[Alternative text to poppy photo: The California poppy is an ornamental annual plant that flowers in summer, has distinctive cup-shaped blossoms formed by 4 bright orange or yellow petals at the top of green stems of 8 to 12 inches (20-30cm) tall with 2 or more small feathery green branches. As a wild flower, it can grow widely in huge numbers. Color variations have been cultivated.]
It is a terrible thing to be very young and be facing a family disaster that you barely understand and have no ability to prevent. But this is where I found myself when I was 6 years old and my 4 year old sister was dying of a double bacterial infection that the doctors were failing to defeat.
My parents did not really accept the notion that their kids had to be sheltered from bad news and hard topics. Thus when my sister, Linda, was essentially catastrophically mugged by two bacterial assassins, one from the streptococcal (of strep throat fame) and the other from the staphylococcus families, they brought me into the conversation and tried to help me understand how much trouble Linda was in. Mom helped me recall them with the much easier phrase of “strep and staph”.
Linda’s infection landed her in an isolation ward of Hillcrest Hospital, Petaluma California in 1961 where mom and dad, with protection, could visit her while the doctors tried to find a way to save her life, but oddly, they would not allow her 6 year old brother to come into her room. I was not pleased. My sister was dying and I wanted to see her.
My parents understood my plight, but rules were rules; but sometimes, especially in my family, there were ways to comply but get what you wanted another way. Ah – Mom and Dad, I like the way you think. . .
I need to ask my array of aunts, because I think one of them watched me while mom and dad went in to visit Linda one morning but afterwards, I was distressed at not being able to see my sister so mom and dad gave me another lesson in creative compliance.
Hillcrest Hospital, shockingly, was build a top a steep hill where West El Rose Drive and Hayes Lane met and Linda’s room provided her with a grand, almost 100 degree, panoramic view of the lower hills of south west Petaluma. Outside her window was a slope of hillside overlooking Hayes Lane. At the time of Linda’s stay, this hillside was covered with the rich orange blooms of California poppies.
Mom and Dad decided that I was entitled to see and talk with Linda because we both needed to be cheered up and Linda’s survival was still an open question and this might be a nearly last time for us to see each other.
I don’t recall what she or I said because, the bacterial attack on her face was so monstrous that I was frightened and nothing I could think of to say seemed to have any value. There was a mass of swollen and infected tissue that covered a vertical half of her face leaving only one eye and her smile uncovered and visible. Mom and Dad, wisely, did not want us too close, but the window was open and Linda was able to stand in the window and talk with us. My sister naturally has the strength to smile through almost anything and I well recall thinking, ‘how can she smile with that mess on her face?’
So I got my visit, but Mom and Dad did most of the talking. I felt powerless to help, useless and weak. Mom helped by suggesting I pick some wild flowers for Linda and, for this I was beaming with thanks, because it was something I could do that might in some small way, encourage Linda.
Off I went, dashing around that slope, picking long stocks of the bright orange blossoms until I had a big (for my 6 year old hands) handful. Mom miraculously produced a vase when I returned (I was just beginning to learn how I should never play games like chess with my mother – she was always many moves ahead of me). Dad received my handful of flowers with a big smile and said something like, “wow, you should be more careful son. Picking so many might kill all the plants on the hillside.”
I have no idea why Dad’s quick quip stuck with me – but it did and I looked back to the slope and hoped, earnestly hoped, I had not accidentally picked too many. I did not know that poppies were so fragile and that somehow over picking them would destroy a whole hillside of the parent plants.
You have to recall that, at the time, I had the scientific brain of a curious 6 year old and was given to, shall we say, snap conclusions, and what happened next was both ridiculous and wonderful.
The day of Linda fighting off her infection turned into a few weeks and the seasons relentlessly unfolded. One day, close enough to Linda’s stay at Hillcrest Hospital, mom drove us past that hillside and whenever she did, I glanced up at that hillside to check on the health of that small field of poppies. On this day, I was shocked and horrified to see that the poppies were all gone. Not one orange blossom could be found.
Lacking a seat belt (again, it was the early 1960s) I quickly spun around in my seat to look out the back window of the car and my stomach sank as I realized that dad was right and I had accidentally killed off the whole field of poppies. How could this be possible? Did poppies somehow share one common root system and if enough of the flowers are picked, it somehow starves the whole system of some nutrient? What had I done?
It was a demoralizing body blow to a kid who was already distressed over his sister’s illness. All I wanted was to pick some flowers for my sick sister. I didn’t know how fragile these stupid flowers were and that this could happen.
Okay, I see some of you snickering already, but this hit me hard when I did not need another hard truth, so I just sunk back into my seat and felt terrible.
But, from this point things got much better – fast.
Penicillin had been around for about 3 decades but for much of that time, it was hard to grow and was not well understood, but the medical researchers knew they were on to something great and so studies in both the UK and US were moving fast to refine both the production and refinement of penicillin and in the early 1960s, Linda was saved by one of the products of this research and progress. A variant of penicillin became more widely available and was being released for general use and more important, the strains of Linda’s infection, like many today, had not yet developed resistance to this new miracle medication.
When Linda received her shots of this wonderful byproduct of bread mold, both of these thug bacteria died off in just a few days and my sister was saved.
As life in our family returned to normal, the statute of limitations forcing me to be nice to a sick sibling finally expired and Linda and I quickly got back to harassing and annoying each other without mercy. Whew!
Then, my own lugging around piles of guilt for past deeds, was also lifted the following spring when someone, most likely mom, drove us past Hillcrest Hospital again, which I hated doing because it always reminded me of my role as the Hitler of poppies, but today, “Wow – look at that! The poppies are back!”
The whole hillside was again a blaze in orange and the God of young boys had somehow restored the hillside to it’s pre-Gary-assult glory. I was absolved of my part in the disaster of last summer.
It took a few more year for me to realize – oh – poppies are an annual thing. So I didn’t really . . . Never mind me. I’m going to sit here and feel stupid for a few minutes.
Regardless of the useless luggage of feeling like a flower-killer for a while, poppies still remind me of how close we came to losing my sister one year and how thankful I am that a bunch of doctors we’ll never know worked so hard to develop the medication that saved her life.