Saturday, January 11, 2014

A Story of Survival

The first sign that I was getting better came when I was still in bed, propped up by three pillows, a glass of 7-Up on my nightstand and the remote just out of reach. I was staring at the doorway, where a little clump of pet hair had gathered. It wasn't a new clump of pet hair; I'd been noticing it from this same vantage point every morning for weeks. Miraculously, it hadn't even grown in size, despite the fact that I hadn't taken a broom to our wood floors in ... I couldn't even say.

But later that day, I began the slow process of getting out of bed (holding the wall, fighting dizziness) and slowly padding down the hall in my sock slippers, and on the way past the doorway, I stooped down and came up again, triumphant, with that wad of pet hair clenched in my fist.

I was going to be okay.


What happened was this: I got very busy, and then I got very sick, and then I stayed sick for a long time.

Oh, I kept fulfilling my obligations. I taught all my classes. I went to meetings for one thing or another at night. I graded papers and planned lessons. I revised my novel and missed my deadline by only one week. The dogs got fed and walked; I scooped the cat litter. Somehow, Will and I kept each other fed, although he was struggling, too. Laundry more or less got done, although from one day to the next, I couldn't remember what clothing I'd worn. But it was growing harder and harder to summon effort for the most basic things. Every hour of grading papers required an hour of sleep for recovery.

At one point, it got so bad that I called Will to my bedside, where I sat, surrounded by used Kleenexes. I'd been losing my voice off and on, and so what I told him came out in a hoarse whisper, which gave the occasion even more solemnity. "I want you to pay attention," I whispered. "I'm going to tell you all my passwords."

Will's eyes grew wide.


The second sign that I was going to survive came when I was at the checkout stand at Walgreens, clutching a bottle of orange DayQuil, a quick fix for what ailed me. Passing over my debit card, I glimpsed my fingernails. They were long and ragged, haphazardly trimmed, faintly yellow. They were the fingernails you might expect to see on someone in a nursing home, or maybe a person who had been in a coma for years.

I curled my fingers into my palms, not wanting the Walgreens cashier to see how low I'd fallen.

At home, I clipped and cut and buffed and polished. I'd never really cared about my nails before, beyond basic maintenance; I can count on both hands the number of manicures I've had in my life, each preceding a major event -- wedding, interview, book launch.

That night when I crawled into bed, I fell asleep admiring my champagne nails in the glow of the television set.


I coughed so hard and for so long that my doctor thought I might have cracked a rib. I'd definitely pulled a muscle on my left side; whenever I raised my left arm, a shooting pain zigzagged from my armpit to my waist. It was easier not to use my left arm at all for a few weeks, so I kept it tucked against my side while my right arm swung free. I felt like an amputee with a phantom limb, except mine was there -- just relatively useless.

At one point, standing in the kitchen, I doubled over with a cough, and then realized that I couldn't straighten. Something was definitely wrong with my back. For a long time, I stayed there on the kitchen floor, eventually turning over so that my back was pressed against the linoleum. My pets wandered in, one by one, as if paying their condolences. LG brought me her rope toy and waved it excitedly in my face.

That night, I whispered the ending of my book into Will's ear. "I trust you," I said. "If I'm not around to finish..."

It was dark, but somehow I still knew he was rolling his eyes.


Ten days after I started taking antibiotics, I started feeling better. Small things, like walking the dog or taking out the trash, still exhausted me, but a three-hour nap each afternoon and eight hours of sleep each night seemed to help. "You can't make up for a sleep deficit," my doctor had admonished me, but I was trying, anyway.

On that tenth morning, I woke up and put on a pair of sweats and my cross trainers. It took a while to find my gym bag, buried as it was beneath a stack of blue books and scraps of Christmas wrapping paper.

My first steps on the treadmill were hesitant and slow; I'd forgotten how to move. It took a while to build up a rhythm, and I had to stop a few times for a wracking cough -- but I was going. I was moving.

I was going to make it.

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