May 15, 2020
Thirty years ago tonight, when I was sixteen years old, I fell ill with bacterial meningitis, falling into a coma by the wee hours of the morning. Over the next six days, my family and friends didn’t know if I would wake up and, if I did, if I would speak, eat, or be myself. And on the sixth day (May 21), I opened my eyes and saw my father next to my bed. I asked him if I had missed my algebra class, and I remember his teary, happy answer that I had, indeed, missed school.
It would be weeks (months? years? forever?) before I was fully out of the hospital, fully back on my feet, back in school, back in anything that could be considered “normal.”
And, yet, I am here. I am here because of Atlanta teenagers who died of meningitis leading up to my sickness, making it a constant news story. I am here because my dance teacher, Ms. Sandy, didn’t teach us dance the week before, after the death of someone we all knew, and instead she had us all sit together, exploring our sadness and talking about the signs of meningitis. I am here, in other words, because I was lucky enough to know the symptoms of the illness I had.
The day I got sick I was taking an AP chemistry exam when my fever spiked, and my neck, back, and hands cramped up. I turned in the exam, and I failed it (although pretty much anyone can tell you that the chances of my passing a chemistry exam at full health are slim as is). I called my dad from school, telling him about my fever. He asked if I could drive home, and I said I could. The drive felt like it took hours; I was shaking and sweating and shivering. I went straight into my parents’ bed as soon as I got home, cuddling up with our pile of dogs. My parents had dinner plans that night with our family friends Liz and Henry, my older sister Samara was sleeping at a friend’s house, and my little sister Sarah Anne went to bed early with a migraine. Even knowing what meningitis was, we all thought this was a typical child’s virus. We were wrong.
And, yet, I am here. I am here because my friend Shoshannah, whom I called because I was scared and alone, took me seriously when I said I was sick and called her pediatrician, who said I should go to the hospital. I am here because, after many phone calls to the restaurant where they were dining, after repeatedly begging the maître d’ to go get my parents, they answered. I am here because Samara’s friend Tracey did not hesitate to come to our home when I told her I thought I had meningitis; she was, luckily and tragically, already on preventative medicine due to her proximity to the person who had died, the person who had inspired our dance class talk. I am here because my pediatrician stopped his poker game and told my parents to take me to the hospital, that he would meet them there. And I am here because of Scottish Rite Children’s Hospital, because of my ICU nurse Lynn, because of an advanced medical system that took care of me, that knew what to do, that had access and resources—and space—to help me. I am here, in other words, because the people in our lives took my illness seriously, and the medical system near us was able to take care of us.
And, beyond the physical health, I am okay. My family is okay. We are okay because we have each other, but more than that, we are okay because we had community. Linda, our chosen auntie, came to our home at 3:00 a.m. to let my mom join my dad and me in the hospital. It is because of her that I was able to hold my mother’s hand when I slipped into coma. Billie, another auntie, showed up at the hospital by 6:00 a.m. More followed, crowding the hospital waiting rooms. Dr. Frankel, the principal of my former elementary school, started tehillim, or prayers for the sick, across the Jewish world. People of all faiths—and many without any faith at all—prayed for, thought about, hoped for me. My parents and sisters were loved and sustained—I am told there was more food than an army could eat—throughout our time in the hospital. Friends took care of the details of our lives. My closest friend Katy came to my hospital room as soon as I could have visitors, and was famously consigned to the doorway after knocking my IV out not once, but twice. Friends and extended family rallied around us and held us up for weeks (months? years? forever?).
Thirty years. Today it has been thirty years since this community saved my life. Since all sorts of people in my world paid attention to what was happening around us, took responsibility for and care of each other, and saved my life. Thirty years since I took for granted—and my family took for granted—that there would be space for me in the hospital, that the disease had a treatment, that the doctors had support, that we knew what beast we were dealing with.
This morning, my seven-year-old son, Harry, woke me up. I made breakfast and snuck in a New York Times crossword with coffee. I put away the dishes and took out our dog, Clara. I texted with my sisters and parents, the first of approximately five-dozen texts we exchange each day. My husband Heiko popped his head into the kitchen, in between conference calls. I checked my work email while Harry played Legos, and I tried to sneak in more work while he sang Hamilton at the top of his lungs. (Oui oui, mon ami, je m’appelle Lafayette!). We went for a bike ride, stopping by to drop off treats in the mailboxes of two friends, passing the houses of dozens more we adore. We joined a drive-by, socially distant birthday dance party for another friend. Right now, Harry is in the kiddie pool, still singing Hamilton, as I write this (‘Onarchy? How you say? How you say? Anarchy . . .). Tonight we will toast a retiring colleague on Zoom, we will have dinner, we may watch a movie.
We live in the midst of the unknown, where we feel indebted daily that our families are still healthy—we know it could change in a moment, and we feel only too aware of how many have died, of how disproportionately some communities have been impacted, of how horrifying this pandemic is. We live in an increasingly dark and desperate America in the middle of the ever-changing landscape of COVID-19, with seemingly endless scary struggles ahead of us.
A world in which I am reminded daily—and today more than ever—that the ordinary is extraordinary.
In lieu of payment, our friends and contributors to the Corona Correspondences are dedicating donations to nonprofits and independent businesses in their communities. Minkin’s contribution will be directed to Sewanee Community Chest.