Growing up in The Old Citadel, during the 1950s, we could very well have been inhabiting a medieval fortress, with its foot-thick walls, sixteen-foot ceilings, deep window wells, tall windows, and dark cavernous halls. My friend from across the courtyard grew sick with a disease the doctors couldn’t diagnose for the longest time, until they hit on the idea of typhus, one of the scourges of densely packed port cities like London or Naples. Rats would swarm off ships from the Levant or Orient, my mother said, and I’d picture a ground-level tide of dark bodies, long tails held out behind them, as they searched for houses to invade. As my friend lay quarantined in her second-floor apartment, I stared across the courtyard in her direction, caught by the silent drama of fear and salvation, suffering and attention. Especially once a dead rat was discovered decomposing in the wall beside her bed, her condition commanded my daily curiosity. Lice had found their way through the wall and bitten her as she slept. I had no idea what lice looked like, nor was I particularly worried that these creatures would bite me, though my sister and I sported all kinds of mosquito bites.
What became imbedded in my psyche was the drama of the ill, sequestered to a dim room and quiet bed, over which hung a ministering angel, mother or doctor or both. In those days, doctors still made house calls. A doctor never visited us in the Old Citadel that I remember, but our doctor in Mount Pleasant, where we moved when I was thirteen, often climbed the stairs to my second-floor bedroom. I would turn a feverish face toward the door and find his handsome form silhouetted against the light, then feel the cold stethoscope against my chest and his fingers feeling for swollen glands under my jaw and down my neck. This encounter in my pubescent years no doubt carried some sexual charge, though I was too weak and bleery to take note of it. Rather, it was the swoosh of outside air that accompanied his entrance, his bulk and promise of a cure that I associated with his visit.
My mother was also a crucial player. Her energetic efficiency contained a perpetual promise that life would continue. My father, the “emotional Italian,” to use her words, could convey none of this. He would sigh and rub his forehead, let out a slight moan as he sat down, Saturday morning, at the kitchen table. We were still living in the Old Citadel, and as I ate my Rice Krispies, listening for the “snap, crackle, and pop,” I’d catch his voice bemoaning the loss of “la bella Rosalia,” his mother, who had died recently, aged only 58 or was it 62? Death drew from my father and transferred to me a sorrowful melody, even tears. He taught me that after death, life was charged for the survivors by a drama of mourning. That deep, melancholy sigh.
That illness and death could inhabit drama and literature I also learned, early on. With my parents, we walked down King Street to the Gloria Theater for a filming of “La Traviata,” Verdi’s intensely beautiful and dramatic opera about the high-class prostitute Violetta, her reform through love for Alfredo, but then, with the connivance of his father, her abandoning of Alfredo for the brilliance and danger of high living. Eventually, of course, she lies dying of tuberculosis, the quintessential 19th-century illness, and in glorious voice, is reunited for one last duet with Alfredo.
My younger sister and I were entirely smitten with Violetta’s dying. Camping out in our parents big bed, we played Violetta dying and her maid attending over and over. I think it was Violetta’s languor, coupled with her power over the maid about, that appealed to us, too young to recognize or attempt an entry for the penitent Alfredo and the ecstasy of their last embrace.
Now, decades later, halfway across the country from Charleston and almost as far north, I return to that childhood fascination with the drama of illness. And I remember Dickens’ Bleak House. Perhaps I’m the only reader who finds the core of the book in Esther Summerson’s long illness. Esther is half-narrator of the book, orphaned and taken up by the kindly landowner John Jarndyce. She has had numerous adventures and encounters, come to love Jarndyce’s other wards, cousins also bedeviled by a Chancery Court case which will not be settled. Then, almost dead center in the highly convoluted, crowded world of Dickens’ book, Esther becomes gravely ill and lies for many days almost lifeless in Mr. Jarndyce’s country house.
The cause is her goodness: she has befriended Poor Tom, a street-sweeper/beggar who has followed her from London into the country where she finds him gravely ill. Perhaps he has smallbox, yes now that I remember, it is smallpox, because even in her modesty and submission to the welfare of others, Esther will worry, once she begins to recover, that she will be disfigured by the pox. But before she is capable of such anxiety, her goodness guides her to bring Poor Tom into the lower reaches of Mr. Jarndyce’s house, and soon to be herself infected. For days, weeks, she lies almost insensible while cared for by another young person she’s befriended. Mr. Jarndyce who has come to love and adore her is disconsolate. All who hear of her illness mourn her fate. Except she begins to recover. Eventually able to sit up in bed and study herself in the mirror.
There we are again: the gravely ill young woman who has won our hearts, and her devoted maid, the threat of death and the prolonged uncertainty, mixed with beauty, of her care. In Esther’s case, a miraculous recovery occurs, allowing me to revert to girlhood, trade places with my sister, and let her play the sleeping beauty, the caring and admiring “second sister,” and the bliss of lying back, exploring the options of slipping away or rousing oneself to carry on.