My father the doctor maintained that hand-washing was our family’s single greatest obligation to one another and to the world. Is there any hope we’ll all keep doing it?
My neurologist father maintained that hand-washing was our family’s single greatest obligation to one another and to the world. “As you know, it’s the No. 1 way to prevent disease transmission,” Dr. Beauregard Lee Bercaw would say to my brother and me every single night before sitting down to dinner. “Your hands are clean, right?”
If we hemmed or hawed, we were banished to our bathroom to scrub as if we were surgeons, not children. Sometimes he’d stand behind us at the sink and provide a verbal inventory of ailments caused by poor sanitation and hygiene, throwing in the names of diseases he’d seen during his years spent practicing medicine in the tropics during the Vietnam War but found nowhere near our Florida home: “Meningitis … Hepatitis … Salmonella … Staphylococcus … Streptococcus … Giardiasis … Schistosomiasis … Cholera … Typhoid…”. His litanies would last for at least 30 seconds, so there was no need for either of us to mumble through “Happy Birthday” twice.
But as the years passed, I grew increasingly numb to my father’s germ warfare tactics and ever more reluctant to follow his orders. By age 14, my focus was on improving my appearance with acne treatments and avoiding the watchful eyes of my father. By lingering in the bathroom, I was able to do both.
After a protracted cease-fire in the hand-washing wars, I was ambushed one afternoon when I was 15 by a loud pounding on the bathroom door. I opened it to see my father’s face twisted with fresh worries as he conveyed an ominous message in a matter-of-fact tone: “Kelly Dineen is going blind in her right eye because she didn’t wash her hands.”
Kelly, who was my best friend and the daughter of my father’s best friend, had woken up one morning with blurry vision in her left eye and, two days later, had lost most of her central vision in it.