Kage Baker was intimately, personally familiar with the concept of herd immunity. She also knew that, statistically, someone in the herd will catch none of whatever plagues are going around – someone else will catch all of them. The majority of the herd will catch proportions falling somewhere on the bell-curve between superhero health and just shy of dead …
In our family, she was that last one. Growing up, like her own heroine Mendoza, as one of a swarming knot of children, some disease was always running up and down the age spectrum. And Kage’s childhood was before the advent of all those splendid vaccines that now prevent the common childhood ailments that laid us low. We were probably the last generation in America to routinely come down with measles, chicken pox or mumps.
In Chez Baker, there was a mini-epidemic of all of these when Kage was around 7. Family legend has it that there were at least two strains of measles coming up from one end and chicken pox from the other – but however they spread, they all met in Kage. Simultaneously. Years later, a doctor found the markers for rheumatic fever in her blood and asked her when she had caught that; Kage had no idea (Momma said she hadn’t), but it was probably that Plague Year. She spent most of it covered in various spots, and could have been suffering from half a dozen fevers no one ever had time to identify.
She missed the mumps, but they nailed her in her 20’s. She caught mumps at least twice. Yeah, I know, it’s rare; but so was Kage. She managed. I never showed any symptoms at all, not as a child nor when Kage was afflicted as a young woman; I am apparently immune. Measles almost did for me, but I never did get the mumps. I escaped the worst of all the plagues. Evidently, I’m the other end of that bell curve.
I never have quite escaped the fervid atmosphere of the herd, though. Neither did Kage. We spent 30-odd years doing outdoor theatre in enormous casts, romantically inadequate shelter and dubious hygiene – what we called “Faire crud” worked its way through people’s lungs every winter and spring (Kage caught it all, of course.) And of course the various next-generation households have continued to produce small children – always something special and pestilential for the dear Aunties! And that situation was compounded geometrically when sister Kimberly took up teaching kindergarteners.
Now I live with Kimberly. My robust immune system is not what it was; 50-odd years of blithely careless life has left some dents and cracks in my cellular armour. School in Los Angeles doesn’t get out for 11 more days; not only is Kimberly wading daily through a knee-deep tide of small kids, my brother-in-law teaches high schoolers and nephew Michael is in college … they bring home diseases no one has even named yet.The next two generations have ganged up to send me evil pathogens. It’s the Revenge of the Herd.
My stomach hurts, my head is stopped up, my joints ache. I’m cold all the time. I can’t get comfortable even in my feather bed. My eyelashes itch.
I am sure Kage is smugly amused somewhere. Ha, she is snarking, so all those years I was just being self-indulgently fragile, was I? It is to laugh! Blow your nose and get back to work!
Well, I’m writing, aren’t I? Despite being terminally ill with a host of 1st-grade viruses, arthritis of the epiglottis and probably leprosy, I’m writing. When I’m done here, I will take a nap and then return to Mars. Feeling very sorry for myself, I do assure you, but – you know how it is. Nothing matters but the work.
As long as the Kleenex and ginger ale hold out, anyway.