We called them epidemics when I was young – the polio epidemic, the diphtheria epidemic.  Whooping cough was something most children got, and the cough itself lasted for months. Measles was common as well. And I remember being taken to a doctor’s office at night when I was about four for an experimental vaccination against diphtheria that was administered with a needle into the stomach.  Afterwards, my sisters and I vomited all night long.

Quarantine signs were put on houses or wards, not on entire towns or countries.  It seemed then that we barely kept track of what was going on in the next city let alone on the other side of the world, though pictures of people with polio in iron lungs were in newspapers, newsreels, and magazines.  Every family knew someone who had that crippling illness. To escape it, a friend of my mother took her only child to live in a tiny town called Tehachapi out in the California desert, but the little girl caught it anyway. For some reason I was sometimes allowed to swim in public swimming pools so full of chlorine that my eyes were red for days. As an adult looking back on that time, I wrote this poem.

Dead Man’s Float

 A watery visitation

some tripped switch,

and you plunge

to a time when

swimming pools bred polio,

smelled like vats of bleach,

burnt out the eyes

of buoyant eight-year-olds

with rubber bones


when the same water that could

lift in silken hands

could close its fists

with as little need to ask permission

as the moon to phase


when pennies on the bottom

might have been pure gold,

so far outside your reach

in depths you knew

could love you to death


when wrinkles on your fingers

tracked the time, held

premonitions of old age.

You practiced it

and a dying person’s weightlessness,

how it would feel to slip right off the planet.


From The Quiet Woman Wakes Up Shouting, 1998, A Folly Cove Chapbook Original


What does this have to do with aging and the creative process? Quite a lot, really. Those of us who have been blessed with a long life have more fodder for our creative endeavors, more ideas to draw upon, and often more skills with which to approach a project. The old man or woman sitting in a rocking chair telling stories is stereotypical because so many of us have a treasure trove of tales we want to share, pictures we still want to paint, plays or pieces of music we have yet to write. Today, during this quarantine we didn’t expect or choose, is a very good time to tell, paint, dance, sing, or do whatever else expresses our particular story.  It may be the most auspicious time there has ever been to do our creative best.


The Cradle Will Fall pastel 14”x11″

4 thoughts on “Pandemic

  1. Hi Pat.

    I love this. Polio was the big scourge of my childhood too, everyone terrified because they had no idea where it came from. I think I was a young teenager when we lined up at school to get sugar cubes with the Salk vaccine. So matter of fact. It seemed impossible that an ogre that had loomed over everything could be vanquished so easily, took a while to take it in.

    My grandmother mentioned the Spanish flu, and they were quarantined for smallpox. I of course had all the childhood stuff, but that was totally the norm at the time. And penicillin only came in when I was very young, so my parents and grandparents were rightly terrified of anything infectious.

    Despite all the technical progress, I feel like the actual medical care I got was much better in my childhood and young adulthood than the impersonal factories I pass through now. Though when I lived in Arlington, I was totally happy with all my experiences at Lahey Clinic. They seemed to combine the best of current information and technology with caring, engaged doctors. I can’t quite find that here, not the personal connection.

    How are you doing? I’m managing fine, and Seattle is a good place to be right now—good state governor, things in general liberal and progressive. It’s the awful, awful man in the white house that depresses me and makes this all worse.

    I love getting glimpses of you online and in your postings.

    Take care,



  2. Hi, Sharon. It’s so good to hear from you and to know that you’re safe and well. We also have a good governor for these precarious days. Our demented leader definitely has blood on his hands and I can’t wait to see him replaced and led off in hand cuffs. I hope your solitude yields more wonderful poems. xoPat


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