Diagonally across the street from Helsinki’s first indoor hockey rink parking lot, there’s a low, one-storey yellow stone building with a red roof. In the winter, it’s visible from the street, but in the summer, it sits in the shadow of the birches, elms, and maples that line street in front of it.
Behind the small building, there are several bigger and slightly Gothing-looking buildings – designed by Magnus Schjerfbeck, brother of painter Helene Schjerfbeck – and originally built in 1910 as Helsinki’s first epidemic hospital but by the 1970s, they were home to a children’s hospital. Aurora, it was called.
What the one-storey building was built for meant for, I don’t know, but I do know that when I spent about a month in the children’s hospital, a measles epidemic broke out and to spare me, the doctors put me in quarantine.
I was five years old.
I was sort of a sickly kid. One of those unlucky ones who get ear infections and then, something weird in my hip. It was the hip that took me to the hospital but it was the antibiotics I had eaten for the ear infections that made my teeth turn brown.
However, after the hip took me to the hospital, while there, the doctors decided that since my teeth were already ruined and also still baby teeth, the smartest thing to do would be to pull them all out.
And so they did.
(I’ll pause while you wipe away your tears).
I don’t have many memories from the hospital time and the ones I have are mostly good ones. I remember how, when I was admitted into the hospital, the nurse who bathed me couldn’t believe how cold I wanted the water to be.
I remember how I rode up and down the hallway, lying on a mattress with wheels on it, making it go faster by pushing forward with my hands. I guess you could call it a full-body skateboard.
And I remember how I was taken to the small, single room in that yellow stone building diagonally across the street from the hockey rink’s parking lot with my best friend.
How could I be in a single room with my best friend, you ask?
Well, my best friend that week was a small, fair-haired boy from Sweden. His name was Emil, and he lived on a farm in Lönneberga. He was nice, but he just couldn’t stay out of trouble!
He got into trouble even when he was just trying to be nice like that one time when he hoisted his little sister Ida up the flag pole, just because Ida wanted to see the view from up there, and then his Dad got angry and sent him to the shed where he carved wooden figures.
Yes, my best friend was Emil in Lönneberga, the main character in Astrid Lindgren’s books. I got two Emil books that week, one with a light blue cover, the other with a green cover, and I read those books over and over and over again in quarantine. I still have the books.
The tiny room was not only my hospital room, it was also the little shed where Emil ran to escape from his father, the kitchen of the main house where Emil laid the rat traps (that his father unfortunately discovered by sticking his toe into one), and it was the horse carriage that Emil sat in when his parents to him to the doctor after he got his head stuck in the soup tureen.
My room was also the poor house, the market, and Alfred the farmhand’s room.
I was like Emil in the shed. Without a knife, of course.
Of course I had other visitors, too. Like my parents came, and I seem to remember that my aunt came briefly to see me there, but mostly it was just Emil and me.
“You and me, Emil”, said Alfred in the book, and that’s what I said out loud in that little room, too.
When I got out of there about a week later, I wanted to be just like Emil. I wanted to sleep with my hat and my wooden rifle – which I first asked Dad to make me – and when we drove up to Grandma and Grandpa’s little house in the Finnish countryside, I lay down in the backseat of our car and named different places along the way – because that’s what Emil had done, and then recited all the places on their way to the doctor.
We both grew up, of course, and we lost touch but every once in a while I think of him and I smile.
Just last week, I told Son how, when I was a kid, I named the big rock along the E75 in Helsinki “The Waterfall Cliff” because it looks like a stone waterfall. And because that’s what Emil would have done.
Emil became the Chairman of the local Council, and I became me, but every once in a while – especially now – I think of the week we spent in the little room in that yellow building, just the two if us, in quarantine.