The cruel looking soldiers were hovering threateningly over a group of cowering women and children. I was out of ammo and unexpectedly I was face to face with the enemy. Immediately enraged I swung my rifle like a club at the closest soldier and he fell. Suddenly I had become a kilted slavering berserker, my red hair flying as I savagely beat and killed the remaining enemy soldiers. Blood streaked and breathing heavily I watched jubilant in my victory as the women escape with their children. My triumphant roar echoed across the sky.
I woke up with the sleep strangled cry in my throat, my heart pounding in my chest. It took me a moment to shake off the vivid dream. My aspiration was to become a soldier hero. My dreams were getting more dramatic and occasionally strange as I fixated on the prospect of killing the enemy and rescuing the innocent victims of tyranny.
It was 1918, the war was still raging in Europe, and I was considered a grown man - almost. At seventeen, I was old enough to go to college. I wanted to go fight in the war instead, but I was too young. I was beginning my freshman year and was hoping to sway my parents’ opinion that I should join the war effort when I reached eighteen.
In high school the main topic had been the war in Europe. Days after my sixteenth birthday the first American soldiers headed to Europe. Friends who had reached twenty-one were leaving to enter the service to fight. I was frustrated and jealous. When they changed the draft age to eighteen just before my seventeenth birthday I thought that I would get my chance. Other freshman college students left to join the service before being drafted making me even more anxious to go. There was no guarantee that I would be drafted so I was hoping that Mother would soften a bit and not be opposed to me volunteering. I really didn’t want to upset her but I was determined to go. The war continued to my perverse joy and my mother’s sorrow as I got closer to my eighteenth birthday.
Mother was against the war and the thought of me going was terrifying to her. She prayed everyday that the awful war would end before I was old enough to go. I hated that my ambition made her feel that way, that she would be hurt when I left. My father had never verbalized his feelings on the subject. I was unsure how he would react to me leaving for war but I had a sense that he would be proud of me.
My mother, Elizabeth Masen, was a tall, round faced woman with reddish brown hair that was more bronze than red, and green eyes. My father, Edward Masen, was a tall, dark haired, blue eyed man with angular features many years her elder.
I was 6’2” tall, and trim just on the lean side. Admittedly, I was skinny but I was muscular just misleadingly not muscular looking. I had my mother’s bronze hair and her green eyes. My skin was fair but not freckled. I had my father’s even temper and subtle grace. I also had his angular facial features and long thin hands and fingers.
My parents were both very intelligent, something I proudly inherited. I was very curious as a result, too inquisitive sometimes. As a consequence my curiosity frequently got me into some uncomfortable situations.
Although I had my father’s even temper and was slow to anger, once I became angry I could get irrational. It was something I had to fight. I was very good at reading people especially when it came to getting my way so I didn’t get angry often. I was strong-willed when it came to doing what I wanted, especially if someone else didn’t think I could accomplish it. Like my curiosity, my stubbornness at times deposited me in difficult situations. More often than not I was angry with myself.
My father and I were both Edwards but I was called Edward not junior. Everyone called my father Mr. Edward even my mother. He was a lawyer and worked long hours so he was gone much of the time. He loved my mother and me and made every effort to give us quality time when he was home. Our family passion was baseball and picnics so we spent much of our time together at baseball games. We also spent a few weeks in the summer at our vacation house on the east shore of Lake Michigan.
I was their only surviving child but they didn’t dote on or spoil me. Both of my two older siblings had died in their infancy. I felt loved by both my parents. They were very good to me and I did what I could to please them.
I had been good at figuring out what would please my mother since I was small. We were together alone a lot and I learned that good manners and courtesy went a long way towards making her happy. I loved doing little things for her; making her happy made me happy. There was something I could sense in her - a hum or vibration - and I’d tune into it when I wanted to find out how she was feeling about things I’d say or do. Without being whiney or spoiled I could usually persuade her to go along with most of my desires. Occasionally one of my ideas would strike her badly and her hum was out of my realm of influence and I knew I would never change her mind or it would be very difficult; my wish to become a soldier was in that category. Fortunately, when she was agreeable, I didn’t have to double up my efforts for my father trusted my mother’s decisions and went along with whatever she decided.
Father came home early from a New York business trip feeling ill and decided to stay home a few days. His illness became worse. When the family physician, Dr. Campbell, came by to check on him he had been ill for a few days.
“This may be that influenza going around but since Mr. Edward is a middle-aged man and healthy, there is no need to worry. This is usually dangerous to the very young and elderly. He should recover in a week to ten days.” He told my mother. He gave father some medicine and left.
The next day Mary the new housekeeper was ill and stayed home.
I stayed home from school and gave them my support. I was enjoying helping Mother out. College had to wait. Besides, a large number of ill students and professors caused many of my classes to be canceled.
A few days later we realized that Elsa our cook was ill. She stayed in bed in her room on the third floor. Mother took over the cooking. She was happy to do it because she actually loved cooking.
The morning newspaper had stories about the spreading epidemic and the rising death rate. Mother was worried now; father was wheezing and coughing more and getting out of bed less and less.
I was wondering if I needed to officially drop classes for the semester. If I couldn’t go back to school I would fail and would lose all of my tuition money on top of it. I could wait a week but no more to see how things went at home.
Dr. Campbell came back with more medicine for father and Elsa.
“They are young and healthy,” he said dismissedly. “There is nothing to worry about; they will get better in a few days.”
Mother and I were taking care of Father and the cook. I assisted my mother by doing more housekeeping chores and the laundry since the housekeeper was still ill.
It was unseasonably cold for September even for Chicago. Normally the furnace wasn’t on this time of year and when it was, Father and I usually traded shoveling coal into the furnace. It was up to me now to keep the house warm. I had to hang the freshly washed clothes to dry in the basement. I spent a lot of time running up and down the different sets of stairs with food, clean laundry, forgotten items, and furnace duty.
Climbing the stairs a dozen times a day was wearing Mother out. I was doing double that or more and it was starting to get a bit wearisome to me, too. In the afternoons, Mother sat with father and I sat with Elsa. We would chat, and she tried to sing with me but she mostly coughed. I read to her while she drowsed or slept. It was cold on the third floor and she couldn’t get warm even with the extra blankets I brought up. I was getting worried about her.
Mother couldn’t assist Father when he got too weak to walk on his own, so I had to help my father to the bathroom. The one large bathroom for the house was on the second floor by the back staircase down the hall from their bedroom and next to mine. Occasionally his uncontrollable coughing bouts would bring us to a standstill in the hallway. I could only stand there supporting him as he struggled through the racking cough. A few times I had to clean the floor afterward. When he became too weak with fever to leave his bed I got the onerous chore of emptying the chamber pot, which, come to think about it, was the lesser of the two disgusting jobs.
Two days later I talked my mother into letting Elsa go into the hospital for care. She was almost too ill to make it down the stairs to the bathroom on her own. I knew she needed more care than we could give her. I, too, was feeling the illness take hold. I had a sore throat, cough, headache, and fatigue, so I told Mother I refused to carry chamber pots down from the third floor.
Dr. Campbell visited again that afternoon with medicine but he seemed to be ill himself. After checking Father’s and Elsa’s condition, he used our telephone and called an ambulance. He wanted to send my father, too, but he refused to go.
The ambulance arrived within an hour and took Elsa to the hospital. I was relieved she was gone not only because she would get better care but since Mother’s illness was worsening, I needed to be there for her now.
Mother was ill but wouldn’t slow down. Father needed her and her strong-willed nature wouldn’t let her rest. Her cough which had been slight at first and had gotten worse as the week went on.
I kept up with her even though by the end of the week I was feeling the illness’s increased effect on my body. She was obviously weakening, her coughs were increasingly debilitating. Her trips down the stairs were fewer and though she was still cooking we weren’t eating much. She stayed upstairs to keep her strength. After more than ten days, Father was still feverish and lethargic. He didn’t seem like he was on the mend to me.
That evening we were expecting Dr. Campbell to visit when the bell rang. I was in the parlor playing the piano to entertain mother. It wasn’t a very good concert since I had to stop frequently when my coughing got too rough. I walked to the entry hall and looked up the stairs. Mother walked only two steps down the stairs to greet our expected visitor. She nodded her head and I answered the door.
It was raining and a man in a dark overcoat and hat carrying a doctor’s bag stood at the door. He had a pale handsome face and looked like a very pleasant man.
“Good evening. I’m Dr. Cullen. I am making Dr. Campbell’s rounds. He is ill and can’t make house calls,” he said professionally and sort of efficiently foreign. He had a light British accent.
“Come in.” I stood back from the door and invited him in with a swoop of my hand. “Mother, Dr. Cullen is here. Dr. Campbell is ill,” I said formally, looking up the stairs at her. “I knew he was.” I muttered under my breath.
She looked at him oddly surprised at first then she smoothed her expression.
“Very well,” she sighed. “I’m Elizabeth Masen, this is my son, Edward. My husband Mr. Edward is upstairs. This way, please.” She turned and pulled herself up the two stairs with both hands on the railing. She stopped at the top and turned to look back down the stairs, waiting on us to follow.
He sat his bag on the entry table and removed his coat and hat. I politely took them and hung them on the hall tree.
His smile was friendly as he picked up his bag and motioned for me to proceed. He followed me up the stairs, keeping his eyes on my mother. I kept glancing back at his pale face and noticed a small smile like he had remembered something humorous.
I kept looking at him trying to figure out how old he was because he looked too young to be a doctor. I thought they had sent us a rookie, a rookie doctor from another country. I tried to be offended but somehow I liked him. Maybe it was his smile but there was something familiar and soothing about him that I liked.
Mother was wheezing a bit as she sat in a chair just inside the door of Father’s room. She stifled her coughs as she watched the young doctor.
“Hello, Mr. Masen, I’m Dr. Cullen. Dr. Campbell is ill and I’m following up on his patients tonight. Let’s see how you are doing,” he said with a small smile as he pulled his stethoscope from his bag. “He wrote a note that he wanted you to go to the hospital and that you declined. Let’s see how you have done here at home.”
He checked Father over, listening to his heart and lungs and checking his temperature and pulse. I stood at the door watching curiously, he seemed to do a thorough job even if he was a rookie.
Father let the doctor move him around and didn’t try to assist the exam. He wasn’t coughing as much but I didn’t know if it was good or bad. Father kept his eyes on Mother managing a slight smile once. When the exam was over he lay back on his pillows and closed his eyes with a sigh.
“Mr. Masen, you need to be in the hospital. Your lungs aren’t getting enough oxygen to your body and your fever is dangerously high,” Dr. Cullen said his smile gone.
Father, eyes still closed, shook his head no. My father could be stubborn too.
The doctor turned to Mother. “Your husband is very ill. He needs to be in hospital. You may need to be there soon yourself,” he told her sternly.
He walked over and held her wrist to take her pulse. She looked down at his hand holding her wrist then up to his face for a moment before her eyes returned to father.
“No, we will stay here,” she said watching father’s shallow breathing.
“Mrs. Masen, you are ill. Let the nurses take care of your husband. I think he may have pneumonia and he is dehydrated. He needs the extra care,” Dr. Cullen told her softly but exasperation was apparent in his voice.
He pulled out his stethoscope and attempted to listen to her lungs but she waved him away.
She got up and moved slowly across the room to sit in the chair next to Father’s bed shaking her head continuously. She didn’t take her eyes off of Father. He heard her sit next to him and sighed with another negative shake of his head.
“No, I can take care of him here. Hospitals are…cough…full of sick people. He will get better at home…cough…Edward will help me,” she stated resolutely glancing over at me continuing to stifle her coughs.
I could see and feel that she was determined. I knew her ‘stubborn’ hum. I wouldn’t be able talk her into letting the doctor move my father when he didn’t want to go.
I backed out into the hallway, sighed at her stubbornness and hung my head. I turned toward the stairs, and shook my head at the situation. She was afraid of the hospital. I knew they needed to go but I also knew when she was like this nothing short of imminent death would change her mind.
I was listening to mother’s ‘stubbornness’ when I heard a strange new hum in the air. Curious I turned toward the noise and flinched when I saw Dr. Cullen standing in the doorway looking at me questioningly. I shrugged my shoulders and tried to smile, it came out a grimace. I stifled a cough and backed away from him and his stethoscope; the ‘curious’ hum was coming from him.
He leaned toward me as I retreated and took a deep breath. He looked at my face carefully and nodded his head. He returned to the room to address my mother.
“I will leave his medicine and yours,” he gestured to both of us, “and I will be back tomorrow morning. Make sure you all drink plenty of water and get some rest - both of you. Please,” Dr. Cullen implored warmly and ended with a frustrated sigh.
I was back in the doorway watching mother as he spoke. She looked at me then at the doctor.
“Um,” she sighed and for a second a blank look came over her face like she was lost in thought before she nodded and looked back at my father.
Dr. Cullen pulled two bottles from his bag and wrote on their blank labels. Watching him write on the bottles I looked up at his face and thought that he was probably a great father. He was caring for us with warmth but also like we were disobedient children. I wondered if he had children.
“Follow the instructions,” he said sternly as he handed them to me. I nodded and sat them on the table just inside the door of Father’s room.
I led him down the stairs.
“There’s no way she will let him go,” he stated quietly, shaking his head knowingly.
“Only if she is so ill she can’t be his nurse, then she will but not until then,” I assured him. “Or if he’s dying,” I added stifling a cough.
“I hope the latter will wait,” he said sincerely. “I will be here early in the morning to check on you.” He retrieved his hat and coat.
“Ok. We will see you in the morning. Thank you for coming,” I said letting my question about children go unasked.
“Take your medicine.” He said as I held the door and let him out into the night. The damp chill in the air made me shiver and I suddenly felt worn out.
I turned the key in the lock, turned off the lamps and wearily climbed the stairs. I returned to the bedroom doorway to stare at my mother and father. They both looked pretty sick. His words bothered me very much. I had an ominous feeling and it made me shiver.
“Here’s the medicine.” I took the bottles from the table and handed them to mother. I didn’t read the instructions, I was suddenly too tired.
“Goodnight Mother, Father,” I said. I smiled and kissed her cheek and patted my father’s arm.
“Goodnight, son.” She smiled back stifling a cough. She sat the bottles on the table next to her.
Father was asleep, his wheezing snore was shallow.
I went to my room and changed into my nightshirt. I left my clothes where they landed on the floor and I collapsed onto my bed suddenly exhausted. The room was cold, I’d forgotten to add coal to the furnace but I pulled the thin bedcovers over me and I fell asleep almost immediately.
That night a high fever struck me.
I was standing on an iceberg watching a polar bear dive after a seal. I was shivering; the notebook in my hand was shaking as I tried to make my notes. I had taken off my gloves to write down my findings. I looked around and my gloves were missing. I saw them lying on another iceberg. I tried to jump across the gap but fell into the water. I struggled out of the freezing water and crawled onto the pack ice. Shivering, my teeth chattering, I started walking toward an igloo. Suddenly I doubled over with a pain in my chest.
I woke up coughing and shivering beneath the bedcovers I had fallen asleep under. I pulled up my knees and pulled my night shirt down over them and rolled up in the thin covers trying to get warm. I tossed and turned shivering uncomfortably for a long while unwilling to get up for a thicker blanket when I finally fell asleep again.
I was hacking my way through the jungle, exotic bird and fierce animal noises all around me. The hot and humid the air was stifling. Sweat was dripping down my arms and chest. I pulled my kerchief and wiped the sweat from my forehead.
Ahead in the distance the growl of a jaguar alerted me to draw my gun to bear. I looked around, I was alone. Panicked I called to my expedition partners and got no answer. Slowly I headed toward the jaguar’s growl my sight impaired from sweat dripping into my eyes. Suddenly I doubled over with a pain in my chest.
I woke up coughing violently, burning with fever and wet with sweat. I unrolled the bedcovers from around me kicking the damp cloth to the floor. My cough was worse; I couldn’t catch my breath for a while. I dragged cool air into burning lungs and wheezed. My ribs hurt from the muscles straining against the coughing spasms. Each breath, if the wheezing didn’t bring on another coughing fit, was a miracle. I didn't know how long I lay there coughing and gasping for breath.
My night shirt was soaked with sweat. My body was burning with fever and the pain in my head was horrible. Sleep evaded me. Every time I moved to sit up I coughed and struggled for breath. Finally rolling into a ball lying on my side I rode out the coughing fit. As the coughing spasm died down the chills struck me again.
My sweat soaked night shirt was a problem; the dampness was making the chills feel so much colder. I rolled off the bed thinking if I didn’t sit up I wouldn’t cough and that I would find my bedcover on the floor to wrap up in. I made it to the floor without triggering a cough but instead of the damp cover I found a quilt folded neatly under the bed. I gratefully wrapped it around my body and lay curled up on the floor. Still shivering in the quilt I saw the recognizable shape of a chamber pot under the bed. I was tempted to use it for a moment but my earlier urge was gone. Restlessly shivering and coughing I fell into a light sleep.
Before dawn I woke up coughing violently again, muscles pulling my ribs into painful spasms and chills running down my spine. I stayed curled up, my knees almost touching my chest; it helped to ease the pull of the cough.
I could hear my mother coughing also, but my father was strangely quiet. I couldn’t hear his wheezing snore. I caught my breath and was drowsing again when I heard my mother’s voice. I was alert instantly.
“Edward,” Mother called to me in a weak voice. “Come.... wheeze…and help me. I want to get your father upright, he is having...cough…trouble breathing.”
I was confused when I realized I was on the floor. I struggled to my feet holding my ribs together; they were burning in my chest even when I wasn’t coughing.
My feverish mind was thoughtless as I reacted to my mothers call. I didn’t put on my robe and I left my quilt lying on the floor. I was weak and my legs were unsteady. It was still dark outside but I didn’t turn on my lamp; I depended on the dim light of the hall lamp near the stairs to find my way.
During the short time it took to get up from the floor heat replaced my chills and a feverish sweat broke out all over my body. I headed to my father’s bedroom, stumbling down the hallway holding on to the wall. Sweat was beginning to run down my body, soaking my nightshirt under the one arm wrapped tightly around my ribs.
As I got to his bedroom door I had little strength left in my body and my knees buckled. I fell against the wall and slid down it. I hit the floor with a thud. I couldn’t breathe without wheezing and the wheezing led to coughing. The sweat on my forehead ran into my eyes and stung; tears ran down my face and onto my shirt. I shivered on the cold floor in my damp nightshirt next to the door, raggedly breathing between coughs.
My mother was sitting on a chair next to the bed facing the door. She gasped when I sank to the floor. That gasp started her coughing and she couldn’t seem to catch her breath either.
Sitting on the floor I twisted around to the edge of the door frame and looked in at my mother and father. She hadn’t changed out of the clothes she had worn the day before. I couldn’t tell if she had even gotten out of her chair. She looked awfully frail as she gasped for breaths between coughs. Father lay very still on the bed, I could see him breathing but it was very shallow and weak. His face was very pale.
It was then that I realized we weren’t just sick, we were extremely ill. I remembered the doctor’s reaction to my comment about my father dying. I panicked. I was really worried we would all die before the doctor could come and save us.
“Mother…wheeze… we have to get some help, neither one of us can help him,” I managed to get out before a short spell of coughing.
She nodded wearily and stared at me bleakly.
“Edward, I don’t think I can stand,” she said softly, breathlessly.
I cringed at her words wondering if it were true for me also.
“I’ll go,” I stated and determinedly pushed myself up with my remaining strength and stumbled toward the stairs, wheezing with each breath.
As I left she turned back to resumed her desperate watch over her husband.
I pulled myself down the dark staircase slowly, hanging onto the banister rail. I had to stop several times because coughing fits ripped the strength from me. My ribs were on fire as I leaned over the railing hoping to maintain control over my body until I could continue down again.
I made it to the bottom of the stairs and stood holding on to the newel post. I was feverishly wavering whether to go to the telephone or try getting someone’s attention on the street when another coughing fit racked my body. Gripped in the midst of coughing spasms I had no control as my full bladder suddenly gave way. I was horrified and humiliated as the fever heated liquid ran down my legs and spread on the cold wood floor at my feet but there wasn’t a thing I could do. The coughing finally subsided as I clung to the newel post resting my fevered forehead on its cool surface.
I cursed under my breath. I believed I was ready to collapse.
I wanted to scream or cry. I’d never felt so helpless.
I was able to breathe for a moment, my arm wrapped around my chest holding my aching ribs and barely standing, when a miracle happened. The bell rang - someone was at the door.
Desperate I eagerly lurched toward the door. My body jerked ahead of my unsteady legs. With one large wobbly step my feet slipped out from under me on the wet smooth wood. Off balance and without the strength to right myself I fell striking my head on the edge of the entry table. I cursed loudly as I hit the floor on my side, one arm still wrapped tightly around my ribs.
My head was swimming and my chest burned as I rolled over onto my stomach. The curtained window let in enough light from the street lamp that I could see the dark stain of blood dripping from my head onto the floor as I struggled to push myself up to my knees.
The bell rang again.
I heard a gasp and looked up and back to see my mother’s face leaning against the bedroom doorframe, her hand over her mouth. Lit by the hall lamp I could see the color drain from her face. I could only imagine what she saw and what it had taken for her to move to that spot.
Our only hope was for me to get to the door so I struggled forward on my hands and knees. Blood was filling my eyes but I knew I was close. I reached up, wiped the blood from my eyes and saw the doorknob. I grabbed it and pulled myself up to sit on my knees. I turned the key and opened the door.
Through the small opening I saw the new doctor. Relief hit me like a hammer and I sank back to the floor and began coughing again.