When Did You First Understand the Meaning of Love? (Submitted to Real Simple contest)

When did you first understand the meaning of love?

It was mid-December 1956 and my father arrived for his nightly ritual of feeding me my supper in the isolation ward of Linden General Hospital in Brooklyn, New York. I was five years old and could rely on him coming every single evening despite the fact that he was working three jobs. “Daddy”, I whispered, “there is gristle in the meat” as if I wanted to be sure no one heard my complaint. He reassured me that it was okay and he would remove it before I ate it. I secretly relished him actually cutting my meat and feeding it to me forkful by forkful. It felt nourishing and caring to me and I can remember sighing dramatically, while eating. Then, I reassured him that I was okay despite being alone all day because I always had “Joanie the Bride doll” and Louise- The-Red- Headed-Nurse who came with me to x-ray every morning. I chose not to mention how loudly I screamed each morning when she came to give me my daily shot of penicillin. In my tender young heart I sensed his exhaustion and stress and I did not want him to worry more than necessary.

My father had plenty on his plate. He was a parking meter collector by day. He trudged through the relentless, summer heat and the cold, snowy winters collecting the dimes from meters for the City of New York. By night he sold Fuller Brush and Baby Tender high chairs at home parties. I was particularly taken with the wind up teeth he would launch at the beginning of each party to get a laugh and relax the crowd enough to spend their money. His weekend stint consisted of knocking on the doors of delinquent customers in a city housing project, attempting to collect money owed for “religious statues.” Even as young as I was, I remember thinking there was irony here in owning and supposedly praying to a large plaster statue of The Sacred Heart of Jesus, or Mother Mary in prayer, that remained unpaid for! It was a dangerous and grueling business; since these customers never had the money they owed and threatened his life regularly.
My mother was nine months pregnant and became ill with a serious case of strep throat. She never once came to visit me during my month long hospital stay. Labor finally began and my baby sister was born on December 18, 1956. My grandmother was busy tending to my grandfather in yet another hospital since he had just suffered a heart attack, so she couldn’t visit me either. Somehow, my father made the rounds to all three hospitals every day.

My diagnosis of pneumonia did not come easily. After many visits to Dr. Bursen and Dr. Willens (the official doctors to the East New York housing project children) and many frustrating misdiagnoses of possible dust or chocolate allergies, finally one of them realized I had pneumonia. I had missed most of kindergarten sick at home, wheezing and sneezing for weeks on end. I would awaken in the middle of many nights, sure that I was dying, unable to draw a breath. I would call, “Daddy, Daddy, I can’t breathe.” He would always come, dazed and half asleep to rub Vicks Vapor Rub on my chest. Then, he’d sit on the edge of my bed until my gasping slowed and breathing returned enough for me to fall back asleep. So, when I finally received a real diagnosis, it was a relief. However, in those days, pneumonia was a pretty serious illness so I was admitted to an isolation ward, at five years old.
I spent a lot of time crying alone in that metal hospital bed, hour after hour dreading the shots that made me holler and the daily x-rays. I played endlessly with Joanie and acted out her wedding on a daily basis. I tried to draw pictures of ladies the way my mother did. I never could and my mother never showed up to teach me the skill. Louise, the nurse with the red hair, was sweet and would chat with me about my doll in the mornings before she got too busy.

On New Year’s Eve, I was declared well and discharged from the hospital. My new sister, Alice, was now two weeks old and home with my mother. I couldn’t wait to see her. My father came to the hospital from work, picked me up and wrapped me in a navy blue and red English wool blanket with fringe all around it. To this day, 55 years later, I can feel and smell that blanket. It was coarse but soft, firm but comforting and very warm. My big, strong daddy carried me out into the freezing night and the cold, fresh smell is one that stays with me to this day. When I looked up at the lamppost I saw a torrent of snowflakes and stuck my tongue out to catch one, giggling all the while. I felt free for the first time in a month and I was as ecstatic as a five year old could be. Most of all, I felt completely loved and rescued, burrowing my face into my father’s shoulder and the cozy blanket. Whenever I think of that moment, being carried to my chariot, my father’s 1951 Black Chevrolet for the ride home, tears well up, my heart races a bit, and I remember that I was loved.