A memorable/terrible birthday

The summer of 1986 was glorious, until it wasn’t.

In the first two weeks after school ended, I met the younger sister of a woman in our church. She was my age and visiting for the summer from Chicago. When you grow up a preacher’s kid in a congregation with limited teenagers in a small town, the dating pool can be small. I immediately became interested.

Her name was Donna, and when I went on vacation to Englewood on the west coast of Florida with my best friend, Dwayne, and his family, I made it a point to send Donna a post card. It wasn’t an overly grand gesture, but it helped win her affection. When Dwayne and I returned from the beach, it didn’t take long before we were double dating. Looking back on it now, it’s clear that Donna also was facing limited dating options. A summer fling was emotionally safe and would help alleviate the teenage boredom of spending her days with her sister’s family.

I had a girlfriend in the 8th grade, but we didn’t really go anywhere or do anything together. Now that I was 15 going on 16, and I was seeing someone from the church, my windows of opportunity opened up. Donna and I spent a lot of time together that summer, including a day with Dwayne and his girlfriend at the nearby theme park known at the time as Cypress Gardens. There may or may not have been several make-out sessions in the gardens. A gentleman doesn’t kiss and tell. In fact, there may or may not have been many make-out sessions over the course of our courtship that summer. And although a gentleman doesn’t kiss and tell, teenage romance has a way of turning on you in ways you least expect.

In July my family took a camper trailer down to the Florida Keys for a week of vacation, and Donna returned to Chicago. Parting was such sweet sorrow, but worse than the emotional distance was the physical symptoms I began to experience. On our drive down to the Keys, I began to feel sick. At first I thought it was just a summer cold – congestion, sore throat, headache, loss of appetite, lethargy. I figured it would pass in a day or two and would not hinder my enjoyment of sun, sand and surf. But even though we were at the beach, I didn’t have much energy for all the activities I usually enjoyed on vacation. My parents tried to make it a fun experience for us, but I felt worse as the week wore on. I spent most of the time in my bunk. We had to cut our stay short when a church member passed away, and I was not sad to go home early.

The change to more familiar scenery did not improve my condition. Not long after we got home, Mom took me to our family general practitioner. He prescribed antibiotics, and our expectation was I would recover in time to celebrate my 16th birthday the next week. My grandparents came down from Georgia with my dad’s sister and her family, and the house was full of people and activity. As I got sicker, my parents wisely set me up in the camper in the backyard as a good place to quarantine from the rest of the family and get some rest.

Rather than recover, my condition deteriorated. Those days in the camper are fuzzy. I remember my throat hurting so bad each time I swallowed that I got a cup to spit in instead. It was awful.

An overly skinny teenager in shorts and no shirt sits on a couch trying to unwrap presents with his younger brother and cousin looking on.
Emaciated and unable to breath, I can’t say that I enjoyed my 16th birthday. It was anything but sweet.

Struggling to breathe and swallow, I didn’t eat, and I barely drank anything. On my actual birthday, the family pulled me out of isolation long enough to open presents before Mom took me to an ear, nose and throat specialist for a second opinion. He examined me, ran some tests and immediately sent me to Winter Haven hospital. It was mononucleosis.

My tonsils were so swollen the doctor was afraid my airway would close. I distinctly remember the doctor discussing the possibility of a tracheotomy. I was so sick I couldn’t even muster the energy to be worried about what was happening. The specialist’s office wasn’t far from the hospital, and it wasn’t long before I was in a room getting intravenous doses of strong medication.

I spent the first night resting intermittently, as people do in hospitals when nurses are checking vitals and administering medications every hour or so. The swelling in my throat began to abate, and by the next morning, there was no need for any procedure to poke a hole in my neck. I was so doped up and so miserable, the fact it was my 16th birthday was completely lost on me. My parents were extremely worried. They were more concerned for my health and recovery than whether or not my 16th birthday would be special.

As awful as it was, a bout of mono and a hospital stay is what made it special. Instead of getting my driver’s license, going out with my girlfriend or even just enjoying cake and ice cream with my family, I remember being too sick to swallow, staying in a camper, being admitted to the hospital and losing a bunch of weight. Those aren’t typical birthday memories, and my 16th wasn’t very “sweet.”

A few days after I came home, we did celebrate with cake and ice cream. I don’t remember much about the celebration. There are pictures of me, looking emaciated and out of it, sitting on our couch with my grandparents, aunt and cousins gathered all around singing happy birthday. I spent the rest of the summer recuperating. I moved into the guest room downstairs when our family left, and it was weeks before I could play video games and board games with my brothers or see my friends. My plans to try out for the football team were thwarted. I had lost down to 150 pounds, and at 6-foot-4, that’s not enough meat on your bones to play football. Instead, I gradually built up my strength and stamina to return to school by late August and ran cross country in September and October to get in shape for basketball season.

In addition to ruining a rite-of-passage birthday, my bout with mono had lasting effects. When I went off to college two years later, my parents were overly concerned about me getting enough rest and eating right. I believed the strong drugs I got in the hospital bolstered my immune system, and, in fact, I didn’t get sick at all for at least four or five years.

I do not mean to suggest causation when combining the story of my summer romance with the tale of my illness. Everyone knows mono is known as the “kissing disease.” When I tell my boys about the experience now, I just wink and say I got mono the summer I turned 16 “the fun way.”

I won’t call my 16th birthday “happy,” but it was definitely memorable.

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