Sunday, September 13, 2015

The forgotten plague...

My mother died quite a few years ago, and there are so many times I wish I could turn back the hands of time and ask her questions from my ever growing list.

Mother lived a long life and passed away from natural causes. By the time she died, Mother was frail and weak, but her mind was amazingly sharp and her memory very much intact. I feel so remiss that I missed opportunities to ask her questions. Questions concerning not just her life, her past, but more, her thoughts, her feelings, her faith, her fears. I want to know more than I know about my mother, but my opportunity is lost forever.

Who was my mother as a person, aside from being my mother? I wonder how many of us baby boomers would ask the same question of their moms? Oh, I know all the stories of mother’s childhood. I saw pictures from Mother’s youth. I heard her tell me about her sisters, her teen years, how she met my father, fell in love and married. I listened to her experiences about living through the Depression Era and WWII. 

What I somehow missed, was understanding who was this person I called my mother. Did I know what kind of friend she was? Did I understand why she had the beliefs that she had? Did I know what made her really happy or very sad? I’m ashamed to say, I don’t think I ever stopped to think about my mother, other than the fact that I loved her because she was my mom. her 80' 18, as a young mother, as a good friend, as a wonderful wife

Several weeks ago, I came across a television show on PBS’s American Experience titled “The Forgotten Plague." I nonchalantly flipped past this program, but stopped and turned back. This was a documentary concerning tuberculosis, the deadliest killer in human history. At one time this disease touched the lives of every American family. I turned up the volume, settled in and watched with curious eyes.

This deadly disease holds great prominence in my family history. Both of my grandfathers died of TB, my mother’s eldest sister died at 26 years old of this disease, and my own mother suffered from tuberculosis twice in her early to mid 30’s. I knew a bit about tuberculosis. I knew that this disease had dramatically shaped generations of our family’s lives. I knew of the story my mother told of her own experience, yet somehow I glossed over the enormity of the effect of this deadly plague. My perspective of this story became so far removed from reality, that I lost focus of what my mother had actually endured.

Watching this documentary, I saw photographs of patients with sunken cheeks, too large eyes, gaunt, skeletal; coughing racked their body as they spat up blood and disease filled their lungs. They laid in cold sterile wards, often on screened porches, beds lined up, one after the other. Even though tuberculosis crossed all socio-economic backgrounds, the victims were considered outcasts because the disease was highly contagious. 

I learned about the sanatoriums that housed these patients, my grandfathers, my aunt, and my own mother. I saw footage of how TB patients lived, and died within these walls. I was moved, riveted in my chair, finally comprehending, what my family members must have experienced. 

At 11 years old, my mother watched her father, an East Texas farmer, leave their small struggling farm hoping, to recover from this deadly disease. Patients were told complete bed rest, and fresh air was the only cure at that time. He went to a sanatorium in San Angelo. I remember Mother telling that one day she looked up and saw her father slowly walking down the long dirt path to their home. Weak and so ill, my grandfather wanted to be home at all cost. The cost ended up being great, as my grandmother cared for him for several more years until he died a long and excruciating death from tuberculosis. 

Images from effects of TB 1950

Ten years later, my mother’s sister, Thelma, was diagnosed with TB. My young mother was devastated. This was her beloved sister. Thelma had just started teaching when she became ill and was forced to quit. She, too, left the family home to convalesce in a sanatorium in Kerrville. Thelma died on Thanksgiving Day. She was 26 years old. I knew all of this family history in my head, but I’m not sure the enormity of it had ever registered in my heart.

My own mother was in her early thirties when they first discovered she had also contracted TB. As I sat and watched “The Forgotten Plague,” I could imagine the fear that coursed through every part of my mother’s being. The reality of her life began to take form within me.

In the early 1950’s my parents had two little girls, my older sisters. My father was an attorney for Humble Oil, now Exxon. My father spent much of his time working long hours, his profession was all consuming. After her diagnosis, a portion of mother’s lung was removed and following surgery, she followed in her father’s and her sister’s footsteps, leaving home to convalesce in Kerrville (the same sanatorium where her sister had died). What horrible fears she must have faced concerning her own fate. What sadness, did she experience, leaving her family? How did her faith enable her to walk this terrifying path? Mother never really spoke of these feelings, she only told of the facts, leaving me with so many questions. Oh, how I wish I now had the opportunity ask her. Mother’s health did finally improve, she did come home, and she became pregnant with me several years later. She was 37 years old. 

I have always known my rather exotic birth story. The doctors wanted mother to terminate her pregnancy, stating neither she, nor I could lead healthy lives. Mother’s story was that she and my father prayed fervently about “me” and, of course, here I am. 

There’s more to this saga. Mother was 6 months along in her pregnancy when the tuberculosis recurred. Again, she left her young daughters, and spent the rest of her pregnancy in Houston’s Methodist Hospital. She delivered me naturally. How incredibly difficult this must have been for her. She had a second lung surgery, right after I was born, and lived away from home until I was 8 months old, only allowed to have brief visits with her family. How does anyone live through this experience? What must my mother have felt? The sorrow, the doubt, the fear, the why’s? I never heard her speak of any of these feelings.

Mother survived and became amazingly strong and healthy. I never knew my mother as an invalid.  At 80 years old Mother was doing yard work that I couldn’t imagine doing now. The older I become, the more I admire my sweet mama for all she endured and overcame.

We were blessed that her story was a successful one. I am embarrassed to say that it never occurred to me to question the depths of what she must had lived through, that is, until I sat and quietly watched this documentary on PBS and saw the horrible toll tuberculosis took on so many.

I suppose my curiosity, my guilt, had caused me to ask these questions. Was this simply the way my mother functioned, or was this the way all children were raised in the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s? Were all moms like Beaver Cleaver's, June? Did all mothers exist only outside of themselves, so selflessly that their children never saw them as human beings? Was it just my own self-centeredness that causes me now to feel I didn’t know my mother well enough?

If only…the if onlys eat at me. If only I had understood the magnitude of my mother’s fears. If only I had asked her, “Who did you rely on during this uncertain, scary time? Was it a friend? Was it your mother? Was it my dad? Was it your faith? Explain to me in detail how you lived through this and survived? Show me how to live through life’s most difficult journeys? Teach me, Mother.

I will never know the answers to all these questions. I pray that my own children know me better than I knew my own mother. I feel that Brent and Brooke know me well, not only as their mom, but on a very personal level. I hope, during their lives, I have expressed to them, my fears, my dreams, my sorrows, my delights, my faith. I pray my children see me for who I am, not simply a mom, or a wife, or a mother, but a friend, a human with flaws, a child of God.

I’m thankful I accidentally scrolled across that PBS documentary. I’m appreciative that I learned more about the horrible toll tuberculosis took on victims, on families, on society. I feel like I have a better understanding of my heritage, my roots, my own sweet mother because I’ve spent these past few weeks grasping the truth, the devastation, the enormity of this forgotten plague.

I come from pretty good stock, while not perfect, I am thankful for a family, a heritage of faithful believers, of courageous fighters, and in one case, a mighty survivor.

For what it’s worth,

Proverbs 31:30-31  “…a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised. Honor her for all that her hands have done, and let her works bring her praise at the city gate.”