By the time I started first grade, my mother and I had moved into our own apartment on the east side of Detroit, 14225 Glenwood, several blocks north of my Gus and Mary—my grandparents—and the yellow brick house, where I’d lived all five years of my life. My mother and I had briefly occupied the apartment across the hall from my great-grandmother, Nunie, but when she moved away from the yellow brick house, my mother followed her example and found a different place for us to live—an apartment with a landlord who would fix heating and plumbing problems, a place in a neighborhood where everyone who lived on the street didn’t have to listen to Gus and Mary scream at each other every day. Nunie moved a few streets south into a duplex apartment above my Aunt Mary Anne. Because my Nunie still lived only a few blocks away from Robinson Elementary, I often stayed the night at her apartment, and she’d walk me to school in the morning and pick me up in the afternoon so that my mother could earn money waitressing at the Coney Island restaurant in Eastland Mall.
The schoolyard made a huge impression on me in first grade. As a kindergartener, I only attended half of the school day and therefore missed out on lunch break and the special half hour recess. The lunch break was split into halves: the primary level students, and the third, fourth, and fifth graders. The primary students would start a half hour earlier; we’d eat lunch while the third, fourth, and fifth graders counted the minutes until their lunch bell, when they would file into the lunchroom and our teachers would march us out to the schoolyard. We would play on the gravel yard until the next bell, when our teachers would line us up and march us back into the building as a flurry of fourth and fifth graders dispersed into the schoolyard like confetti in a storm.
That schoolyard represented my first taste of freedom. Though teachers spread out over the yard to monitor the students, I could wander and play whatever I wanted with whoever I wanted to play with, and despite the fact that I’d gained a small level of independence from the world I was familiar with, across the street still loomed the yellow brick house, rising out of the pavement like a majestic golden castle. From time to time my one of my grandmothers or aunts would sit on the side porch until I waved at them from across the schoolyard. Sometimes I would see my aunt Anne Marie, three-and-a-half years my senior, running full speed onto the gravel with her classmates as my recess ended and hers began, and she would wave at me and stick out her tongue.
Even though I no longer lived in the yellow brick house, I still saw Anne Marie every day. When my mother wasn’t working, she’d often babysit Anne Marie, and the three of us would play and watch the television, and my mother would usually treat us to dinner at a restaurant. One Saturday evening, she took us to a place called Andy’s, a diner on Gratiot. It was my favorite restaurant, not so much because of great food but rather because when my mother took me there in the daytime, the old men sitting on stools around the coffee counter would give me quarters and dollar bills and tell me to go get a haircut or buy a hot dog or put it in the bank, where it would eventually turn into a million dollars.
I ordered lambchops. I usually ordered a roastbeef sandwich with mayonnaise and tomato, and French fries on the side. Usually, I would wait until a special day, like my birthday, to order lambchops, when my mother would prompt me to order something more adventurous than usual. However, I ordered the chops and Anne Marie ordered whatever she wanted, and my mother said that it was alright, that she’d made a lot of tip money at work that afternoon. She bought us refills of chocolate milk, and we laughed and ate everything on our plates, and afterwards, we ordered desserts. I ordered a slice of cherry pie, not knowing that for the next several years of my childhood, I would blame that slice of cherry pie for making me sick and changing my life. Thirty hours later, I’d be checked into Detroit Children’s Hospital with days of tests to be administered before the doctors would conclude that I’d somehow contracted Guillian-Barre syndrome, a rare virus that attacks the nervous system, affecting one in every one-hundred thousand people.
My stomach started to feel queasy halfway through the pie, and I went to the bathroom and threw up. I’d eaten a lot of rich and sweet food all day, so the cherry pie was merely the straw that broke the camel’s back. In this case, it was the piece of pie that broke my stomach. Because I was sick, my mother dropped me off at Nunie’s so that Nunie could take care of me while my mother spent time with Anne Marie. Nunie gave me a small cup of cola syrup to ease my stomach, and I fell asleep to six-year-old-child dreams.
I woke up the next morning on Nunie’s couch. My stomach still felt uneasy, and I had to go to the bathroom. When I stood up, I fell back down onto the couch. I stood up again and started walking, but my legs were very weak. All of my limbs were weak, and I couldn’t hold my balance very well, so I stumbled like a drunk across Nunie’s living room and dining room on the way the bathroom. When I walked back to the couch, I felt like I was trying to walk through a funhouse with moving floors. As I tripped and stumbled, even the walls seemed to jump away from my hands. I finally collapsed into the couch and pulled my legs off of the floor. The effort of walking to the bathroom and back exhausted me, and I knew that something was wrong.
“Michael, stop making all that racket,” yelled Nunie from her bedroom. I scanned the room from my position on the couch, where I lay in my underwear. I looked across the room at two armchairs draped with throw covers and the coffee-table and lamp between them. I looked at another wall, at a painting with a frame that Nunie had covered with little paper dolls that I’d made. I saw underneath the painting the patch of wall covered with dried boogers next to the chair where I’d sit and eat snacks and watch cartoons after school and pick my nose. I looked to a nearby corner at the small black-and-white television set that I’d spent half of my life in front of, eating fattening snacks and not getting dirty, because Nunie would not have that. I reached for the power button to try to turn it on because it was Sunday, and the Lone Ranger came on every Sunday morning, but I couldn’t reach, and I felt too weak to climb over the arm of the couch.
“Good morning, sweetheart,” Nunie said, walking out of her bedroom and tying the belt on her robe. “What kind of cereal do you want for breakfast?”
“Peanut-butter crunch,” I said.
“Good,” she said. “Cause that’s all I’ve got.”
“Nunie,” I asked. “Can you turn the TV on for me?”
“Michael, I ain’t gonna do everything for you,” she snapped, turning toward the kitchen. “You’re gonna hafta get outta bed and do it yourself.”
Nunie walked into the kitchen, and I heard cabinet doors swinging shut, the rattling of glass bottles in the refrigerator, the whoosh of cereal falling into a porcelain bowl. I rolled off of the couch onto my hands and knees and crawled a few feet to the television. I reached up and turned it on. My fingers cramped up as I turned the channel dial to the Lone Ranger. Nunie carried a tray with my breakfast into the living room as I crawled back to the couch.
“Michael,” she said. “What in the hell are you doing? You’re gonna get all dirty. Go on and wersh yer hands before you eat.” I could tell that she was getting mad because her Mississippi-born-bred-and-raised tongue drawled.
“Go on, now,” she snapped, setting my bowl of cereal onto a coffee table so that she could unfold a TV table for me to eat off of. I tried my best and slowly stood up, using the arm of the couch for leverage.
“Hurry up, Michael. Your cereal’s gonna get soggy, and I ain’t got no more. If you don’t eat it, you’ll have to wait until your mother comes to get you after church.”
“Okay, Nunie,” I said. “I’ll hurry.” I took a few shaky steps into the middle of the living room before stumbling into the dining room and grabbing onto the trim around the entryway separating the living room from the dining room.
“Michael,” she said. “Stop playing. Tommy’ll be here to pick us up for church, and I gotta get ready. Go on and wersh yer hands.”
“I’m sorry, Nunie,” I said. “I’ll hurry.” I walked slowly, holding onto the dining room wall for support and following the wall to the bathroom. After washing my hands, I started my return trip to the living room, this time trying to walk through the middle of the dining room. Halfway through, I fell down.
“Michael,” Nunie said, walking into the dining room. “Do you feel okay? Does your stomach still hurt?”
“A little bit,” I said, trying to stand. Nunie walked to me and helped me off of the ground.
“I feel dizzy when I walk,” I said, and I tried to take a step but started to stumble. Nunie helped me to the couch, and I could walk better with her help, but I could tell that my seventy-year-old great-grandmother strained under my weight, and her silence scared me. She walked into the kitchen and started calling people, saying things like, “I’ve never seen a child act like this before … no, I don’t think he’s playing … I don’t know, I just don’t know.”
I lay on the couch terrified. My mother and Mary arrived ten minutes later. They sat on the couch, palming my forehead and rubbing my legs. They helped me get dressed so that my mother could take me home, and my aunt Mary Anne came upstairs from her apartment. She helped my mother and Mary hold me up and lead me down the stairs and into the car.
Several blocks north, when we arrived at our house on Glenwood, my mother enlisted Malcomb, the teenage boy who lived across the street, to help me up the stairs to our apartment on the second floor. They acted as human crutches, and we slowly climbed step by step to the second floor, through the rooms, and into my bedroom, where I collapsed onto my bed as soon as they let go of me. I lay weak and exhausted on my bed because I’d exerted all of my energy. My mother and Malcomb stood panting, leaning over to catch their breaths. Though I could still walk a little, I’d grown much weaker since I woke up at Nunie’s house, and Malcomb and my mother had held up most of the burden of my weight, about one hundred and ten pounds.
“What’s wrong with him,” Malcomb asked my mother as she adjusted the pillow beneath my head.
“I don’t know,” she said, crying.
I closed my eyes and went back to sleep. When I opened my eyes, hours had passed. The last threads of daylight drifted through my bedroom window. My mother and Malcomb and Malcomb’s mother, who was a friend of my mother at the time, stood in my bedroom.
“Come on, Michael, baby,” my mother said to me in a very strong yet tender voice. “I’m going to take you to the hospital.”
My mother and Malcomb sat on either side of me. I raised my shaking arms and wrapped them around their necks. They stood up and I hung limp between them like a fat, wet hammock. They both grunted under my weight. I straightened my posture the best that I could, and the three of us walked slowly back to the front door.
“I’m hungry, Mommy,” I said. I hadn’t eaten all day because my stomach still felt sick from the night before, and I’d spent the entire day alternating between sleeping and the labor of trying to walk.
“I’ll get you something to eat at the hospital, baby,” she said to me.
“I gotta go pee,” I told her as we approached the front door.
“Can you hold it until we get there?”
“Yes.” We started down the staircase, the same staircase that we’d ascended hours earlier, when I’d had more strength and control. My energy drained with each passing second. I could feel their bodies flex. When we’d reached the landing, they paused briefly to rest.
“Michael, you’re going to have to help us more than that, honey,” my mother said, breathing heavily.
“I’m trying, Mommy,” I said. We continued down the rest of the stairs. My arms slid down their backs because I couldn’t hold on to them anymore.
“Hold onto us, baby,” my mother said, panting and straining. “We can’t carry you.” I took a breath and held onto them with all of my might. When we made it to the bottom of the stairs, my mother knocked on our downstairs neighbor’s door to ask for help. Matt came out and helped Malcomb brace me upright and guide me to the street while my mother started the car. Once they’d gotten me to the car, Matt asked my mother what had happened to me, and she told him that she didn’t know.
She drove north on Chalmers and took 7 Mile east to St. John’s Hospital, where I was born almost seven years earlier. She drove to the emergency entrance, leaving the parked car running while she went inside to find help. After a few minutes, a nurse with a wheelchair accompanied my mother to the car. They loaded me into the wheelchair, and even though the door to the emergency room was a few yards away, my mother reached into the car’s backseat and pulled out a blanket to protect me from the bitter cold of January in Detroit.
The waiting room was almost empty, and we sat there long after my mother had filled out the necessary paperwork. The few men in the waiting room were glued to the television. It was Superbowl Sunday, and the two best football teams of 1979 were battling for the NFL championship. Like my mother, I sat there wondering what was wrong with me. In the course of a day, I’d forgotten how to walk, and my muscles had forgotten how to obey my brain. Two days earlier, I played on the gravel playground sandwiched between Robinson Elementary and the yellow brick house. The day before, I could walk. Earlier that morning, I could still stand up on my own two feet. I sat in a wheelchair in the hospital waiting room, my mother holding my hand and telling me that everything would be alright, and finally the door separating the waiting room from the emergency ward opened. A nurse appeared.
“Right here,” my mother said.
“This way,” said the nurse. My mother pushed me into the emergency ward, and the nurse led us through the halls and into a room. A few minutes later, a doctor came into the room. He turned on a radio, adjusted the dial, and turned around to look at me.
“Stand up,” he said. I couldn’t.
“Lean forward,” he said. I used all of my might to do so, and I sat very shakily in front of him.
“Hold your hands out like this, like an airplane,” he said. I did. Voices on the radio yelled excitedly. The doctor looked at the radio and cursed under his breath.
“Touch your nose with this hand,” he said. I did.
“Now touch your nose with the other hand.” I did. My torso wobbled.
“You can lean back if you want,” he said. I collapsed back into my wheelchair. The doctor paused for a moment, listening to the radio and watching imaginary football players in his head collide with each other.
“Okay,” the doctor said after a commercial came on the radio. He held up a finger.
“Watch my finger,” he said. I did.
“Follow my finger with your eyes,” he said. I did. He shined a light in my eyes and looked into them as he moved his finger back and forth across my vision, from periphery to periphery. I watched his finger move from side to side. Then he turned off his light.
My mother asked, “What’s the matter with him, doctor?”
“He’s faking,” the doctor told her.
“Faking,” my mother asked in disbelief.
“Yeah, he probably just wants attention.”
“But he can’t walk.”
“He doesn’t want to walk, Ms. Piggins,” the doctor said as he walked toward the door. “I see kids do this type of thing all the time.”
Ten minutes later, my crying mother drove west down 7 Mile away from St. John’s hospital. When we got back to the apartment on Glenwood, she left me in the warm car and found Malcomb and Matt to help me back upstairs. This time, I couldn’t help them help me, and they carried me by my legs and shoulders like a piece of heavy, fragile furniture up the stairs and to my bed. As I drifted back to sleep, I could hear my mother on the telephone. I couldn’t discern her words, only her voice as it changed from scared to mournful to frantic to angry to scared.
She woke me up in the middle of the night, and Matt and Malcomb carried me back down to the car. This time, she got on the highway and drove downtown to Detroit Children’s Hospital. As soon as we pulled up to the emergency entrance, two nurses ran to the car, one of them carrying a blanket, the other pushing an empty wheelchair. My mother kissed me on the forehead, and the nurses loaded me into the chair, covered me with a blanket, and took me inside the hospital, which became my new home for the next seven-and-a-half weeks as I struggled to survive and recover from Guillian-Barre Syndrome.
Down in the Dirt, August 2013