It still hurts after all these years. I was seven years old, and Dad was preparing me for an upcoming race by teaching me how to get out of the blocks in a sprint. That night I got out of bed to go to the bathroom and collapsed. I was taken to Jersey City Medical Center, where I was diagnosed with polio. It was many months before I could walk again or return home. I never ran again.
Yet the physical limitation was not what hurt the most. (I should say “hurts,” because the present tense also applies.) This sudden separation from my parents is the painful memory which remains seared in my mind. The doctors explained that I would be contagious for 10 days and needed to be held in quarantine. I could not see anybody from the outside world which was, in fact, my entire world. To a seven-year-old, your parents ARE your world.
Unlike the migrant children who have recently been separated from their families, those around me all spoke my native tongue. I had a comfortable bed, with three meals a day. I knew where my parents were, and that I would be seeing them again in 10 days. None of that mattered. What I didn’t have were my parents.
I wish I could forget the look of my parents, separated from me by a glass wall and forced to leave their child in quarantine. They tried to conceal their fear, but could not.
For those who defend the practice of separating children from their parents by saying it doesn’t hurt the children because they’re fed and entertained, please don’t say that. I am 75 years old. It still hurts.