Hanging Laundry on the Line
January 1969: The pandemic infected an estimated 500,000 Hong Kong residents, fifteen percent of the population. In the United States, approximately 100,800 people died.
Everyone was taking about the conjoined twins, Daisy and Violet Hilton, who had died of the Hong Kong Flu. To me, a fifth grader in Holland, Michigan, they were old, sixty, and everyone seemed to be dead by then. All the talk was about how their boss called the police when they didn’t show up for work and the police found them dead at their home. Daisy died first, and poor Violet, attached to her dead sister, died a few days later.
On my block, everyone also talked about the girl, just a couple years older than me, who had just been visiting her grandpa two houses down the street, before dying of Hong Kong Flu. “She was so young,” the mothers sighed.
Then they started to take back their clothes
Hang ’em on the line
It was January the thirtieth
And everybody was feelin’ fine
—Bob Dylan, “Clothes Line Saga,” 1969
Taking a break from hanging up laundry, the neighbor women gathered to talk about the last letter they had received from their sons, and how the warships were being shot down, and no one knew a damn thing about who was alive or dead, and these sons were my neighbors, my cousins, and they all seemed heroic to me, not for going to Vietnam, but for being old enough to date, old enough to drive, things I longed to do.
And then I became one of the thousands who were infected with Hong Kong Flu. Some 100,000 Americans died of that flu that year, while almost 12,000 American soldiers died in Nam during that same time period, and everyone was in turmoil because the soldiers coming home on leave were bringing this deadly flu with them, and everything was so fucked up, but only the folk singers used such words, while the mothers just wept.
One day during the Hong Kong Flu saga, after I had fainted, my mother lifted me back to the army cot in the dining room, a room that was seldom used, and never for dining, but kept me somewhat quarantined from the family, and sobbed, “I’m supposed to die before you.” I wondered if getting well would make her die sooner or later. I never imagined me dying first.
I was so damn tired of death lingering everywhere.
Several years before Hong Kong Flu, a neighbor friend’s mother died of cancer. Walking past her house with my mother, I asked how old their mom was because she didn’t seem that old. “She was only in her thirties,” my mom mumbled. I said, “Oh, I didn’t know she was that old.”
She stopped walking and faced me. “That’s not old!”
And then my thirty-year-old mother realized her doctor was wrong and her fear was correct: She had breast cancer, not a chest cold, and she, too, would die young, the same way her mother had died of cancer when my mother was ten.
Sometimes things are just facts: Both my grandmothers died of cancer while my parents were young.
I wrote letters to my cousins and neighbors in Vietnam, to the boys I didn’t know but whose names were in our church bulletin, to the sons of my teachers, and they wrote about sunsets and camp dogs and asked about my dog, and they talked about missing their mothers, their families, and I asked my cousin—who finally learned how to swim so he could avoid being drafted into the Army and instead join the Navy—if he swam in Vietnam, and he said he was mostly on the ship, and he avoided asking me about my mother the same way I avoided asking him about sinking ships.
One day a neighbor girl who had been adopted into a rather shitty family at the end of the street, well, the father was shitty, as many fathers seemed to be, but she had come from Korea, and the hushed word on the street was that her parents died in the Korean War, so living with the neighbor man may not have been so bad. But one day she stopped in front of my house, looked me in the face while pointing her finger at me warningly, and said, “Your mother is going to die.” I pulled her finger back and spoke slowly, so she’d understand my words. “No, she won’t die,” I said as her finger broke and I knew I was not speaking the truth.
In the early ’60s, there was “another America”: forty to fifty million citizens who were poor, who lacked adequate medical care, and who were “socially invisible” to the majority of the population.
My brother, sister, and I climbed the steps of the fire escape at the local hospital, and our dad opened the door from the inside as we snuck into our mother’s room one by one, all too young to officially visit our mother because someone decided children needed to be thirteen to visit their sick parents. I remember holding my mom’s hand and breaking down crying, devastated by her suffering. My dad dragged me into the hallway and told me to quit being so selfish. “How do you think she feels seeing you crying? This is why kids can’t come inside here,” he hissed.
The next town over had a single-story hospital. My mother went there next and someone would crank open my mother’s window so we could speak with her for a while from the lawn. She never got out of the bed but waved, smiled a bit, and then we moved away from the window, never certain that I’d see our mother alive again.
When the cancer outgrew her local doctor—the man who had insisted she had a chest cold, and then removed her breast—he sent her thirty miles away to a much larger hospital with better doctors. At that time, our father’s General Motors health insurance didn’t cover cancer for spouses or family members, maybe it didn’t cover it for employees either. The third hospital, in Grand Rapids, did allow kids to visit their sick parents. We went into the windowless basement, and our mother’s bed was one of many, in a large room filled with people who were unable to cover their medical bills.
We learned from asking our dad after a night of drunken gambling, if he had won, and when he hadn’t won, which was often, he became enraged, so we didn’t ask our dad why our mom wasn’t in a real room.
Sometimes I feel like a motherless child
Sometimes I feel like a motherless child
Sometimes I feel like a motherless child
A long ways from home
—Anonymous, traditional spiritual
Back when I had the flu, few mothers (including mine) had a license or a car, so the the doctor came to our house to check on me. “She’d be better off in the hospital,” he told my mom. “You know that girl down the street died from this Hong Kong Flu.”
My mom looked close to tears, and she knew if I was in the hospital, she might not be able to get there to visit me, and maybe she wondered how we’d pay the bills, so she insisted that I’d get better care at home.
Even I knew the doctor was more worried that I’d spread the flu to my mom, who was already battling breast cancer, than he was about me. I longed to have a room with an adjustable bed and visitors bringing me flowers and stuffed animals, nurses feeding me ice cream—sleeping in a hospital filled with others, instead of alone on an army cot. I imagined the letters I could write to the boys in Vietnam, the details I’d include about the doctors swarming around me in the hospital determined to save my life.
Yes, ’n’ how many deaths will it take till he knows
That too many people have died?
The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind
The answer is blowin’ in the wind
—Bob Dylan, “Blowin’ in the Wind,” 1962
After a few weeks, with no warning, my fever ceased, and the mothers took a break from pinning up their laundry and gathered in our backyard to read letters from their sons, while my mother felt victorious because I had lived, and everything about life and death seemed connected to the bed sheets flapping in the wind.
Diane Payne’s most recent work has been published in ellipsis…literature and art, Bending Genres, the New York Times, Unlikely Stories, The Blue Nib, Hot Flash Fiction, Anti-Heroin Chic, X-R-A-Y Literary Magazine, The Oyster Review, NOVUS, Notre Dame Review, Obra / Artifact, Reservoir, The New Southern Fugitives, Spry Literary Journal, Watershed Review, Superstition Review, Windmill, The Tishman Review, Whiskey Island, Kudzu House Quarterly, The Fourth River, Lunch Ticket, Split Lip Magazine, The Offing Magazine, ELKE: A Little Journal, Punctuate, Outpost19, The McNeese Review, The Meadow, Burnt Pine, storySouth, and Five:2:One.