BREATHTAKING - Non Fiction Memoir/Article
I was on the stairs in my best dress with my youngest brother, Paul, on my knee. He was supposed to be tucked up in his cot, sound asleep, but there was a lot of noise and he wouldn’t settle.
Downstairs, our home had been turned into a casino. We had gorgeous cigarette girls – wearing skimpy leotards and fishnet stockings, handing out glasses of champagne and cigarettes to the guests as they arrived. Yes, cigarettes! This was 1962 and it was a charity event for the newly established Asthma Foundation. A cloud of grey smoke hung just below the ceiling.
This sounds unbelievable today, but in those days asthma was thought to be a psychosomatic disease, provoked by hyperventilation, and caused by anxiety.
The Asthma Foundation was formed by a group of mothers of asthmatic children who were struggling to have this life-threatening disease taken seriously by the medical profession. It was fashionable at the time for doctors to adopt a little Freudian theory and mothers were often seen as over-protective and neurotic. Sometimes the solution, they believed, was to separate mother and child – and, as the child grew more independent of parental influence he or she would outgrow asthma.(i)
Anyone who has witnessed a serious asthma attack would understand why a parent would be anxious; the blue lips, the bulging eyes, the look of absolute terror as the child struggled for breath. And, naturally this chaos and fear caused mothers to be anxious, which justified doctors blaming them for their child’s illness. It was a chicken and egg problem.
Children could also learn to use asthma for attention-seeking, according to many authorities, including their teachers, so it was best ignored. Asthmatic children often suffered bullying at school and were left out of sports teams and games because of their poor physical performance. They missed more days of school due to asthma than most children and did not do well academically. Children with asthma often grew up feeling ashamed it. There are however some remarkable exceptions, including the tennis player, Adrian Quist, who became an Asthma Foundation supporter.(ii)
On this casino night most of our furniture had been moved into the carport and backyard where it was covered with canvas tarpaulins. In our dining room we had a baccarat table and I could just glimpse people crowding around it. I didn’t understand it or the black jack game which was in the living room. In the rumpus room, which I couldn’t see from my position on the stairs, was a spinning wheel of fortune. It was like the chocolate wheel we had at our school fete, and I thought it very unfair that my parents wouldn’t let me have a go.
Everyone was dressed up. Men wore tuxedos with bow ties and cummerbunds; women wore long dresses, their jewellery glittered. It was the biggest party we’d ever had and my mother was the star. I was so proud of her.
She smiled as she greeted guests and occasionally turned to wink at us hiding in the shadows on the stairs. On her head a tiara glistened in the light from the chandelier in our entry. She wore a long gold dress with a side split and a back so low she couldn’t wear a bra. She also held a long cigarette holder in her gloved hand.
Was it just for show or did she actually use it?
In those days smoking was often recommended to asthmatics because it controlled breathing and calmed the nerves. Both my parents smoked, although Mum regularly “gave up” because of collapsed lungs and asthma.
I’d been told I could come downstairs to say a quick hello to the guests after my younger brothers were asleep. That was why I was wearing my best dress, which was pink, with a full skirt and a rope petticoat underneath, and the charm bracelet my aunt had bought for me when she went to Paris. It was very special, made of real mother of pearl.
“Why aren’t you children in bed?” Mum asked, wheezing badly as she climbed the stairs. She lifted Paul onto her hip, waving the cigarette holder about like a magic wand, and we all went upstairs together. Mum sat on her bed and tried to catch her breath while Paul clung to her and whimpered like a puppy.
She was exhausted. I tried to get Paul to come to me. His tears and slobber could mark Mum’s dress. Mum stood, swaying a little on her feet, and carried him into his room which was a small room off the main bedroom. She put him into his cot and he screamed even louder.
“Let him cry himself to sleep,” she told me, running her hands through my hair. “They say crying is good for babies – it helps their lungs.”
Little mother that I was, I nodded, but in reality I couldn’t stand the thought of Paul crying himself to sleep. Mum had been in hospital with a collapsed lung and the doctors had only let her come home because my dad was a doctor and he always looked after her when she stopped breathing. It would have been terrible for her to miss this big night, after all the work she’d done.
Downstairs we could hear my father and his mate playing a honky tonk duet on the piano and I was keen to get down there and join in the fun. It was almost loud enough to drown out Paul’s crying.
Mum practised her windmill exercise, slowly circling one arm after another over head as she sucked in air. It made her cough. Then she re-applied her lipstick and eyebrow pencil. We stood side by side, looking at ourselves in the full length mirror. People sometimes thought we were sisters because she looked so young and I looked much older than twelve. We were the same height, but Mum had a smaller waist and fuller breasts.
We both checked on my other brother, who was playing with his toy cars on the floor of his bedroom.
“Into bed now,” she ordered, then leant down to kiss him goodnight.
“Leave the door open,” he asked. “I want to listen to the music. It makes me happy.”
After Mum returned to the party, I tried to settle Paul in the nursery by picking him up and rocking him, swaying in time with the music. It didn’t make me happy though. I wanted to wail along with Paul, because I was terrified that one day Mum might stop breathing for ever. Before this last hospital stay I’d seen her collapsed on the floor, and watched Dad giving her the adrenalin injection to get her breathing again. It was scary.
Mum had established the Gladesville Auxiliary for the State Women’s Committee of the Asthma Foundation and we had regular meetings at our house. The ladies brought cakes and biscuits and Mum served tea in our best china. In many ways she was typical of the women of that era who became involved in charity organisations: the wife of a doctor. The surgery and waiting room were part of our home and she didn’t have to go out to work as his part time receptionist and occasional nurse.
The founders of the Asthma Foundation, Mickie Halliday and Leila Schmit, were also wives of professional men. In those days women were known by their husband’s names. Mum was Mrs Dennis White.
Compounding the confusion over the causes of asthma was the popular notion of ‘momism’ a term coined by Phillip Wylie in his book, A Generation of Vipers. (iii)
In this misogynistic book, Wylie describes the post Second World War American ‘mom’ who, provided with the machines to make her life easy, had too much freedom, and joined organisations.
Knowing nothing about medicine, art, science ... or any other topic except the all-consuming one of momism, she seldom has any especial interest in what, exactly, she is doing as a member of any of these endless organizations, so long as it is something. (iv)
How wrong he was! However, in many ways my mother and other founding members of the Asthma Foundation may have conformed in some ways to this stereotype. The types of events planned for fundraising by the local auxiliaries were fashion parades, glamorous theatre previews and auctions, where the hostess could play the role of social butterfly and see herself photographed in newspapers and women’s magazines; which, importantly, was free publicity.
However the women involved in the early days of the Asthma Foundation were motivated by a deeper and more imperative need. As the mothers of asthmatic children many were struggling to have the disease understood; they had experienced terrifying, life-threatening episodes with their children – and doctors blamed them for causing it.
Mickie Halliday recalled her GP telling her that she was ‘smothering her child’, that she was creating the problem. (v)
What about adult asthmatics? My mother never had asthma as a child, and so it seems nonsensical to look at her relationship with her mother as the probable cause. Her asthma started when she was in her mid-twenties. Eena, her sister, thought the first attack happened in Padstow, after she had two children of her own, and when my father started his first general practice.(vi) It was probably the result of moving house and being subject to a new set of allergens, but they didn’t know that then.
The Asthma Foundation’s first president, The Honourable Mr Justice Martin Hardie was also an adult asthmatic. The notion that it could be self-induced made him very angry. (vii)
Dr Bernard Riley established the first Allergy Clinic at Royal North Shore Hospital and Mickie Halliday and Leila Schmidt took their children to him. He listened to their stories, taught his patients breathing exercises, and did skin tests for allergens. However, his views on allergy weren’t widely held, and his reputation was belittled because he had no Australian recognised qualifications as an “allergist” – any doctor could call himself an allergist. (viii)
Dr Clair Isbister, an early specialist in pediatrics, agreed that asthma was caused by allergy, but her views were largely ignored. Her son nearly died when fed his first spoonful of egg custard, but she was told by the leading experts of the day that her role as a mother was the problem and it was inconsistent with her role as a doctor.
I can remember the Gladesville house suddenly being cleaned of dust-gathering furniture and objects, which must have meant that my parents were giving these doctors’ theories some credence.
We got rid of clutter. Precious objects and books were put inside glass cabinets. New carpet was laid in the main living areas, and I can remember the smell because it was nylon, not wool. The rumpus room was stripped back to a polished wooden floor; other flooring was replaced by black and white linoleum tiles; heavy velvet curtains were removed from windows and changed to light wash-and-wear fabric and spring-loaded roller blinds. The Queen Anne style tables and chairs my parents had inherited with their dust-collecting legs were swapped for modern sleek-lined furniture, our lounges were re-upholstered with foam rubber cushions, and we all got new rubber mattresses on our beds to replace the kapok.
In the early 1970s I was married and heavily pregnant with my first child when what I had feared since that casino night actually happened. We were watching television in our bedroom when the phone rang. My husband answered it. He took my hands in his and told me that Mum had had a fatal asthma attack.
It took me some time to register the word “fatal”. I focused on the practical. We lived about two hours away from my parent’s place, and we’d have a long drive to get there. I thought about Paul, who was only fourteen. I thought, in a very calm way, as if standing outside my body, watching myself getting dressed and organised for the trip, that we might have to look after Paul, because he was too young to lose his mother, and somewhere in amongst all this planning I managed to understand that this was a terrible shock, and because I was about to have a baby, I should pack my hospital bag.
We came into the kitchen of my parent’s home and on the fridge I saw a note to Paul in Mum’s handwriting. “Darling Paul, We might be late home,” it said. “Dinner is in the fridge. See you soon. Love Mum.” Feeling I was protecting Paul and my father from a painful reminder I picked the note up and stuffed it into my purse.
The lounge room was hot and stuffy, but Dad was shivering uncontrollably.
I assume my brothers and my aunt and uncle were also in that room, but I can only remember the note on the fridge and Dad’s shivering.
Someone told us what had happened. They had been for a long drive that cold August day, looking at a property my uncle was interested in buying. Dad and his brother were in the front seats, my mother and aunt in the back. Arriving at my uncle’s place, Mum stepped out of the car and stopped breathing – the cold often provoked an asthma attack. This time Dad couldn’t get her breathing again. Without waiting for an ambulance they drove to the hospital, where she was “dead on arrival”.
Dad blamed himself. He’d kept Mum alive with adrenalin injections in the early years of their marriage, then there was cortisone, and then the invention of medication she could inhale via her “huffer-puffer”. And she’d been well recently. Was there something he hadn’t noticed?
Were they smoking in the car that day? Probably. Only cranks believed it was dangerous. My father didn’t give up smoking for another twenty years.
I was admitted to hospital soon after the funeral with dangerously high blood pressure, and my son was born two weeks early. When I came out of hospital my father and brother had gone away on a ship – Dad as ship’s doctor – and I had the job of cleaning out Mum’s stuff from the house.
I put my baby in his bassinette on the floor and got to work, but quickly realised there were fleas everywhere in this house that had been empty for nearly a month. So my baby went back into his pram and I picked up my purse so we could go to the shops for insect spray. That was the first time I’d opened this purse since the night of Mum’s death. I saw her note to Paul from the fridge. It was too much. It was all wrong. The house was empty, and she should have been there. Her promise to Paul to “See you soon”, was a lie. Angrily, I flushed it down the toilet.
Some time later Paul asked me about that note. He’d wanted to keep it. It was Mum’s last message to him. I realised I had no right to destroy it.
The Asthma Appeal raised a quarter of a million pounds in 1962 – the largest amount of money ever raised by any charity in Australia. (ix) Not only did they raise funds, they also increased public awareness of asthma, and over time doubt was cast on psychosomatic causes and the focus shifted to allergens.
The women who founded this organisation, including my mother, were warriors, not the ‘moms’ of ‘momism’ or the emotional, neurotic and over-protective mothers blamed for their children’s illness. They acted out of desperation, and their passion gave their cause impetus. The money raised was put to good use: for research, for supporting asthmatics, for children’s camps and swimming schools.
We now blame allergens as the cause of asthma, not ‘mother-smother’. It would be easy to blame the doctors who thought it was a psychosomatic problem, but they were victims of their education and the post-war social climate – pre Women’s Lib.
Even as a twelve year old, that night of the casino, I had some notion of this being a self-induced disease. Perhaps I had overheard something. I knew it was important to keep calm, to take some of the load off Mum’s shoulders. She was always so busy, with her work for the Asthma Foundation and three children, and helping Dad in his surgery.
Her sister, Eena, described Mum’s attitude to illness as “a bore”. She would hide from the world when she had asthma, not wanting to make a fuss, and few people knew how serious it was.(x) I suspect on the night Mum died she probably didn’t want to complain and was hoping no one noticed her wheezing. If they were smoking in the car, she would be unlikely to ask them to put out their cigarettes. Then she stepped out of the car on a cold August night and never took another breath.
i Smith, Babette Coming Up for Air: A History of The Asthma Foundation of New South Wales, Rosenberg Publishing, in association with The Asthma Foundation of New South Wales, 2003.
ii Smith, Babette, op cit p. 39.
iii Wylie, Phillip, A Generation of Vipers, New York Pocket Books, 1942, Revised 1955, pp 184-186.
iv Wylie, Phillip, op cit p. 185.
v Smith, Babette, op cit p. 21.
vi Job, Eena, Plin, unpublished manuscript, 1974.
vii Smith, Babette, op cit p. 29.
viii Smith, Babette, op cit p. 27-28.
ix Smith, Babette, op cit p. 84.
x Job, Eena, op cit.