A Ballooning Head and a Dead Great-Grandma

My head was too big to fit through the classroom door. And this puzzled me. How would I ever get home? So I sat at my desk holding my head in my hands, trying to catch onto a breath I couldn’t quite find, and wondering how I could feel so chilled on an unseasonably warm spring day.

“You okay, Mrs. Swartz?” a student had asked before leaving.

But I had nudged him out the door, reminding him not to miss his bus. And for the next hour, I couldn’t manage to clear my desk.

I don’t recall much about the drive home, but I remember my relief when my husband found me in the flower bed outside the garage.

“Pneumonia,” the doctor said a short while later. “The kind people died of a hundred years ago.”

To me, it seemed a miracle that an injection and a few pills could clear my fogged thinking and open my clogged lungs.

“Your great-grandma died of pneumonia,” my dad said when he came to visit. “And she was exactly your age.”

I remembered the story. She had died in the middle of her busy life on a farm homestead—churning, butchering, tapping trees and hauling sap, washing and ironing, cooking, cooking, cooking, parenting 11 children, and welcoming her first grandchildren. When she died, six children still lived in her home, the youngest seven years of age.

Just before her death, she called each child, one at a time, to her bed. My grandfather was eleven, and he long remembered the last words he heard from his mother: “Be faithful and sometime you also shall come where I am going.”

The year she died, scientists were making ground-breaking discoveries that enabled them to target the pneumococcus bacteria with antibiotics, a breakthrough that likely saved my life and helped me get back to my uncleared desk and my students.

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