My first experience of isolation and social distancing occurred when I was four years old. Although I understand it now through the eyes of an adult, my recollection of the episode is utterly clear. I often picture it in my mind as a time before color was invented: not like the fuzzy vintage photos of the past, or with the warmth and romance of sepia I sometimes add to photographs I’ve taken. As an artist-photographer, I’ve taken all manner of photographs, but I’ve always been enamored of people as a subject. I like taking not the staid, posed sorts of photos that might be considered portraits, but candid photos when I’m not noticed, and in that way I sometimes capture images that will later be regarded as portraits. When I was shooting sporting events, rather than being drawn to the action, my attention was always drawn to the emotions and drama on the sidelines, on the bench and in the stands where the import of the contest was revealed. That approach to photography informs my life as well, and perhaps has shaped my reflections on a long-ago experience which – with the exception of the deep red of a handrail on the terrace outside my hospital room—was lived in stark, cold black and white.
The few blocks of the neighborhood where my family lived were inhabited by the sounds and faces of Black people – we were “Negroes” back then. The ramshackle houses had running water, but heating was coal-fired, and bathrooms were outhouses. Late at night, music drifted from a juke joint a block away. There was little to distinguish this northern Illinois community from the conditions in the deep South my parents had left just a few years earlier. Yes, we were poor, but the little kids like me didn’t know it. The concept of race was still alien to me. I knew we were different from the Polish owner of the neighborhood store where we bought our candy, or the Jewish couple who owned the discount children’s clothing store closer to the real city. But I gave no thought to the difference. I hadn’t started school yet, so I had few experiences or interactions that would encourage further thought about what it might all mean.
It was the summer of 1957; change was coming. We didn’t know it, but the county had urban renewal plans, and the local health department was vigorously canvasing the community. Our days of fun in the nearby woods and mercury-filled swamp would soon be over. In June, I was scooped up and taken away by the health department. It seems that my babysitter (whom my parents only used on the days my mother had domestic work) had tested positive for tuberculosis. I felt fine, and I exhibited no symptoms that I was aware of; I’d never had to tell anyone that I couldn’t breathe. I could breathe just fine. Nevertheless, I was whisked off to the county sanitarium, which would be my home for the next nine months. In my memory, the suddenness of my removal and isolation from my family was even more startling than the Covid outbreak we’re experiencing today. None of my three siblings were taken away. We weren’t “all in it together”; it was just me.
The sanitarium was an institution more than a hospital; even though it was considered architecturally revolutionary, its subway tiles, asphalt floors, porcelain, and stainless steel shouted that fact on every one of its three floors. The place lacked carpeting, pictures, friendly colors, and televisions, except in the day room. My room mirrored the institutional starkness of the rest of the facility, save for the bright sunlight from the tall and wide, south-facing windows. There was a narrow balcony with deep red steel railings that overlooked what seemed like part of a golf course, or maybe a soccer field. The glass door leading out to that balcony was always locked. I had my own bathroom, a child-sized round table and chair, and what I remember most: a wood-framed and upholstered chair. I had no radio, and I couldn’t read.
Only in hindsight do I realize how truly isolated I was. Worse, I could receive no visitors—none of my siblings were allowed to see me, and my parents were only allowed to visit twice a week. There were no other children there at the time, at least not in my ward. Aside from the janitor and one short-term patient, I was the only Black person in the hospital. Despite the kindness of the doctors and most nurses there – and I’ve often considered that kindness since then, in light of all that has transpired in my life since—I am certain that during my time there, I had my first encounter with racism.
Nurse Flood. I remember her as tall, dark-haired, and pretty; taller than the other nurse who sometimes came to take blood or bring my medicine. She would always talk, laugh, and smile with the other nurses, but she never engaged or talked with me the way the other nurses did, and she never returned my smile. I’ll never forget the crispness of her white uniform and the hat she and the other nurses wore; and, too, the coldness of her hands and fingers, which she used to dig into me whenever the opportunity presented itself. She did this most frequently during the first weeks of my stay, when I couldn’t stop wetting the bed. She’d make me stand naked and ashamed in the cold room while the bedding was changed. It was only after weeks of this that I began to wonder if it was because I was brown.
Fortunately, she was transferred or chose to work in another wing. The other improvement was the removal of the railed crib in exchange for a regular bed; the child’s crib made the place seem even more like a prison, and I resented it immensely. But there were other fears: monsters in the room and under the bed, lurking behind the slightly open bathroom door, even among my own toys. Worst of all, the doctors, nurses, and even my own parents refused to tell me when I would be allowed to go home. For a time, there was the fear of death, whatever that was. I’d seen people die on our TV at home, but those people always came back on another show. And then there were the nuns with their crosses, black hoods, and habits (which I’d never seen before). Whenever I saw them coming, I would hide under the bed and hope they wouldn’t find me.
I adjusted. Gradually, I began to feel death couldn’t be so bad; not because I was so miserable, but because its inevitability seemed better than uncertainty. I distinctly recall those thoughts, yet the longer I was there, the more they subsided. Gradually, I stopped quaking whenever a nurse entered the room. I understood that one nurse with a tray or a wheelchair was better than one with a cart, or two with a gurney. I grew accustomed to food that was totally different from what we ate at home. Like most hospital fare, the meals served there were forgettable. They differed in virtually every respect from home—in seasoning and in variety. I was not on a restrictive diet, but I saw no pizza or fried food; I was served stripped-down hamburgers, and I don’t recall ever having cheese except the cottage variety. I was introduced to casseroles, some of which I actually liked. The stainless steel lids covering each entrée promised something special, but I was never pleasantly surprised…not even at Thanksgiving or Christmas, both of which were spent in the hospital.
The adults in the day room never let me watch cartoons or Zorro; it was always sports or the news. One day when they were all watching the news, no one said a word about the images of Black people being jeered at as they walked with their books into a building that reminded me of the hospital I was in. Later I overheard the nurses’ indistinct chatter about “Eisenhower” and that he was sending troops someplace.
“Are they coming here?” I asked.
“No, baby,” a nurse replied. “That’s in Little Rock, a long way from here…It has nothing to do with us.”
As time passed, my fear was gradually replaced with curiosity. What did the nurses do behind that desk a few yards from my room? What happened when I pressed the red button on the wall next to my bed? Where were the other children? I was able to play; I was not in pain; why wouldn’t they let me out onto the broad front lawn? When toys no longer amused me, I plotted my escape. Of course, in my mind it wasn’t “plotting,” but I thought about it while I watched the changing of the shift nurses. I wondered how the elevator worked, and who was in the hallway and when. How far was it down from the second floor—could I survive that leap? One winter night, just after Christmas and near the end of my stay, I attempted to make a run for it. There were blizzard conditions outside. Dressed in my new bathrobe, a gift from the hospital, I made it as far as the front glass door in the lobby before realizing I didn’t know where I was and had nowhere to go. The few snow-covered cars parked outside appeared to be monsters, with frozen teeth where their grills should be. And they were waiting for me.
I stood there gazing out for a long time, clutching my Zorro action figure. Then I returned to my room, reconciling myself to whatever fate would bring, and settled in to watch cars come and go across the lawn and field. Every day, especially at night before bed, I moved my chair close to the wide windows in my room and gazed at the changing traffic lights at the main street, a quarter-mile away. I was entranced with the timing and regular changing of lights from red to green, and I tried to imagine where those cars might be going and who was in them. During the day, and especially during the spring and summer, I noticed more sports cars and convertibles. I could actually see the drivers and passengers, who I imagined were on their way to the beach or a cookout or maybe to the small carnival that always came to town. How unlike days of late, when we venture forth only to do the most essential things.
“Soon.” That’s what the doctor, the nurses, and the nuns (who finally caught up with me) would always say. “You’ll be going home soon; things will get better soon.”
I stopped asking, for I came to understand that “soon” means something quite different to those asking and those who have to answer. When are we going to be safe and well? When are things going to get better? These are the same questions I ask myself in isolation now.
Some memories of those nine months are murky, but I do recall the first person who spent time with me beyond my parents. I wish I could recall his name; I should remember it. I will call him James. He seemed like a James: earnest yet cool, even though I didn’t really understand what cool was. His appearance was somewhere between James Dean and Elvis, but much thinner. Only in hindsight do I understand what his frailness meant and what burden of illness he was concealing. All the nurses loved him. He would come to my room and talk to me about things kids were interested in. Sometimes he’d tease and ask if I had a girlfriend. We would both laugh. Once, James promised to give me a ride on his motorcycle when I got out.
I didn’t know how to respond when, after a long absence, a nurse finally told me he had died. He couldn’t have been more than twenty-four. After that, the only visits I had were from the older patients. They smiled when they were wheeled down to visit me. Their wrinkled hands, which felt neither warm nor cold but somehow used up, would grasp mine firmly as they spoke with me. I wondered why they bothered with me at all; in my shyness I’m certain I said and did the stupid things children do, but they continued visiting. When some of them died, I missed their visits, but I can’t recall with certainty what I thought, except that death came to young and old. I recall that I didn’t know what was wrong with any of us, and perhaps we were there because we were to die; but I wasn’t afraid anymore.
For four years now, I’ve been the primary caregiver for my ninety-one-year-old mother. It’s been difficult to watch her gradual decline and increasing dependence on me for the smallest of things. Though I was active and vital during my childhood hospitalization, I now appreciate how difficult each visit and leave-taking must have been for her. There came a time, late in my stay, when I could see the strain written on her face. I tried to tell her it was okay if she couldn’t come to visit each of the two days a week—an increase from the initial once a week—which were allowed. My mother and I have rarely discussed my experience during those nine months, but she has said more than once that she thought a mistake was made in hospitalizing me. We never received an official statement that I actually had the disease, only that I was a positive reactor. She has also recounted to me the days following my release, including a kindergarten parent–teacher meeting during which she was told that among all the children who colored in a mimeographed picture of a child in rain gear, I was the only one who’d colored the child’s face in all brown. It was an integrated class with white as well as Black children. Perhaps she thought my level of self-awareness was noteworthy.
I focus now on the way my mother and father were there for me, and how their presence strengthened me when I got weary the way children get in such circumstances. Now, on occasion, I see that same look on my mother’s face; that strain I sometimes saw when she visited me. Perhaps it’s the thought that she will soon be leaving us, leaving me; perhaps a concern for what she feels is the burden she’s imposing on me and, along with it, the thought that maybe death isn’t such a bad thing.
My experience with her and the current crisis are both giving me a better understanding of how fragile and vulnerable we all are, and how easily we forget what’s real and important until something stops us and demands that we change or be changed. I’m grateful that on my release from the hospital, I was able to return to a “normal” world—something that seems distant and in doubt in our pandemic world now. I have a different level of empathy for the immigrant children separated from their parents and loved ones…restrained by more than a red guardrail. Although I was in a foreign place, I wasn’t in a foreign land. I’m grateful I was never caged and that, on the whole, I was well-cared for by kind people. Through that experience—that til-now-forgotten lens—I see there was no diabolical conspiracy that isolated me. If the local health authorities erred, it was on the side of caution and concern for me, my family, and the community at large.
Yet I also know this about growing up: we may mature and put away childhood fears, but eventually we have to face the reality that there are indeed such things as monsters. We don’t cower under the bed because we aren’t powerless as children are. Unlike the adult patients, during those nine months of solitude, I had little more than my imagination and my memories to get me through each day. Did I lose something? Am I scarred? I don’t tend to think of it that way. I was changed; reborn prematurely, perhaps, but I’m okay. I’ve forgotten my earlier bitterness about what I lost and how different my life would have been if I’d started school on time and graduated with my brother. Yet I also see that little has changed around me. When I read about the violence perpetrated by individuals and institutions in positions of power and trust, I think about Nurse Flood and the hatred and violence she inflicted upon the child I was—none of which could be trained out of her, because it came from the heart. When I think about today’s protests for justice and change, I recall those Black students who became known as the Little Rock Nine, and the hatred and resistance they faced from people who couldn’t break from a cherished but wholly unjust past.
Very often, like many photographers, I aim mainly to capture the beauty, infinite variety, and subtlety of color all around me. Yet there are some subjects, and some truths, that can be exposed and rendered only in black and white. Sometimes the truth of a subject and its weight are revealed only by a sharp and unflattering contrast. I rarely photograph my mother; it’s difficult to do so undetected, and I know she only wants to be seen in the best light. But photographs are necessary—a witness to who we were and who we are. Once a week my mother is examined by a nurse here in our home, but she too is in isolation. Visits from my siblings and her grandchildren are restricted, and like I once did, she relies on her dreams and memories of better times. My mother has shared with me the dreams she had of growing up with her siblings when most of her life was still ahead and uncertain. She also talks about our life as a family with my father (who passed some years ago) and the times when – just like me – our household and relatives were the center of the universe. I’m sure she also realizes that much of the uncertainty is gone; all the deeds have been done and intentions met or unfulfilled. What we are left with is what’s in our hearts right now and how much of it we can share in the time we have left. I have learned not to wait.
For nine months, the child I was got poked, tested, and examined. The doctors and nurses listened to my heart, and in my solitude, I learned to listen to it as well. Perhaps that’s where the real work needs to be done: inside ourselves, in our solitude, where the most meaningful laws are written. We aren’t meant to be alone, or to distance ourselves from each other, hiding behind masks and building walls and barriers. Whether sick or well, we need one another.
I don’t believe children – unless in extraordinary circumstance – think about uncertainty. While their young lives are filled with curiosity, hope, and imagination, they live each day in a state of faith, not worrying about things beyond their control. It’s an innate and unconscious faith that brings them dreams each night and energizes their mornings. They don’t worry that the sun won’t rise – it always has. Even after a bad day, they tend to believe in and look forward to a new one. They see the world through a clear lens, without the bias and filters we later acquire. If we can recapture what really goes on in the mind of a child alone, if we can tap into whatever it is that children possess that we have lost, perhaps we can return to a world without the other sicknesses that have plagued us for so long.
A retired auto worker, Ken Massey resumed his journey in arts and letters at Northwestern University and earned an MFA in Creative Writing & Literature from the Bennington Writing Seminars. He currently resides in Zion, IL and pursues his life-long interest in writing, woodwork, visual arts and photography.
Image By: https://i2.pickpik.com/photos/290/41/244/corridor-hallway-floor-tiles-thumb.jpg