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first person

Illustration by Jiayin Lu

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It’s August, 1971, I’ve just turned 19 and I’ve just had my first child. I’ve also begun to realize that my husband is not going to be a good husband, father or provider. But, again, it is 1971 and I am stuck. I have no support from anyone else, anywhere.

Now alone at home, I lay our brand new son on our bed, sit on a chair opposite him, put my head in my hands and weep. Then I change his diaper; pick him up and breastfeed him.

A pretty, young, public-health nurse visits one day and leaves me a handful of pamphlets about clinics and immunization.

That evening, my husband looks at the pamphlets, then tells me his views on inoculations. He tells me that based on his knowledge of science, there is more danger from those immunizations than from diseases. He tells me that I must never get our son any shots. A great big “or else” hangs in the air.

When baby John is three-months-old, I take him to a community mom-and-baby clinic for his first checkup. A pediatrician there – a tired looking older woman – perks up and is thrilled that I am breastfeeding. She tells me that I’m the only mother she has met that day who has made that choice. She layers so much praise on me that for the first time, as a new mother, I think that maybe I can do this parenting thing.

Then she tells me it’s time for my baby to have his first shot. I want to keep getting her approval. I had my shots as a kid. She’s a doctor. I say yes.

After dinner, baby John doesn’t settle. He’s crying and a bit feverish. My husband goes to check on him and finds a red welt on his tiny left shoulder. I didn’t know this would happen. I hoped he would never know.

My husband puts the baby down, turns, faces me and rages. “How dare you defy me! I told you not to get him a shot! How dare you defy me!” He screams into my face, repeating this over and over. Then he gets close to my ear and hisses in a rapid tirade: “If you ever … ever … do that again, you will wake up one morning and I will be gone … with the baby. You will never find us. If that is what you want, then go ahead and defy me. But I promise you. I will take him and you will never – see – him – again!”

Five years later, baby John is now “John-John,” and he and his brother, James, who is now 3, have the red measles. John-John lies on the sofa for almost a week, James hardly slows down. They both get through the virus without incident.

Then within a week, I get the measles. I’m 24 and about 3 1/2 months pregnant. For several days I cannot get out of bed. I have never been this sick in my whole life. My husband takes me to the local hospital where a young resident just shrugs and tells me to see my family doctor. I tell him that I’m pregnant. He shrugs again. We do not have a family doctor. He suggests I find one.

After those first few days, I am still sick but manage to get up and take care of the boys at least a minimum. My hearing is weird, though. I can barely hear at times and at other times my own voice seems to repeat in my left ear with something like a slight delay. It’s weird. The anomaly finally goes away, but I have a hard time hearing after that.

When I give birth to my daughter the next spring, she is found to have a heart defect, caused by the measles I had when I was pregnant. We are told to keep track of it with our family doctor.

When Jean is 2, she is spry and talkative. She has learned to screech when her brother’s tease her, she skips and runs about our small apartment with agility. Till one morning in early spring.

Jean had the measles; a week later, she seems to be getting over it.

But one morning, I’m in the living room where John and I sleep on a large piece of foam for a mattress. I’m sitting up and Jean appears in the hallway. She’s stumbling, staggering like a drunken sailor. I rush to her and see that her eyes are strange. They seem to be rolling and unequal in movement.

I yell for my husband to come look. Thankfully, he doesn’t deny the danger. We get a neighbour to take the boys and rush her to Sick Kids hospital in Toronto.

They keep her for a week.

We are extremely poor and living in Mississauga, two hours and two public-transit systems away. I manage each day to find just enough money to take the four-hour return journey. For a whole week, Jean does not eat. Each day, she gets thinner and her eyes seem to get larger. While she is awake, she simply clings to me silent, not crying.

On the third day, the head pediatrician appears with a retinue of residents. He starts what I am sure is a prepared dissertation. He spits out with barely controlled disgust: “And here we see a two-year-old female child, whose parents have made the conscious decision to not have her immunized. As a result, she has contracted measles and now has encephalitis. Prognosis is yet to be established.”

I have kept my eyes down. I do not look up till they are gone from the room.

Jean clings to me, I cling to her. I quietly rage.

I have hearing loss from the measles. Jean has a heart defect because she was in utero when I had it and later, she will be diagnosed as completely deaf in her right ear from her case of the measles.

It takes me a few months, but I manage to find a way to take the three children and leave my husband.

Within one week, I settle in another town where I find a family doctor and all my kids get immunized.

Measles was a scourge on my family, but, strangely and thankfully, it was also the motivation for finding the strength to get the kids and myself away from danger.

Virginia Ashberry lives in Hamilton.