My father was tortured by severe psoriasis that required at least one extended hospitalization during my sister’s and my childhood. It was an unusually severe case. Many people with psoriasis have scaly patches on their elbows, forearms, their scalp. My father’s lifelong friend Benjie had psoriasis on his arms, and sometimes his hands, for much of the time I knew him. My father’s psoriasis covered virtually his whole body, which was red, with white scales on it. The itchiness of the scales caused him to scratch, and when he scratched, flakes would fall off. It was like a biblical plague, really, and judging by the ads for psoriasis treatments I get on my phone lately (since visiting a doctor about my newly diagnosed arthritis), many Americans still suffer from it.
The scales itched and my father scratched. He would frequently use a stand-up vacuum cleaner to suck the scales off the floor of the living room, dining room and kitchen. I realize now that was one reason we generally didn’t have carpeting on the first floor. The electric broom would get hot with use and the scales, exposed to this heat, would give off a mildly sickening smell of burning flesh. It was a particular sweet smell I can still remember very clearly decades later.
This is one terrible feature of my father’s life, a poorly understood torment of a disease he suffered from. There was apparently a strong correlation between the severity of the disease and the stress my father was under. After he retired and moved to warm, humid Florida the scales disappeared completely. But from the age of thirty-two (the year I was born) on, when things got too stressful, and the weather was particularly cold in New York City, my father’s skin would crack and bleed. When this happened he checked himself into New York Hospital where they treated him with steroids, special baths and rest. I recall visiting him there, I was maybe 14. The view over the East River from his hospital room, which was on a very high floor, was amazing.
The visit to his hospital room was not without drama. My mother, for reasons she took to her grave, insisted I wear a certain pair of blue pants to visit the hospital. These were the kind of pants they used to call slacks, as opposed to the jeans I always wore. I tried on the blue pants and they ballooned grotesquely in several places. I did a turn in the living room to show this and my mother was unimpressed. I changed out of the pants, back into jeans, and my mother had a shit fit. My refusal to wear the hideous pants was the proof, apparently, that I did not love my father enough to wear a pair of nice slacks to visit him. As often happened, the fight became ugly. I don’t recall which pants I eventually wore for that visit, but I do remember my father lying in the hospital bed and the magnificent view, the nearby UN and Long Island, stretching to the horizon across the shimmering East River.
Ironically, the hideous blue pants were later tapered by my sister, who nobody knew was a naturally gifted seamstress. One day, without any training, she was suddenly able to do precise alterations of clothing. In their altered form I liked them as much as any other pants I had at the time and wore them frequently. If only the alteration had taken place before the visit to my poor father at NYU hospital!