In February, 1972, my first wife and I, who at the time were living in the Riverdale area of Bronx, New York, planned a week’s vacation to visit our parents in Wilmette, Illinois. (Our families lived four blocks apart.)
I remember taking a cab to the airport and feeling wonderful that morning and excited about the trip. The plane was crowded. My wife took the window seat. I sat in the middle. On the aisle was a cheerful man at least seventy years of age.
Normally, I keep to myself on airplanes so I can get some serious reading done. On this occasion, I struck up an animated and pleasant conversation with the man on the aisle. I no longer remember a single word of what we discussed, only that it was a thoroughly enjoyable encounter, and that we talked most of the trip.
Airplane seats are close together. If you talk to someone next to you, you must either look ahead and not face your conversation partner or turn your head to talk, in which case you are in closer proximity to that person’s face than the unwritten protocols for granting private space would normally dictate. (When is the last time you carried on an extended conversation with stranger, your noses barely a foot and a half apart?)
My parents met us at O’Hare airport. While in the process of disembarking and picking up luggage, I noticed that I wasn’t feeling particularly well. My chest and nose had filled, my throat was raw, and my breathing was labored. My parents drove us to the house I grew up in, where we would stay. It was about a forty-minute drive.
In my entire life, I have never become so sick so rapidly as I did during the duration of that drive. I barely realized I was getting sick as I was leaving the plane; by the time I arrived home, although an old friend I hadn’t seen in years dropped by for a visit, it was all I could do to sit up in the living room and be pleasant for a few minutes before I had to excuse myself. Simply crawling up the stairs to get to bed required the greatest effort.
What had formerly been my old bedroom had been turned into a guest room with twin beds. I took the one nearest the bathroom and fell into it, while my wife wondered what on earth was going on with me and why I couldn’t make a bit more effort to be more sociable.
The reason I was not behaving sociably was because I was rapidly getting so sick that, in retrospect, I sincerely believe I came close to dying that night — and no one but me knew it.
Somehow I remember counting: Over the next two days, I left that bed only to crawl quite literally on my hands and knees the ten or twelve feet from my bed to the toilet to vomit — thirteen times. How is it even possible to retch that many times in such a short span?
If I had been in my right mind, I should have asked to be taken to nearby Evanston Hospital, where they probably would have slapped an IV on me because I was losing fluids. But I had fever, and all my thoughts were incoherent during that period, as all I could think of for hours at a time was how I was going to take my next breath.
My wife and family carried on, doing whatever they were doing, I guess figuring that I was being a spoilsport, unable to eat or drink anything whatever, or to leave my bed or even to sit upright even for a minute for three full days.
Part of the reason we made the trip was because my brother Dale was giving his senior cello recital at the University of Illinois, where I, too, had been a music student, and we earnestly desired to go down and hear it. And I wanted to show my wife the campus while we were there, all my old stomping grounds, and look up some of the people I knew while I was there. I had been gone only four years, and had been there for six, so there were still plenty of faculty and some graduate students around who had been my friends.
We were scheduled to travel to Urbana on the fourth day of our vacation. I wanted nothing more than to hear my brother’s recital. He had become an outstanding cellist, and I hadn’t heard him play since our wedding two and a half years earlier (when I didn’t exactly pay a lot of attention).
But when the time came, I didn’t want to go because I was just too sick. It was February, the weather was cold, rainy, and dismal, and while I was better than I had been the previous two days, I still couldn’t even sit upright indoors.
But my mother insisted that I go, because after all that was why I came all the way from New York. The deal was they would put pillows and blankets in the back seat, and I could recline the whole trip, but for better or worse, I was going to that recital. I resisted, but my mother would not take no for an answer.
It was probably premature for me to do that, but also good for me to force myself to move around and do things, as unpleasant as it was. By the time we got to Urbana, I was able to be up and perambulate.
I remember little about the trip other than visiting the mobile home Dale lived in on the edge of town; that the recital went well; that he played a Bach unaccompanied suite among other things; that his teacher Peter Farrell praised him to the skies; that we ate at my favorite old haunt, the House of Chin, where I ran into my least favorite teacher, the “composer” Herbert Brun; that we made the rounds the next day to say hello to whomever we could find, which just happened to include the girl friend who preceded my wife (and who remained a friend that I corresponded with periodically until she died just a couple of years ago); and that my wife seemed utterly bored by it all.
It took a full month to recover from that case of flu or pneumonia, or whatever it was, which I now regard as the sickest I have ever been in my life, so bad that I believe my life was in danger, but none of us even recognized it, including me. I could not have been much sicker and still be here to relate the tale today.
Which brings me back to the airplane. We know today that the closely confined space of an airplane cabin is a place to catch germs from other people. Given that I was healthy as could be when I left the house that morning, for years I assumed that I caught whatever it was from the kindly gentleman with whom I conversed. Later I wondered if perhaps it was the other way around, that I had something brewing.
What I will never know is if that man got sick, too, but I’m rather sure that if he did, given that I was not yet thirty, while he was at least seventy, I doubt that he lived through the weekend. Did I kill him? I will never know.