When that doctor in Texas went on the record saying measles is “really just a fever and a rash,” the barking laugh that’s grief in disguise barked its way out of me.
My family’s measles story is old, older than I am. I’ve told it to my friends among the local homeschooling moms, many of whom don’t vaccinate their children. I’ve told it gently, because I know exactly how it feels to be on the receiving end of other people’s concern about my parenting decisions. As far as I know, none of those homeschooling families have had to contend with measles in person. Long may their luck hold. But when I imagine those moms, and their descendents unto the fourth generation, struggling in the way we still struggle, I feel that maybe it’s time to tell the story more completely.
I care about measles for the same reason I write ghost stories. I’ve written before about our family’s principal ghost. She died long before I was born — before there was a measles vaccine — but here is one thing I know firsthand: after 63 years, there’s still a hole in the universe where she should be.
My older son is just the age Carolyn was when she died of measles complications, and I understand haunting better all the time. My kids, who sometimes ask why they have to get vaccinations, know a tiny bit about haunting, too. My mother spent the seventh year of my life expecting death to come for me any second, because that’s how her mother tried (and failed) to forgive herself for losing Carolyn: Every mother loses her first child at seven.
That my maternal grandmother said this often is an indication of how deep into the bottle she crawled in the immediate aftermath of losing a child. She never made it back out. When we lost Carolyn, we lost my grandmother, too. She kept her brilliance and her drive, but lost her humanity. It was not a mercy, to anyone, that she lived two more decades without it. It was especially not a mercy to her other children.
Perhaps you’ve read Roald Dahl’s recollections of his daughter Olivia, and what he urged parents to do to spare themselves the grief his family suffered. Measles encephalitis is rare, but it is real. It’s not just a thing that happens on the other side of an ocean. It’s not just a thing that happens to famous-and-therefore-semi-mythical people. Worst of all, from where I sit, it’s not just a thing that happened in the bedroom my mother shared with her big sister in 1952. It’s a thing that happens in our world right now, and it’s a thing that will probably happen in my own country this year.
Is it selfish of me if I pray that when it happens, it doesn’t happen to anyone I know personally? Is it invasive of my homeschooling friends’ karma if I pray that they vaccinate their kids while there’s still time? If so, at least my ancestral spirits have reason to be patient with the shortcomings in my prayers.
Carolyn came to me when I was out taking my evening walk a few nights ago. She hadn’t visited me like that, present almost to the point of visibility, since the big measles outbreak on campus when I was a grad student. (Of course, suggestible creature that I am, I get visits from the family ghost when her malady is in the news. That’s one of many hazards of cultivating a mind that’s maximally porous for the absorption of story.) She wanted what any seven-year-old wants who has been lost too long. She wanted to hold my hand.