‘Stories Were Escape’: On childhood illness and the power of Rapunzel
Kate Forsyth vividly recalls how childhood illness made books a kind of magical escape from present pain, and her lifelong fascination for Rapunzel - which culminated in her retelling the classic tale her own way.
I was only a child when I faced death for the first time.
Aged just two years and four months old, I was savaged by my father’s doberman pinscher in the back garden of our home in the Artarmon veterinary hospital. I was tossed like a rag doll, my ear was torn from my head and the dog’s fangs penetrated straight through the thin bone of my skull and into the brain. My left eye was missed by a fraction of a millimetre.
Somehow my mother managed to wrest me from the dog’s jaws. She wrapped me in towels and ran for help, my four-year-old sister Belinda running sobbing beside her. A young man driving down the Pacific Highway stopped and picked her up. At North Shore Hospital, when the nurse unwound the bloody towels from around my head, he fainted.
My mother was told to prepare herself. I was unlikely to live.
Somehow they patched me together again. My ear was sewn back on, albeit a little crooked. More than two hundred stitches covered my head and face. I must have looked like a tiny Frankenstein’s monster.
I did not wake up. My temperature climbed higher and higher, and still I lay unwaking, like a cursed princess. No amount of kisses roused me.
Ten days after the accident, I was gripped by relentless fever, uttering constant high cries, red and floppy as a skinned rabbit. Still no one could wake me. The doctors told my mother I had bacterial meningitis. Think of it as another savage dog, a crazed wolf, pinning me down with its heavy paw. No drugs could release me from its jaws. Prepare yourself, she was told. Few children survive meningitis.
I lay in ice like a glass coffin. I was white and red and black. I had gone away from this world, gone somewhere no one could reach me.
Days passed and still my fever climbed. My small body convulsed.
It’s worse than meningitis, the doctors said. It’s meningoencephalitis. A wild whirling word, full of holes and spikes. Other words came. Seizures. Toxic. Fatal. I heard none of them.
The doctors wanted to drill a hole in my skull to help drain away the infection sinking its claws into my brain. My mother would not let them. Come back, she said to me. Please come back.
The fever broke. Twenty days after the dog attack, I opened one eye (the other was lost inside a bruised mess of swelling and stitches.) I swallowed some milk. I spoke. A week later I was allowed to go home.
It was not the last time that I would outface death.
The dog’s fang had destroyed my tear duct. From the age of three years to the age of eleven, I was in and out of hospital with acute infections and dangerously high temperatures. I could hear the fever coming, a rattling roaring locomotion rushing upon me. I could feel it in my skin. Whitecaps of flame and frost. My body undulating, shrinking, stretching. Fingers like rainclouds. Whirling embers in my eyes. Mocking demonic faces.
I knew the hideous.
Flashes of memory are all that remain to me.
Sitting with my head under a towel, breathing in boiling steam.
A young doctor piercing the abscess with a needle. Screaming with pain.
The taste of pus.
Counting backwards from ten as I sink beneath the anaesthetic. Again. And again.
Proudly telling the nurse that I was very good at spelling, that I could spell anything! Her response: Spell diarrhoea.
My sister and brother coming to visit and telling me, in high excitement, that they were on their way to the Sydney Easter Show.
Lying in bed listening for the sound of the ding that meant the lift had arrived. It seemed as if the ding was hardly ever for me.
Some people came to visit me but their little girl had to be taken outside as she would not stop screaming at the sight of me.
Staring for hours out the one small dirty window. All I could see was a green hill crested with an immense old tree and what looked like a castle. I used to imagine galloping up that green hill on the back of a white horse that would fling out its great wings, leap into the air, and take me away.
Sometimes I would be well enough to get out of bed. I would walk around and around the corridors in my nightie, dragging my drip trolley with me. I’d look in all the doorways at the old, sick people with patches over their eyes. It was an old hospital. At one point the floor sloped downwards. I’d hop on my drip trolley and ride it down the slope. It was the most fun I could have – three seconds of wildness and freedom.