Growing up in a large family meant reliable exposure to sickness of one form or another. With five boys and four girls running around, even mild illnesses tended to resemble plagues as multiple members of the family would contract the illness at the same time. While the diseases and injuries were rarely enjoyable, they did keep life interesting, much in the same way typhoons broke up the monotony of the tropical year in the Philippines. Besides, amongst the kids, bouts with sickness and scars gave one a sense of distinction.
The most heralded virus in Gray lore began with a piece of candy, a piece of candy from strangers no less. These outsiders were local children beyond our fence who happened to have hepatitis. Esther, who was only three, contracted the disease when they generously shared their candy with her. At the time, Esther also had an affinity for the taste of toothpaste, an addiction that she fed by making her toddling rotation around the house, perusing the bathrooms where she sampled each accessible tube, regardless of brand, flavor, color, texture, or expiration date.
Normally, this odd craving was harmless, if rather disgusting, but once Esther was infected, her compulsion provided a medium for the pathogen to spread. Before long, every faithful hygienist in the family joined the club of sallow skin and amber eyes. My parents naturally contracted the severest cases, and eventually Dad was checked into a local hospital. Every other member of the family who was of teeth-brushing age caught a milder case, everyone that is except for Enoch and me. We never got hepatitis; we didn’t brush our teeth. This is likely the only story in existence where not brushing one’s teeth actually pays off.
I was immensely concerned by my unaltered health and worried that I was going to be punished for not being sick; my wellbeing attested to my disobedience. Should I confess? Or perhaps I should concoct some tale whereby I dutifully risked exposure but escaped unscathed, much like Paul described believers drinking poison or handling serpents, a sign of election and divine favor. Maybe I was healthy simply because God loved me better. Enoch, for his part, indignantly maintains that he kept his own secret stash of toothpaste, though evidence sustaining this claim was never provided. All these worries were needless in the end. My parents, simply grateful that some of the family members escaped, never thought twice about how.
Since sickness usually spread through the family at an accelerated rate, it was typical for an impromptu sick unit to form, normally in close proximity to the bathroom, because, as the saying goes, “Misery loves company.” The makeshift hospital became a collection of blankets and pillows where we kids entertained ourselves by analyzing literature, like Paradise Lost or The Wasteland, and we practiced our bard skills by telling tales from yore—our concept of yore spanning, at most, a decade. The experience resembled a slumber party: we were left to our own devices for the most part, drank Sprite or 7-Up, and watched the occasional movie, all in the unadulterated company of our closest cohorts. While we had crackers and toast rather than pizza and chips, the larger differences were that everyone went to bed early and someone threw up on the hour—on the bright side, Sprite and 7-up taste just as good the second time around.
As time went on, our revelry would increase, the boon of companionship filling us with pleasure greater than the sunshine we never saw. The worse the epidemic was, the longer the festivities extended; it was a wonder we didn’t get sick on purpose. When health returned, we were genuinely depressed. During at least one particularly joyous case of the flu, my brothers and I kept a tally of who had puked the most or experienced some other pleasant bodily function. As the number of journeys to the bathroom grew in frequency, the competition grew quite fierce, with wagers being made and prizes assigned for the greatest feats of self-degradation.
It was likely during one such contest that one of my younger brothers pounded at the bathroom entrance while I was inside, hollering that he had to be let in at once. When I opened the door, he pranced in and proceeded to rip off all his clothes—at that age he felt the necessity to remove all encumbrances before utilizing the latrine. Then, stark raving naked, he leapt from his position toward the toilet seat a few feet away, doubtless attempting to match some Olympic record. Much as his acrobatics were to be admired, his timing was imperfect, and he left a delicate russet trail in route to the porcelain throne. Thus the term “toilet jumping” entered the Gray vernacular.
Considering that the Philippine Islands compose a two-thirds world country, it’s no surprise that excursions into Filipino hospitals were rarely pleasant which is why my siblings and I were hospitalized only under unyielding circumstances or emergencies. I was born in a Manila hospital within my parents’ first years in the Philippines. During her stay, Mom was shocked when her dinner included a bowl of soup with an entire fish head; little did she realize that she had been given what was culturally the prime cut—an opinion with which I actually concur as the most tender and flavorful meat is located on a fish’s head.
A few days later, Mother called the nurse into her room and asked, “Could you please dispose of my mouse?”
“We don’t have any mice,” The nurse answered.
“No. The mouse over there, on the sticky paper.” Mother insisted. My father had set up the trap the night before at Mom’s request because she’d observed a frequent visitor of the rodent kind.
On that same visit, Mother also discovered that the nurses were often negligent—going to a hospital was sometimes akin to checking into an insane asylum or living in a pet shop. Not only did the nurses insist that I be kept in a special room with dozens of other babies, but when Mom visited she discovered the nurses gabbing away, oblivious to the fact that I was coughing up blood.
Even just before my birth, there were complications. When Mom was in labor, one of the nurses, unaware that my father had been cleared to enter the delivery room—which a husband is not usually allowed to do in the Philippines—insisted that my father stay outside. Dad, who had attended the births of all his children, was unwilling to consent. Still the nurse remained obstinate, physically blocking him from entering the room even though my father loomed above her. Finally, my father, the missionary, politely informed her, “Lady, I have never hit a woman, but I am bigger than you, and I’m coming in.” She moved.
After such an experience, it was quite rational that next time Mom was pregnant she opted for a midwifery clinic and later home births. The home births, however, were not without adventure. When Mom went into labor with Abby, my Dad transformed the living room into a theater showing a documentary of the Civil War, in order to keep the kids entertained, while the adjacent master bedroom was transformed into a hospital ward where Mother contended with childbirth. My sister, Anna, who was still a teenager but had some midwifery experience, tried to contact the physician on our unreliable telephone. When her efforts proved futile, my father went to confront the device.
On the march back from placing the call, Dad was distracted by one of the climactic battle’s scenes. Transfixed, he stood there in the demilitarized zone between the Civil War and the nearby birthing watching the cannons sound and the casualties mount, oblivious to Mother’s calls, which melded with the cries of the dying. Scarcely a few feet away, amidst the shrieks and gore, Mom’s labor intensified, right during the heart of the battle of Gettysburg. Where a nurse failed in her fiercest efforts to keep my father from witnessing the birth of his child, a VHS tape almost succeeded.
Eventually however, Dad returned to the bedroom where my mother was on the verge of childbirth. The doctor still had not arrived, so my father rushed to the master bathroom to wash his hands. While he was away, Anna caught Abigail as she was born. The doctor showed up not long after, and it has long been postulated that Anna actually dropped Abigail when she was born, explaining Abby’s occasional blond tendencies.
Not all health complications were the result of natural causes like childbirth or diseases; many of them were mishaps of one form or other. Some of them were accidents or the result of carelessness and others the byproduct of sibling rivalry. On a jeepney ride up the side of a volcano, when Caleb grabbed a piece of grass, its fine edge ripped into his finger, requiring stitches. Likewise a duel with plastic baseball bats sent me to the hospital with a hernia; sadly the scar from my hernia surgery, given its location near my appendix, wasn’t one I could showcase.
Ultimately some of my siblings’ injurious experiences stand above the rest, deserving special recognition. Amongst several of the missionaries in the Philippines, it was common to annually assign an award to those who suffered the worst incident. In the same spirit, I think it reasonable to acknowledge some of my siblings’ best efforts in the area of bodily injury.
The award for Most Graceful Injury goes to Esther. As a child, I was once practicing the piano in our living room when Esther began pestering me to play with her. True to form, she was not to be dissuaded and kept pleading for me to join her for a game of Ring Around the Rosy, until I finally complied out of exasperation. Only as we spun round and round, I went so fast that when we fell down, Esther knocked her two front teeth out on the tile floor.
Our first response, quite naturally, was to reinsert her teeth. How were we to know they wouldn’t, like plants, simply regrow their roots? Thankfully, Esther’s permanent teeth grew in a few years later. In my defense, it is worth mentioning that the loss of her two front teeth did cure Esther of any problems she had with biting others.
Enoch wins the award for Finest Showmanship. As a small child, his attempted career as a stuntman began with him slipping in the bathtub and splitting his chin open. Later, he placed a piece of paper on our tile floor, ascended the nearby stairs, and attempted to leap onto the flimsy target. His aim was perfect, but his understanding of physics was lacking: the glossy sheet shot from under him, landing him on his chin and needing medical attention yet again. Enoch reopened this wound at least seven times.
Still, Enoch’s exploits were far from done. As a teenager, he gave a fascinating demonstration, resplendent with gore, to his friends about how to properly utilize a machete. He selected a branch, trimmed it of twigs, placed it upon the ground, prepared to cut it in two, and ended his display by nearly hacking his thumb in half, which required a handful of stitches. Lastly, Enoch’s fine antics on a trampoline landed him in the hospital with a broken arm. However, it is only impartial to highlight that this final performance would have never been possible without the assistance of Caleb who gave Enoch momentum in the right trajectory.
Lastly, the award for Best Victim goes to Josiah, though he would never have earned this award without Nathan who doubtless escaped injury only because of his firm belief that it is better to give than to receive. One day, Nathan’s argument with Esther about her hairbrush ended with Nathan throwing the hairbrush onto the top of a shelf that stretched all the way to the ceiling. Esther demanded that Nathan retrieve it or she would tell Mom, so Nathan began free climbing the shelf. Josiah, ever the faithful companion, came along to help. They managed to secure the hairbrush, only to discover that they had no idea how to descend. While Nathan panicked, Esther began shouting commands about how to descend. “There’s a foot hold under your left foot. Stretch for it. Now let go.”
Josiah, not realizing these instructions were meant for Nathan, let go, fell several feet, and split his lip open on the corner of a chair.
Similarly, a few years later, Josiah found himself the victim yet again when he and Nathan got in a scuffle over who was going to sit on one particular chair, though naturally an identical chair was merely a few feet away. Both of them were perched atop the coveted piece of furniture when it toppled over and fell, with the grace of an obese water buffalo, on top of Josiah’s foot. The impact shattered his big toe—Josiah’s big toe that is, not the water buffalo’s—splitting his toenail in the process. Josiah, it would seem, has a rather unfortunate love-hate relationship with chairs: he loves them, and they like to damage his person.
After the injury, Enoch calmly decided that the first course of action was to make sure that the wound did not get infected, so he sat there for the next fifteen minutes squirting hydrogen peroxide onto the injury while Josiah writhed in pain. At some point, I believe this plan stopped being about sanitation and started being about entertainment. Even after surgery and a full recovery, Josiah’s toe remained slightly misshapen and the mention of hydrogen peroxide produced great fear and trembling.