvet. For a while my temperature continues to rise, and I lie shivering under the blankets, feeling as if my bones have turned to ice.
But as the fever drops the shivering gradually diminishes. The ice in my bones melts away. And then I feel hot, so hot that I start to fling the covers off. But my mother has been watching for this moment. “No, no,” she says, pressing down the comforter and the blankets. “You must lie still and sweat, or you won’t get well.” “How long?” I ask. “You’re not nearly there yet. You have to be patient,” she says.
My hair sticks to my face. My flannel nightgown is glued to my legs so that I can’t turn on my side. “Shhh!” my mother says, “don’t move.” She tells me the story of Jordi pastoret , a shepherd boy who lives on a mountain with his sheep and his dog. How I envy him his mountain, his sheep, and especially the dog!
Eventually, I give in to the appalling heat. I stop listening to the story and just go limp. My mother takes my temperature again. “Thirty-six point five, thank God!” she says and draws back the covers. She peels off my sodden nightgown, rubs me down with alcohol and dresses me in a dry nightgown. Meanwhile, the maid has put fresh sheets on the bed. I lie back down, the heat and stickiness replaced by a cool dryness. The ordeal is over.
But only temporarily. If my fever spikes again, there is another aspirin, and another sweat. If the fever stays down, I nevertheless have to spend the next day in bed, an entire day when my arms and legs seem to take on a life of their own and, like unruly horses, have to be restrained by sheer willpower from leaping out of bed and taking me with them. I spend those endless days practicing patience, making mountains and valleys with my legs under the covers (“Do not throw your covers off. You’ll get sick again!”) and staring up at the familiar cracks in the ceiling, imagining the outlines of faces and hands, the same faces and hands that will be there waiting for me when I get sick again.
If the aspirins and the sweats don’t work right away, my mother calls Dr. Contreras. He is young and usually in a hurry, and I hate him because every time he sees me he mimics the terrified shrieks with which I used to greet him when I was a baby. He doesn’t seem to notice my grown-up self control. Impatience radiates from him as he unbuttons my nightgown and puts the stethoscope to my chest and then my back. I recoil at the warmth of his head, the smell and scratchiness of his dark hair. “Be still,” he says. Then he stands up, snaps his bag shut and says to my mother, “She’ll be fine. Try not to look at her so much.”
But what else was there for my mother to do, if not look at me? The troubles of my early months—her failure to produce enough milk, my endless crying—must have shaken her self-confidence as a mother. In addition, she, my father, their families and the entire country had barely survived a bloody civil war. All of a sudden, with peace on the streets and a new husband and a child of her own, life seemed suspiciously good. “I felt as if God were standing over me with a stick, ready to bring it down on my head,” she told me many years later.
It was no wonder that she regarded my existence as a precarious gift, something that could be taken away from her at any moment. So she watched me day and night, feeling my forehead for the onset of fever and making sure I wore a sweater when the merest cloud obscured the Mediterranean sun. For my part, I accommodated her with an endless stream of sore throats, earaches, flus and indigestions that gave interest and drama to her days.
Of all those early illnesses, one shines out as a time of great happiness. Like most of my generation, I had my tonsils removed. My maternal grandmother came to visit while I recovered, and she brought me a chick from her farm. She had chosen him because he had a defective leg, which meant he couldn’t run very far. He was just past the adorable fuzz-ball stage. His pale primary feathers were already poking out of his little wings, and I could see his future comb beginning to part the yellow down on top of his head. In chicken years, he was probably about my age.
The moment my grandmother put him on the bed, my sore throat and my boredom disappeared, and an inexpressible contentment came over me. I no longer felt the least desire to get out of bed. Instead, I wanted to spend the rest of my life lying in that quiet room, with my hand on those soft, warm feathers, and those thrilling cheeps in my ears: my first experience of the mysterious power of an animal’s companionable presence. (To be continued.)