ERNIE AND ERNESTINA: The Writer, His Wife, and their Afterlife
Book One, Part Two, Chapter 19: Deep and Ugly Damage
When Ernie was in college, with the Korean War going on, he received a draft notice. The doctor who examined him, passed him.
“You can’t pass me,” Ernie told him. “I have a heart condition. Dr. Hill diagnosed my heart ailment when I was fourteen.”
“Young man, there’s nothing wrong with your heart. It skips a beat now and then, that’s all.”
On a spring evening a year or so later, going to a fraternity dance taking place in the Crystal Ballroom of the Brown Hotel, Ernie spotted ruby-faced Dr. Hill crossing the hotel’s lobby. Leaving his date behind, Ernie stormed across the hard marble floor to accost Dr. Hill. “You son of a bitch! You told me I’d die before age thirty! That was a fucking lie! There’s nothing wrong with my heart.”
Dr. Hill, of course, didn’t know who Ernie was or what he was talking about.
“The man was neither a cardiologist nor a pediatrician,” Ernie told me, “but my parents thought they were taking me to the best doctor in town. They didn’t know any better. And they never thought to get a second opinion.”
Only once did I ask Ernie: “You never talked about that faulty diagnosis with your mother and father? Ever? They never knew you’d overheard the doctor’s diagnosis?”
Ernie blinked. He blinked again. He shook his head. In my emotional ignorance, I didn’t realize Ernie was blinking back a ton of unshed tears signifying a mountain of hurt.
In his memoir, Ernie writes of this period.
I would never be the same after this. My sunny disposition vanished. My love of the outdoors disappeared. I became a kind of hothouse plant, finicky and fragile and fractious.
Because I thought I was dying, I made imperious demands of my mother and father, and these were met. They didn’t know I shared the dark secret they so bravely and cheerfully kept from me.
How many times as a young boy in his sickbed set up in the parlor, his parents asleep on the second floor, did he awaken in the middle of the night in total fright, having just dreamed he was dead, clutching his small wrist for a pulse to prove to himself he was still alive? In the last months of his life, he took his pulse and blood pressure so often — sometimes one after the other — that he wore out a blood-pressure kit.
“Why do you take your pulse so often?” I asked him.
“Because it comforts me.”
Yes, at age twenty, Ernie came to know Dr. Hill’s diagnosis was a false one, but it had done its deep and ugly damage. Fear. Guilt. Self-pity. Neediness. Secrets. Hurt. Anger. Drive.
Ernie survived the false diagnosis, living until the age of eighty, yet he never healed from it.