A few years ago, I witnessed an interaction between two of my nephews that resulted in a moment of pure blinding insight into my own childhood.
We were staying at Mr E Man’s sister’s place over Christmas, as were his other sister, her husband, and their two boys. The host family also have two boys, and the four cousins were thrilled to not only be staying together, but also skiing together. However, on the morning of the planned group ski, we all got up early to find the host sister already up. She looked rather haggard and bleary-eyed, and held a deathly pale, snivelling, coughing wreck of a kid on her knee. It turned out that he’d caught the cold that had been going around, and had been up all night coughing. His mum had just told him that he was too sick to join the rest of us on the slopes, and he was understandably devastated – not just at the loss of the day of skiing with his cousins, parents, brother, and assorted aunts and uncles, but also because the news had made him cry in front of his cousins.
The younger brother appeared in the room.
“What’s wrong with [name]?”, he demanded of his mother.
“You must have given him your cold, sweetie”, she answered. “So he can’t come skiing with everyone today”.
Well, the sick kid lost it. He yelled at his little brother for making him sick, causing the little brother to start bawling in turn. Sobbing, he managed to get out “I’m so-so-sorry… I didn’t me-me-mean it… It wasn’t on pur-pur-pur-pose…”, but his big brother continued to tell him that it was all his fault that he couldn’t go skiing.
And that’s when it hit me…
Little kids don’t understand how illness is spread!
That sometimes it just happens!
That it’s not deliberate!
Suddenly, I saw some aspects of my relationship with my parents and sister in a completely different way.
You see, when I was barely two and my sister was just a few weeks old, I caught whooping cough (aka pertussis). I was very sick – but the real problem came when my sister caught the disease from me. At such a young age her body just wasn’t able to cope, and she ended up in an incubator in intensive care.
We almost lost her.
As you can imagine, this illness was very traumatic for my parents, especially as it took my mum a good few days to convince the doctor that she wasn’t just a neurotic new mother and that there actually was something very, very wrong with her baby. As a result, the story of How Your Sister Almost Died was a major part of our family’s oral history as I was growing up; even though I don’t remember the events themselves, I feel as if I do, because I heard the stories so often from my parents and Nana.
Now, the thing that really hit me when I saw my nephews playing the blame game was that the way I was always told the story was, “well, you got whooping cough, and then you gave it to your sister, and then…”
“you gave it to your sister”.
By the time I was old enough to really think about the story, I obviously understood that I accidentally gave my sister whooping cough. That it wasn’t deliberate. However, when I first heard the story, and for probably quite a few repetitions of the tale over a number of years, I was too young to grasp that, and no doubt understood that it was my fault that my sister almost died.
I’m fairly sure that I internalised that sense of responsibility and the inferred blame that came with it, and that this affected my relationship with my immediate family. But I really didn’t understand all this until I saw my nephew blame his brother for making him miss a day of skiing.
Now, I’m sure we’ve all heard stories of people being tried and convicted for deliberate infection of their partner(s) with HIV – in one local case, the perpetrator was convicted of aggravated sexual assault, and quite rightly. Fortunately, such cases are rare. Sure, people might pass on viruses or bacteria through negligence or lack of understanding of the routes of transmission – by failing to wash their hands, for example. However, most transmissions of infectious disease are no doubt purely accidental, and indeed unavoidable.
I just wonder if maybe we should be explaining this to kids…
…after we vaccinate them against whooping cough, of course.