I am getting sick, which was inevitable, really, given the way I've been sleeping (not much) and the amount I've been traveling (too much). In the past couple of years, I've become more vigilant about washing my hands while traveling (even if I'm only traveling across campus), but it's just not possible to keep oneself protected while flying and taking subways. And so I enter day two of having a vaguely sore throat and possibly slightly swollen glands--of feeling that something is coming, but that I'm not sure what it will turn out to be.
Twelve years ago, at right about this same time of year, I had similar symptoms, only my throat wasn't vaguely sore; it was virulently sore, vituperatively sore. On Saturday morning, I told my mother that if my sore throat kept up, I wanted to go to the doctor on Monday; I was supposed to head back to school only a few days later. On Sunday evening, we finally thought to look at my throat, and we were both horrified. On Monday morning, the nurse said, even before she did the throat culture, "If this isn't strep, then I've never seen strep before." (Later, my grad school doctors would tell me that it had probably been mono.) By Thursday, I couldn't wear a turtleneck because my neck hurt so much; that night, an emergency room physician prescribed painkillers and I received my second penicillin shot of the week (they were both in the hip; for some reason, getting shots in the hip almost made me pass out). And later that night, my fever finally broke and I was able to get some sleep for the first time in days.
One thing I remember from the aftermath of that strep/mono/whatever experience: thinking that my mom should have thought to look at my throat on Friday, when I first started complaining about its hurting, but that I also should have thought to look at my own throat. Somehow, I sensed that I had slipped into a period when I was neither a child (when she would automatically have checked my symptoms) nor an adult (when I would have to be responsible for--if not enjoy--my own symptoms). Sadly, it would be a decade before Britney Spears sang the song that captured my predicament. In the meantime, all I got was time, a moment that was mine, while I was in between--and it was just enough to get me really sick.
And it was also just enough to give me a chance to think back on childhood illness, since I couldn't do much of anything else. (I tried reading The Woman Warrior for the first time during that illness. Let me tell you: don't read that book if you're even possibly having feverish visions, because the reality shifts of "White Tigers" will freak you out.) And so I remembered, perhaps in hallucinatory homage to Kingston:
When I was a girl, and obviously not yet a woman, I used to get tonsilitis all the time--as in, twice or three times a year all the time. For some reason--I suppose, because the repeated bouts weren't really dangerous--the doctors decided not to take my tonsils out, which was really okay with me, since surgery never really sounded like much fun, even when my mother explained how anesthetic worked and told me that the anesthesiologist would tell me to pretend I was flying an airplane until I fell asleep. And so, every few months, my throat would start to hurt and sometimes I'd get sick to my stomach, too, and I'd be consigned to the sofa in our family room, to cover up with the brown and orange zig-zag afghan and, later, the red, black, and grey quilt my mom made in 1981 or so. The sofa was a rusty-colored leather, the perfect length for a six-year-old, and from it, I could easily see the television. I have a pretty clear memory of undertaking my first story-and-film comparison project during one of these illnesses, since HBO kept rerunning a production of Hans Christian Andersen's "The Littlest Mermaid." (My IMDb search turns up nothing that could have been the film I watched. I find this odd, and not a little troubling.) One thing I loved about that production was its pathos; its ending was uncompromising, just like the ending of the Andersen tale.
But the best thing about being sick--the thing that made it all worth while, as I waited for the penicillin or amoxycillin to take effect and kick the infection's ass yet again--was the hot Jell-o. My mother (who was, as you may already have figured out, taking a hiatus from teaching to raise my still-toddling brother and me) would cook up the Jell-o, which in my memory is always raspberry or cherry, but instead of refrigerating it, she would just let me drink it out of my orange Tupperware cup. I think that she will tell me, later on today, that she only fed me hot Jell-o once. And maybe she did. But in my memory, it happened every time I got sick. And when I lay in my bed twelve years ago, feareful and rueful about the fact that some angry infection had been allowed to gallop all over my immune system just like the barbarian armies in that weird book I was reading, the hot Jell-o took on mythic proportions. It became a sort of magic potion, a ruby elixir that had ensured my safety, my mother's guarantee that my good health would return within 48 hours, that there was nothing to worry about, that causes were known and cures were being effected.
I thought a lot more about the hot Jell-o and the mystery strep/mono/whatever back in the fall, when (as some of you know) I had a cough that had neither a diagnosis nor a cure. I started coughing during an academic event in California in early August; by late August, I was still coughing, and hurting as well. The week before we started classes, I spent my evenings lying on the couch with a heating pad pressed against my upper back, at the spot where it felt as though someone was slipping a knife into my lung every time I coughed. On the second day of classes, having had a chest x-ray the day before, I coughed in mid-sentence and lost my voice for a few minutes, which seemed to startle my poor students, to whom I'd said nothing about my ongoing illness, since the cough seemed to be letting up a bit. By late September, I was back on steroids and antibiotics and a hard-core anti-acid drug, as well; that cocktail seemed to do the cough in.
But I was left thinking--and I'm thinking today, for reasons that I hope are apparent, if not obvious--about things that happen to us for no apparent reason, about how scary it is not to be able to look back to causes and, in turn, to think ahead to cures. The hardest thing about the autumn cough was that everything seemed to be fine: the chest x-ray was normal; my lungs didn't sound gurgly and the cough was always dry; I had no fever. And yet I kept coughing, and hurting. As illness goes, this one was low-grade, a blip on even my radar, an annoyance and a worry but not (as far as I knew or know) a real threat of any kind. I didn't seem to be infecting others; God knows there was enough time for me to fell the whole campus, the way it dragged on. And so the doctor just kept throwing things at it, and eventually, the stubborn thing seemed to just give up.
But there was the spectre, haunting: what if it hadn't given up? What about the things that never do turn around--or, worse yet, seem to turn around but then, cruelly, don't? What about the narrative that has no logical beginning, that unfolds only in a pattern of relentless inexplicability, a progression of ceaseless, causeless pain? Despite all modernist and postmodernist interventions--and I don't think I bash these -ists and -isms lightly--we seem to be wired for some pretty stock narrative trajectories: the cataclysm, the agony, the (sometimes miraculous) relief, the (sometimes logical) explanation. My father called home from his business trip this morning to tell my mother that he'd heard a West Virginian family member--whether she was a widow, a bereaved mother, or a devastated sister, I don't know--saying on television, over and over, "I'm gonna sue. I'm gonna sue." "Can you imagine?" my mother said to me after she got off the phone. Though translating someone else's furious, inchoate grief is always presumptuous, I took a stab at it: "Someone's gonna tell me why. I'm gonna make someone tell me why."
sources for today's images: 1) PicassoMio; 2) a French site of common recipies; 3) the news release of a culinary history center's opening at the University of Michigan; 4) AdClassix.com.