The Sunday Rumpus Essay: In Sickness and in Health

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It started with a dry throat. The desperate need to drink woke me at 5:30 am on our second day on Kaua’i. I drank and I drank and I drank, and my throat was still gritty and parched. I sat outside on the lanai, wrapped in the hotel’s soft bathrobe, and waited for the sun to rise. Dark outlines of palm trees swayed in front of me. The ocean shooshed and whooshed. Morning birds spoke to each other in a melodic tongue I yearned to know.

Night dissolved and morning swept in. The light turned golden yellow. My husband rustled around in the room behind me. I came inside and said, “I think I have some bad news.”

“What’s that?” he said, standing in his black boxer-briefs.

“I think I’m getting sick.”

*

This is not a tale about my cold turning out to be some rare, terminal disease. Don’t worry. This isn’t that kind of story.

*

I’m what’s called “highly sensitive.” It means I require comfortable sleeping conditions, cry easily, develop inexplicable rashes, and am in tune to other people’s emotions. It also means that, most of the time, I know my body pretty well. So, whenever I get that scratchy, feel-thirsty-but-can’t-drink-enough-water throat, I know that in a few hours it will be sore. Painful and inflamed. The next day I’ll get a stuffy head and a couple days later a cough. I won’t get a fever—I never get fevers—and after another couple days the stuffy head will go away. Even after I feel mostly better, I’ll still have a slight cough, because all my colds settle in my lungs. This is my way.

*

Did you know that, in traditional Chinese medicine, the lungs are considered the organs of grief?

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My husband and I had come to Kaua’i each of the last four winters. We used to vacation other places—the California desert when we were feeling poor, Belize when we were feeling adventurous—but always someplace with sun. We’d wanted, last year, to go to Costa Rica, but then my brother died. I was too bereft for adventure.

My brother was forty-five when he died, and he was the last of my family. My dad died the previous year. My mother died in 1994. All my aunts and uncles were also gone. After my brother died, I had to clean out our family home. We were the only people who had lived in that house in forty-five years. There was forty-five years worth of detritus to sort. Keep, sell, throw away, shred. Keep, sell, throw away, shred.

Steve_HangTen_Maui

My dad had taken out a half-million dollar reverse mortgage on the house. It came due a year after he died. The house went into foreclosure. It was sold at auction, at city hall.

I fell into a dark depression. I hoarded prescription pills. I pictured the barrel of a pistol in my mouth. I considered, while visiting San Francisco over Thanksgiving, taking a cab to the Golden Gate Bridge. We were at the San Francisco Symphony and I lied to my husband that I was going to take a cab home. “I’ll go with you,” he insisted. We stayed and listened to a Braham’s violin concerto, instead.

*

See what an unreliable narrator I am? It turns out this is “that” kind of story. In some way.

*

By the time we went to Kaua’i this past February, I was better. I no longer needed that other prescription, the one in addition to my regular Prozac that pulled me out of the bottom of the black hole. I was starting to write again, for the first time in over a year. I was starting to exercise again, for the first time in over a year. I even lost a few of the twenty-five pounds I had gained from taking that other prescription.

This trip to Kaua’i was going to be about getting myself back. I was going to hike and play tennis and swim and have slippery sex with my husband, just like I used to. I would eat fresh fish and pineapple and mangoes. By the time we returned to Portland, I would be back in my groove.

*

For the first two days I was sick, I swam in the hotel’s elaborate, winding pool. I felt too weak to go in the ocean, which has its own ideas about undertows and riptides. For the next few days, I was too tired to do much more than lie in bed, watch TV, sit on the lanai. It’s okay, I thought, because I will be better before this vacation is over. That’s the schedule of my body. Then I will play tennis and hike and swim in the ocean.

But my body had its own ideas, too.

On our last day in Kaua’i, my husband went for a hike alone along the Mahaulepu trail. The rugged, red cliffs run along the south coast of Kaua’i, ending at a white sand beach. Along the way are dunes and pinnacles and petroglyphs. I still wasn’t well enough to scramble over the red clay, but I wanted to take a walk, on our last day. There was a path that cut through the condominium developments next to the hotel. I had no idea where it went, but I didn’t want to return to the Mainland without knowing.

The sidewalk wound past the backsides of expensive vacation houses. At one, a haole was screaming at a local workman. “How do you expect us to come here and spend our money if this is how you treat us?” I wanted to go to the brown skinned worker and say, “We are not all like that. Please don’t hate me.”

Men and women and children passed me on the path, coming from the other way. They carried boogie boards and buckets and towels. I looped behind apartments, and then a series of tennis courts where my husband and I played, a few years back. I stood atop a small hill. At the bottom was the ocean. Children played in the blue-green water. I’d walked all the way to the beach.

I stood at the end of the earth while the tradewinds blew me through.

*

The next morning, as we prepared to leave, my body and my brain were fiercely hot. Stepping outside, into the tropical sun, was the only thing that cooled me. It was day eight of this cold. I’d just taken a turn for the worse.

*

Two trips to urgent care. A cough that rattled my lungs for minutes at a time. Throwing up anything I ate, which was not much. Fifteen boxes of tissues. Antibiotics. Cough syrup with codeine. Acupuncture. Chinese herbs. An Albuterol inhaler. Prednisone. So much mucous that I felt like my lungs were drowning.

*

My mother had emphysema. She endured long coughing fits. She used an Albuterol inhaler. She took Prednisone. She died because she could not get enough air to pass through her lungs.

*

If I went to the bathroom, I coughed. If I talked, I coughed. If I ate, I coughed. I stopped eating much. I had gained all that weight from that other prescription, so you’d think I’d be happy that, at least, some pounds would melt away. But I felt malnourished. My veins, hollow. Scraped raw. I lay in bed, quiet. Still. My computer became my only link to the world. The only way I could communicate.

My hips ached. A throbbing pain took residence in my thigh. I worried that it was a thrombosis. That being still had caused it, but if I moved it would catapult into my bloodstream, towards my lungs.

My brother died two days after being released from the hospital for an overdose. When I got the four am phone call, I assumed that’s how he had died: Ambien, morphine sulfate, Xanax, oxycodone, whiskey. There’s a good chance my dad died that way, too. He’d tried to kill himself three times the previous year, but they didn’t do an autopsy report on him when he died.

My brother’s autopsy report arrived on Christmas Eve. Cause of death: two pulmonary emboli originating from thrombosis in the leg.

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Did you know that autopsy reports aren’t just about cause of death and chemicals found in the blood? The coroner noted that my brother’s brown hair was an inch long when the blood clot rushed to his lungs.

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I have a friend, now in her early forties, who survived Ewing’s sarcoma when she was in her late twenties. Two years ago, her mother died of cancer. Every time my friend gets an ache or a pain, even if it’s just a stiff neck, she goes to the doctor. Sets up an MRI. I’d always thought this seemed crazy.

*

I had bronchitis. Friends couldn’t believe that it wasn’t pneumonia or mono or the flu. No one thinks bronchitis is all that serious, could explain how sick I was. But my husband checked the Internet. The Mayo Clinic and the National Institutes of Health all said that the severe coughing could last two to four weeks. And it would taken even more time to get my strength back. My husband had to tell me this several times, as I laid curled up in a ball and whined, “What’s wrong with me?”

Another writer stepped in and taught my short story workshop for me. She had just finished a round of chemotherapy, and was bald. She was grateful for a respite from her winter of darkness, she said. I tried to keep this in mind whenever I felt sorry for myself.

*

Many spiritual traditions believe that with illness comes epiphany. On day 25 of being sick, I thought: I will never take being healthy for granted again. I will eat my veggies and exercise and make sure I enjoy doing whatever it is that I am doing. I told my students that I was going to take some time off from teaching, after I got better.

*

On day 27, my cough finally cleared up. I could make my own breakfast and make my own lunch, and keep them both down. I felt euphoric! I signed up for two writing workshops right away. I considered flying all the way across the country for another. I had dinner, out, with two friends. I wanted to wrap them in my scarf and pull them close to my chest. I hadn’t seen any friends in a month. This is what happens when you’re sick: people stay away.

People stay away when you’re grieving, too, which is odd. It’s not like grief is catching.

*

My acupuncturist said the reason I’d been so sick this year is lurking pathogens. They were there, ready to attack, for quite some time, but my body said, “Hold on. She can’t handle it now.”

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What can we and can’t we handle, and who decides? I’ve never been a “God only gives us as much as we can handle” MyGraduation_familyquoter. It implies that, if we reach a point where we can take no more, we have failed.

When I collapsed after my whole family died, I did feel like a failure. I could not pull myself up by the bootstraps. I could not just put one foot in front of the other. I could not summon some inner strength to go on. I just wanted it—the pain—to be over. I am only alive because my husband kept me tethered to this earth, because when I pleaded with him, “Please let me die. You’re the only reason I don’t do it, so please let me go,” he would not.

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Mine is not the story of a heroine. But maybe it is the story of a hero.

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One of the complicated dimensions of suffering—and there are many—is the sense that our suffering is invisible. There is something satisfying about feeling like hell and having a friend say, “You look like hell.” It’s not just the validation, but also eases the loneliness. Because all suffering, at its core, is lonely.

When we have a relatively benign cold, someone can hear our cough or feel our fever or witness our vomit. It is the more serious illnesses, the ones that blacken our organs or paralyze us with pain or feed our despair, that cannot be seen.

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The euphoria of day 27 had consequences: I spent days 28, 29, and 30, recovering in bed.

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A disease is considered “acute” when it comes on suddenly and worsens quickly. It is considered “chronic” when it lasts for three or more months. The period in between—when you are done with being sick, but it is not done with you—is called convalescence. Eleven months after my brother died, I didn’t know if I was still grieving, or if I was convalescing. On day 34 of being sick, I don’t know if I’m really sick, or I’m merely mucking through some sort of convalescent stasis.

It is slow going, in this space, and it’s invisible and maddening and lonely. But one thing it has not been, during this physical illness, is desperate. It never felt like too much. It never felt like, “I can’t go on.” The entire time I was sick I was aware that there was light on the other side of the long, long, winter of darkness.


Liz Prato plays with words in verdant Portland, Oregon. Her short stories and essays have appeared in numerous journals and anthologies, including Hayden’s Ferry Review, Iron Horse Literary Review, Salon.com, Subtropics, Los Angeles Review, ZYZZYVA and Who’s Your Mama (Soft Skull Press). When she’s not moving characters around the chessboard of the American West, Liz dreams of palm trees. She’s currently working on a memoir about, you know. The whole mess. More from this author →