My mother had always suffered from hay fever. When her eyes started watering and her nose itched and ran, you knew that some weed, tree, or flower had just loosed its pollen into the world. Her raucous sneezes were legendary and always came in groups of three. We lived in Laramie, Wyoming and she didn’t seem to mind the fierce winter cold and wind as much as others did, probably because those were the times that nothing was blooming.
While I was in High School, Mom made a decision. At the time, she was a very good painter of pretty pictures – landscapes, flowers, and portraits – but she wanted to give her artwork more depth and meaning. Unsure of how to find the way on her own, she enrolled in the Fine Arts program at the University of Wyoming. When I joined the Air Force a few years later, she had her MFA, she had built a studio on the back of our house, and she was creating paintings that had strength and passion.
When I came home on leave a year and a half later she was a different person. She could only sit for a few hours in the Living Room, barely able to find the strength to hold a book, let alone paint. Her hay fever had turned into full-blown Asthma. Her allergies had multiplied. Not only pollen, but house dust, pet dander, many different foods, even the linseed oil in her paints could trigger an attack.
“The worst part of being slowly strangled,” she said in between ragged wheezing breaths, “is the panic. Any sharp emotion only makes it worse. It becomes an awful spiral.”
That evening I woke up to noise upstairs and a flashing red light outside my window. I came out to see her on a gurney being wheeled to the front door by a couple of EMT’s. She took a puff on an inhaler, then weakly waved to me as if to say, “don’t worry. Everything will be fine.” At the Hospital it was touch and go until one of her Doctors realized that she had developed an allergy to the CFC’s that powered the inhalers she was puffing on. They started her on a course of prednisone injections and by the time I left, she was back in her studio making sketches for her next painting.
Her letters during the following months described the roller-coaster ride she was on from health to near-suffocation and back again without warning or schedule. She was a person who, concerned that I might worry, always found ways to make her situation interesting and amusing. From a hospital in Albuquerque she wrote, “I have decided to write something other than ‘Christian ‘ on the admitting forms. I’ve just had the second dreary older couple come to my room to ask me if I was ready to meet the Lord. Next time I’ll put down ‘Zen-Buddhist’ just to see who shows up.”
A couple of months later she was in Denver General Hospital and wrote, “Well, some young sleep-deprived Resident just tried to kill me, but I’m still kickin’. He glanced at my chart, did not see the ‘Strong Allergy to Aspirin’ note, and told the nurse to give me something that happened to have aspirin in it. A few minutes later I went into anaphylaxsis, my bronchial tubes completely squeezed shut, and after a few wild moments I was dead. All I remember is a comfortable darkness, then coming awake to find an oxygen mask pressed over my face and people shouting weird questions at me. ‘What is your name?’ they yelled. ‘Where do you live?’ Deciding to forego any smartass answers, I told them. They must have been satisfied because they packed up their crash cart, said ‘Welcome Back,’ and went away. They left a nurse to pick up the joint. Evidently I flopped around a lot before I croaked, knocking over every IV pole, blood pressure machine, and bed table I could reach.”
It wasn’t until the next time I got back home that she told me the rest of the story. After another week in Denver General, she had recovered somewhat, but was not happy. In her case, “not happy” was generally accompanied by “not healthy.” She felt overwhelmed by the size and coldness of a big institution and felt that if she could just go back to the little hospital in Laramie, she would recover faster.
Arrangements were made to put her on a flight from Denver to Laramie. In 1966, Frontier Airlines was flying the Convair 580 on its short-distance flights. Thirty-four seats and faster than a DC-3, but not much. Mom went by ambulance to Stapleton International, by wheelchair to the airplane, and up the stairs and into her seat under her own power. She was wearing a hospital gown, covered by a bath robe, and had a blanket wrapped around her. The Stewardess (that was what they were called in 1966) helped her get seat belt fastened and get settled. Mom prepared herself for what she knew was going to be an ordeal.
My Mother had always been subject to motion sickness. From experience in boats and other airplanes, she knew that if she were to open up and use one of the little bags conveniently tucked into a pocket on the back of the seat in front of her, she would keep puking all the way to Laramie. For the first half of the flight the air was smooth, her stomach was fine, and she began to relax. But then the plane began to cross the Southern end of the Laramie mountains. Updrafts and down drafts began to shake and bounce the little airliner. Although her insides also began to bounce and shake, Mom grimly held on. Her jaws were clenched and beads of cold sweat were standing out on her forehead, but her breakfast was staying in place.
Then they were out over the Great Basin in the Laramie Valley, only a few minutes from landing at Brees Field. She had made it.
The airplane suddenly dropped like a stone, stopped with a bang, and shot back up again. Mom grabbed the little bag and shoved her hand in to snap it open. What neither she, nor the airline, knew was that someone on a previous flight had used it, then carefully flattened it out and returned it to its pocket. Mom shoved her hand into a bag of cold vomit. Then she threw up in her lap.
The poor stewardess apologized profusely as she tried to clean Mom up with all she had for the job – a little box of Kleenex tissues. My mother just sat there and wept.
Asthma, with all its complications and triggers, is a little bit different for every person who suffers from it. For this reason, it is difficult to treat. It took more than a few years of working with different doctors and different treatments before she was able to find some stability and get back to her life and her art.
She lived for another forty years.