I had pneumonia. I was in the care of the good doctors and nurses of Saint Vincent’s hospital in Green Bay, Wisconsin. I was eleven years old and it was Christmas time. A crappy time to be sick. It was the first time I tried onion flavored cottage cheese and Baby Ruth candy bars. One after the other, which should have made me even sicker but somehow didn’t. This is that story.
The cause of my right lung filling with bodily fluid was most likely attributed to the fact that I’d walk to school with my hair still wet every morning and on the way home, stop at the ice rink and play hockey or just skate around with my pals. I had a hat, I didn’t wear my hat. I was an idiot. I got sick. So sick that while my family, including the extended family that had come to visit from out of town, all went roller skating, I slept on the recliner in our living room.
I don’t know which adult drew the short straw to stay home with me, could have been my mom, but by the time everyone came home from a night of disco music, popcorn, cokes and pizza, my breath was shallow and labored. My lips were turning blue and it felt like someone was blowing bubbles inside my chest.
I was taken to the hospital.
I want to say I was there for two weeks. I can’t be sure. I do know I had a roommate for a while, two to in fact. I also had visitors. Lots and lots of visitors. Neighbors, classmates and family. One family members visits always stood head and shoulders above the others. Uncle Paul. Or as the family called him… Brother Paul.
Uncle Paul was my Mothers brother. He might have stood five foot eight inches tall, bald shiny head, a brash orangish-red beard that almost hid his bigger than life smile. He seemed to always be in a good mood and had an inappropriate joke for every occasion. He lived in a farm house, drank Yukon Jack, Heineken beer and smoked Camel non-filter cigarettes. He seemed to love life, women, art and basketball all with the same amount of passion. His house was littered with books.
I mean littered. You couldn’t sit anywhere without having to move a stack of books or magazines of some sort. If something peaked his interest he had to devour it. He had to know everything about it. He had to understand the where, why and how of it. Or so it seemed to me.
When he came to visit me he always had a present for me. A model. A book. A magazine. A story.
However; in this case…
“Skipper! You awake?” Uncle Paul’s voice called from the hallway outside the half closed door of my hospital room.
“Yessiree! It’s Me!” he exclaimed as he kicked the door open. His beard looking like he had the sun stuck on his face.
I smiled and waved.
“I brought a snack in CASE you’re hungry.” He said as he raised his arms showing me a large cardboard box.
“What is it? What is it?” I cried out in adolescent excitement.
“Well, it’s something I know you like and it’s something I like as well. So, I figure we could share it together. Like a picnic. We can pretend we’re at the park or on the porch at my house and that it’s summer time. That’d be nice. Right?”
“It sure would be. But I’m not that hungry, everyone keeps getting me to try and eat but the food here stinks.” I pouted.
Uncle Paul pulled the bed dolly up to the bed, slid a chair between my bed and the window and placed the box on top of the dolly, pulled out a pocket knife and cut open the box. He reached inside and pulled out a carton of cottage cheese and handed it to me with a goofy grin on his face. “All for you. A whole case of cottage cheese. I know you love it.”
He was right of course. I reached out pale and shaky hand and took hold of the cool plastic container and read the label aloud “Chive Flavored Cottage Cheese. Uncle Paul, what’s chive flavored cottage cheese?”
The twinkle in his eyes seemed to falter a bit but not extinguish. “Well Skipper, it’s like onion. You like onions right?”
“Yeah, I do. Guess I need a spoon.”
“Got it covered.” My uncle exclaimed and magically produced two spoons from seemingly nowhere. “Care to share?”
We dug into the first container but after two bites I couldn’t eat anymore. It tasted foul. Sour. Expired. Bad. I wanted to gag. I suppose my uncle picked up on my distaste for his treat because he said he’d had enough and put the container back in the box with the rest of the containers and then put the box on the floor.
“Excuse me a moment Skipper, I think I forgot something in the hallway.”
As he walked away I tried to drink as much water as I could to get rid of the rancid taste of chive flavored cottage cheese in my mouth.
“I’m sure this will be much better.” He exclaimed entering the room for a second time. He was holding a case of Baby Ruth candy bars above his head. The sun on his beard couldn’t hide the beams of light emanating from the smile behind it.
He sat down in his chair, produced his knife and we both splurged on chocolate and salty goodness.
I went home soon after this event. But the gossamer memories of my youth that keep bubbling to the surface of my life seem to make the coarse reality I live easier to swallow.
Have a great week.