It was late July and I was on vacation with my family. We were renting my second-cousin Parky’s house on an island in Maine. Eighth grade started in six weeks. My required Summer Reading list was full of thick classics. They felt like an insult to the spirit of the season. There wasn’t much to do but fashion bows from driftwood, arrows from garden stakes, ride up and down the island, jump off the dock if it ever got hot enough, bum candy money from old aunts, sniff the lupins, get bored, be obnoxious, feel guilty, eat lunch, doze over summer reading.
I was stuck on the first third of Huck Finn, mostly because I was reading a Stuart Woods book every night (the Stone Barrington series), staying up late in my pine sap-smelling room in the barn loft. There was a bookcase full of them, loud covers and quick hits of drugs, sex, violence, money, all the dirt and excitement I felt was missing from the school-required tomes. I arrived one morning at the breakfast table with a twitchy eye, a symptom of reader’s fatigue, I figured. Then I found that I couldn’t quite work my jaw enough to slurp down my cereal. I inspected a moldy mirror: the left side of my face was puffy and unresponsive. My mother prescribed Advil and OJ and shooed me out the door.
By the end of the week it felt like my skull was melting. Unable to blink, my eye watered constantly. I drooled when I spoke. It was widely acknowledged among the adults that there was a problem but nobody really felt like taking a boat ride to the ER. It was probably just a spider bite, an allergic reaction, nothing some sunshine, salt water and corn on the cob couldn’t fix. In the meantime, I was the Elephant Man of Cranberry Island. Ashamed of my appearance, I retreated further into the universe of Stone Barrington, the man with the chiseled jaw and unparalleled sexual prowess.
When we returned home my pediatrician delivered a diagnosis of Lyme disease-related paralysis. I took antibiotics for a few weeks and gradually my face returned to normal. But stares from other tweens lingered heavy in my mind. Life loomed long and hard before me.
It was only when I began to make sense of embarrassments, bad luck and poor decisions through writing that I realized it was all material, gristle, blog fodder, whatever. But more than that, churning these experiences into words provided a sense of perspective and ownership, a bit of comforting distance, the occasional triumph. I’ve turned that summer and every misstep since into jugs of tart lemonade. And these jugs, these stories, whether they are your own or others, significant or seemingly trivial, reappear at the most unlikely of places, often when you need them most.
Sign up for our writing workshop here, led by Matt Gallagher and hosted by Mellow Pages library.