In 1985, I am six years old and have a raging case of chickenpox. My dad decides to document my experience on video, interviewing me as I recover. In the clip, a younger, smaller me speaks in a soft voice, proudly showing off my new Day-to-Night Barbie—a gift from my mom to cheer me up during my convalescence.
“What’s the worst part of chickenpox?” my dad asks me from behind the camera.
“They’re itchy!” I respond. The video is blurry, but I can see that my arms and face are covered in dark, healing lesions.
“And the best part?” my dad continues.
“I get new toys and Mama brings me snacks in bed!”
The younger me seems cheerful and unconcerned—albeit itchy—but chickenpox can be pretty awful, especially if you contract it as an adult. My husband never got the infection as a kid, even when pox parties were all the rage. But late one summer, several days after he takes our daughters on an ill-fated excursion to a crowded waterpark, he comes down with the virus.
My poor husband is quarantined at home while he takes a cocktail of medications. On the second or third day of the illness, my oldest daughter and I are talking in the kitchen. “Can we catch Dada’s chickenpox?” she asks.
“No, honey,” I tell her. “You and your sister had the vaccine. I had chickenpox as a kid, so I can’t get it again.”
But a little voice nags at me. Admittedly, my immune system has been somewhat problematic in adulthood. Several years ago, it went rogue and attacked my digestive system, prompting months of heavy immunosuppressant medications. I phone my doctor’s office—more to silence the annoying little voice than out of real concern—and casually mention chickenpox exposure. To my surprise, my doctor suggests that I come in for a varicella titer. If I am no longer immune, I can take antiviral medicine to prevent infection.
Wait, I might not be immune anymore? Feeling the early stirrings of a freak-out, I race in and have the blood draw, then frantically Google some variation of “can childhood immunities be destroyed” while I try not to have a meltdown in the parking lot. It rattles me to think that some piece of myself might now be irretrievable, a part of my history that I’d always taken for granted.
When a nurse calls the next morning to report that I’m still immune, I feel relieved and also slightly sheepish for spiraling into panic. In the world of health crises, this experience was a blip on the radar. Immune or not, I would’ve been okay. Still, recalling my bout with chickenpox makes me realize just how long ago that girl in the video existed. I miss her terribly, that 1985 version of me.
It’s hard to fathom now, more than three decades later, with two daughters of my own. But there was a time in my life when there weren’t little extensions of me running around, eating ice cream, and chasing frogs in the backyard. There was a time when it wasn’t a habit to agonize over every potential problem, when the world felt wide and welcoming, and when my only responsibilities were to play and learn.
I can’t be that girl anymore, but I’ve realized that she’s not gone completely. I still have her antibodies and her clear brown eyes. I can hear her soft voice when my youngest daughter speaks. And there are distinct moments when she resurfaces in my life. Like when I hit the pool and remember my days on the youth swim team, or when my siblings and I laugh riotously over ancient family vacation mishaps. Or when, even if just for a tiny flash, I can let go of my need to control everything, seeing the world instead through my children’s eyes.
In these moments, I know the childhood me is still in there. Alive and well.