It Wasn’t Me, It Was Meningitis
It all began in an incubator and ended with a diary clutched in my hands.
I didn’t want anyone to see my School Diary when I was in school. Even less someone who didn’t know me, as they would think crazy things about me. It was the most precious thing I had. I kept it close, always at hand. The edges were spent, and you could see someone had gone over the pages at least a hundred times.
In it, I kept a detailed record of every little task, homework, project, and test I had coming.
Monday, June 15th, 2009:
Return Alice In Wonderland
Eat the $3.780 pesos lunch in the School Cafeteria
DON’T go home for lunch
Math Test, pages 145 e, 146 a, b, c, 147 d.
Go to Oma’s after school
Going through each week was overwhelming; there was no space left to write anything down, but that was ok; it meant I was doing things right. As long as I kept tasks and due dates, I was good.
I knew it wasn’t normal that I needed to write little reminders of the way I should behave towards someone: Wednesday, September 1st: “Yesterday I fought with Jane because she made fun of me in front of the whole class. We are not talking”. I required notes to remember the reason for our fight.
Before we can understand why I had my diary clutched so tightly, we must go back to the start—my birth.
Nativitas: My Birth Story
On Thursday, April 7th, 1994, I was born. I was the first of two kids. Throughout my life, when my family talks about my day of birth, words like “terrible,” “scared,” and “prayed” are used. My family is not religious.
My birth took place in a clinic called Sanatorio Alemán, which means German Sanatorium in English. My grandma from my mother’s side was born and raised in Berlin, but I don’t think that fact interfered with the clinic choice.
My family says I was a beautiful newborn. I agree. Newborns are not beautiful, but I was. I’ve been told that my first hours of birth were lovely.
That didn’t last.
I was diagnosed with meningitis that same day.
Because I was a newborn when it happened, I never considered what being a meningitis survivor meant. But the signs of my connection with the disease are everywhere; I just wasn’t paying attention back then.
When I was a junior in school, an educational psychologist would interrupt my classes to take me to a tiny room beside the stairs. She couldn’t even stand upright; the ceiling was low and inclined. There, she would test my writing, reading, and comprehension abilities. I didn’t care and never thought about what it meant. I was just happy to miss an hour of math class.
As I got older, remembering facts and details got harder and harder. I would tell the same story twice to my school friends, and they would make fun of me.
Was I dumb?
I knew something was wrong with me, but those closest to me normalized it like it was a random characteristic of my personality while telling me to pay more attention. “Focus!” and “Haven’t you been listening?” they would say.
My aunts and cousins used to make jokes and tell stories about moments I got confused or forgot something. “Ahh, Cata. You are so funny,” they’d say. I just laughed along because the other option was getting serious.
Why did this happen to me? Was I doing something wrong? Maybe I do need to pay more attention?
My younger sister says my parents treat me differently from her, like I’m the youngest, and she’s the oldest. When they gave us instructions, they always gave them to her, not me. She was the lead. I hadn’t noticed that until she brought it up. The pattern was clear.
I have tried to think about how the disease I survived might have molded my relationships with my family members, but it’s difficult to picture. The nature of those relationships is the only family reality I know.
Do my grandmothers treat me differently from my cousins? Sometimes I joke about it by saying I’m the favorite granddaughter. My cousins play along like they can’t compete with me.
It’s weird to think that something that happened when I was too young to remember shaped my relationships and life in general. For myself, meningitis wasn’t part of my story until I understood the implications that surviving it has in my life.
It was something I had to get used to and add to the equation.
A few times, while doubting my abilities, I google the aftereffects of meningitis. It’s like searching for the reason for my defects. “Well, there it is; I can’t do anything about it.”
How easy would it be to use those excuses forever?
Because I’m ambitious, I mostly ignore it. When I can’t, I think I survived it twenty-eight years ago, when babies mostly died of it. Does it say something about me, that I survived and others didn’t?
God Was a Man
One day, while a teenager, I was out with my mom. During our stroll, we met an old man. “Doctor! Nice to see you! Catalina, this is the doctor that saved your life,” my mom said.
“Hi,” I awkwardly told him.
What do you say to the man that saved you from meningitis? I was a teenager, so, nothing.
My mom had told me before that when my parents thanked him after I was discharged, he said: “Don’t thank me, thank Him,” while pointing up.
He meant God.
Religion is something I’ve struggled with. There was a time I was religious while knowing nothing about religion because I thought I had to be. Then, I had to take three mandatory theology classes and learned enough to realize religion wasn’t for me. I’m not a believer.
When I told my mom, she said: “How can YOU not be religious? After everything you’ve been through?”
She didn’t mention meningitis. She never does.
I have never viewed meningitis as a core part of my identity. It hasn’t defined me, yet it has shaped my life in important ways.
It’s like growing up in one place, somewhere that cooperated in building important aspects of who you are, but as ambitious people do, I left my hometown to see the world from a different perspective.
My identity evolved; I left and grew. There are still pieces of the disease in me, they will last my whole life, but I’m in a different town.