Yesterday, a young teacher stopped by my office to talk about the picture of an African elephant on my wall. Soon she told me about her trip to Ghana, which changed her life, she said, and I told her about my unnatural aversion to mosquitos, which has changed my life, I suppose. Although I would like to visit Serengeti National Park more than just about anything, I told her, my fear of contracting malaria there prevents me from even entertaining the idea of such a trip. It’s because of my father, I said.
A soldier in World War II, he returned from New Guinea infected with the virus and for years after, until his death of a heart attack at 52, when I was 20, he suffered bouts of vomiting, fever, and violent chills. There was only one episode I knew about firsthand, though; all other stories about his illness were apocryphal. In those years, after his divorce from my mother, I saw my father far less often than I would have wished, and seeing him at my door, so distant and diminished, diminished me all the more. He had lost a terrible amount of weight, and every movement, no matter how slight, seemed a great, sad labor. “Don’t cry, baby,” he had said, so I put on my bravest face for him. I wear that brave face still, but in a way his illness became my own.