By Florence Fisher Parry
Not long ago, I went to see a woman who was celebrating her 100th birthday. The house was heavy with the hush you feel only when in some temple. Soft padded voices bade me ascend the cushioned stairs. When I was ushered into her presence, I was made to feel that I was approaching a shrine.
She lay in her bed like some exquisite doll. Her hands spread delicately over the fine lace spread. Her face was like the inside of a seashell, iridescent and lovely. Her eyes held the look of a little child’s, and when she spoke, her voice was a pure immature treble.
Her spinster daughter lovingly explained:
Mama has always been delicate. When Papa married her, she was not expected to live long. It was a miracle how she had all her children. We always took care of her from the time we were little. Papa called her his Dresden doll.
I looked at the picture of Papa. He had died many years ago, worn out from anxieties. Most of the children were dead too. Dear fragile Mama had outlived them all.
When I was a young woman, I knew two remarkable men who were pinned down by ailing wives. It is hard to estimate how far these men might have gone if they had been free to follow the direction of their genius. But they had to spend every available moment looking after their wives. They both died very young, at the height of their promise.
Their wives promptly regained their health, have basked in the security and independence their husbands had provided them, and have led busy, useless lives ever since.
For years I had a friend who was possessed of extraordinary talent. Her native endowment amounted almost to genius. She could have been a brilliant writer, a peerless actress; her versatility was astounding. But just as she dramatized and heightened everything that touched her, she dramatized her “health” – or rather her lack of it. She was the most interesting self-made invalid I ever knew.
Somehow, she was able to make her ailments fascinating; even doctors fell under the spell of her extraordinary self-diagnoses.
As a matter of fact, her only disability was her inability to utilize her great gifts. She had a generous income and was cursed with the laziness that came from a long line of utterly UNcontributory aristocrats. Her “ailments” were her rationalization of that laziness. She had to find an excuse for making no use of her birthright and talents, and chronic invalidism was the perfect solution.
There was no way to jerk her out of her fond delusion that she was a sick woman.
She indulged, I remember, the daily luxury of an afternoon rest. Never mind how urgent the occasion that might threaten this siesta, she was adamantine, and had that rest, cost what it might to others. One afternoon, after a particularly lazy day, she announced that she was going to rest up.
“FROM WHAT?” I demanded; my patience gone. She burst into laughter and admitted:
I AM a fraud, aren’t I?
But blandly kept on being an invalid until Nature, finally coerced, fell in with her, and now she is indeed a hopeless psychopathic case.
No time for frauds
Now with all due respect to Elizabeth Barrett Browning (whose Sonnets from the Portuguese are lovely songs), I suspect that she has been the prototype of all too many ailing ladies whom the war is just now showing up. There’s simply no place for them in the present desperate day.
And I predict that one of the most salutary improvements that will come out of this war is the weeding out of thousands of Elizabeth Barrett Brownings. Nobody has time to pay any attention to them, and deprived of an audience upon whom to perpetuate their fancied symptoms, they will be forced out of their pretense and become – let us pray – passably normal creatures.
There’s simply no time anymore to be self-centered. There’s scarcely time even to be legitimately sick. We can’t nurse so much as a headache. And the doctors remaining on the home front are suddenly so busy trying to take care of really sick patients, that they haven’t time to spare for the frauds. And this will be a good thing for them, too; for to lose a lot of bedside palaver will be good for their souls. There was too much of this going on before the war anyway.