I was born a 'veil baby' or a 'caulbearer.' This simply means that I was born with remnants of the amniotic sac around my head. In days of old, this was considered a sign of good luck. People believed veil babies were gifted with the ability to see the future or to dream things that would come to pass. Some even believed such a child would be able to communicate with the dead.
I'm the seventh of nine children born and raised outside Boston, Massachusetts, in an old white farmhouse. We were seven girls and two boys crammed into four small bedrooms, and we had to battle over one bathroom. I shared a room with my two sisters, Sarah and Patrice. The peeling wallpaper was very seventiesbig white daisies on a bright yellow background. Sarah and I reluctantly shared a double bed, and each night I geared up for 'the blanket brawl.' Because I was smaller, I usually lost.
My dad, Jim Dalton, was a blue-collar workera technician for the Boston Gas Company. He serviced commercial stoves in restaurants throughout the city. He always had a funny story to tell and a beer to share, and he'd give you the last two bucks in his pocket if you needed it more than he did. Meanwhile, my mom, Gracie Dalton, stayed at home holding down the fort. In her spare time, she fought for the cause of the week. If there was a wrong to right or a Democrat to be elected, you called my mom. She had a knack for getting things done and done fast. With the old rotary phone receiver wedged between her shoulder and neck, cigarette in one hand, Maxwell House coffee in the other, she went to town organizing volunteers, fighting city hall, and sticking up for the underdog.
From oldest to youngest, my siblings are: Rosie, Jimmy, Liz, Maggie, Joe, Marygrace, Sarah, and Patrice. Each of us has a story to tell, a challenge conquered, and a tragedy triumphed.
As one story goes, when I was about eighteen months old, I'd watch my older siblings play in the yard through the window, being too small to go outdoors with them. My younger sister, Sarah, who was almost a year old, would sit in the playpen next to me. Because I was teething at the time, I would gnaw on the windowsills while I stood there, and this became a habit. What my mother didn't realize was that I was ingesting the paint chips that flaked off the windowsill. Lead-based paint, which has a sweet taste, is very addicting. In fact, this sort of addiction is an actual disorder called picathe compulsive craving of nonnutritive substances like paper or paint chips. It's more common in young children. Anyway, after a couple of months of my ingesting these paint chips, my mother found me unconscious on the floor of our living room. She picked me up, but I was unresponsive and turning blue, and so she immediately rushed me to Cardinal Cushing Hospital in Brockton, Massachusetts. The doctors were baffled and could not figure out what was wrong with me. My brain began to swell, and I slipped into a coma. Dr. Murphy, our family pediatrician, scoured through medical books well into the night. He finally figured out that I had severe lead-paint poisoning and had me transferred to Children's Hospital in Boston.
Upon arrival at Children's Hospital, a team of surgeons quickly wheeled me into surgery. They placed a brain shunt in my skull to relieve the fluid on my brain (a condition called acute encephalitis). My parents were given the grim news that I would most likely not make it through the night. Unwavering in her faith, my mother took the news standing up. She began a calling crusade, contacting friends, relatives, priests, religious organizationsto put it simply, she called in the God squad. I was put on prayer lists from Boston to Ireland, Italy, and Portugaleverywhere my mother had friends and relatives living.
Their prayers were answered, and I survived the night. But I remained in a coma for two and a half weeks. My parents stayed by my side and took turns sleeping in the chair by my crib. In addition to the brain shunt, needles were inserted in my heels to extract the lead from my blood through a process called chelation.
I spent the next three years in and out of the hospital. Doctors informed my parents that I would be severely disabled because the amount of lead I had ingested was capable of killing five male adults. The disease typically causes brain damage, mental retardation, blindness, and death.
In my unit at the hospital, there were many children poisoned by lead paint. I shared a room with a toddler named Sapphire. We were the same age, and she had severe lead-paint poisoning as well. Nobody ever came to see Sapphire. My mom rocked us both to sleep each night, taking Sapphire under her wing. Mom tells me that we were always holding hands, giving each other strength to get well.
Several months passed and still no family member ever came to visit my surrogate sister. Although they could barely feed their nine children, my mother applied for guardianship of Sapphire. On the day the adoption was to be finalized, and my new sister was well enough to come home, Sapphire's grandmother showed up in court to protest. I never saw Sapphire again.