Just started an essay about my experience dealing with a recently diagnosed chronic illness. It’s by no means finished, but it is a start ~
I’ve been sick for some time now. My first doctor’s appointment was in November, but you know as well as I do that the first doctor’s appointment comes only after months of not feeling well, of complaining to your dad on the phone an hearing him say it’s ‘just a bad headache’ or it’s ‘allergy season.’ I fear that these past five months have turned me into a bit of a hypochondriac. Perhaps that’s better than the alternative.
In my nonfiction writing workshops during undergrad, it was hard to imagine writing about anything other than the men I’d loved, wanted to love, or hated that I did love. My professor once laughed and said ‘write about something other than these idiots I see walking around campus with skateboards and cigarettes.’ He was right, of course- way too many pages of my thesis, way too much of my computer’s hard drive, are taken up with words dedicated to boys; metaphors about the way they sleep, stanzas about what it meant when he winked before leaving my dorm in the morning. Even when I tried to write about other things, it would circle back to them- the essay about my dad? Somehow it transformed into an essay about Trevor. The essay I started about my first cat dying? I saw a connection between that experience and a recent breakup so clearly that I couldn’t help but write it. Even when I’m not writing about actions of the heart, love finds its way in between the paragraphs, messying up the cracks.
And maybe that’s my warning here. Maybe I’m admitting that I can’t help but to write about love, even when I’m not in it (even when I’m months, years, away from it). And maybe I’m saying that even though this essay is meant to be about my chronic illness, it may turn into something else. An ex boyfriend may find his way in here, tied inevitably into the threads of my memory. Raymond Carver once wrote “It ought to make us feel ashamed when we talk like we know what we’re talking about when we talk about love.” I won’t claim to know what I’m talking about when I talk about love. But I’ll no longer deny that I can’t resist talking about love.
‘It feels like a cave where someone died,’ my brother once said to me. We were young, 6 and 4 maybe. My mother had been in her room alone for two days straight, blankets covering her two windows and the space under the door. There was a constant humming noise we could hear in the walls, her industrial-sized fan spinning on an endless loop in the darkness. We’d slipped into her room to check on her- the air smelled stagnant. Her body barely moved to acknowledge us.
This wasn’t the first time we’d seen her like this- often, maybe once every few months, she’d close the door and not come out for days. My dad told us she was sick, told us not to bother her. I remember thinking that this was a normal sickness, that being a weak heartbeat away from death was feeling under the weather. Eventually, my mom would reappear in the kitchen, grey-faced and emaciated from lack of food, lack of light. When I’d see her at the counter leaning over the toaster for her first meal in days, I breathed a sigh of relief. There were many, many times it felt like I may never see her again, and even if she and my father and even my brother laughed my fears of her impeding death off, I felt anxious at the supreme darkness that hit her so often. ‘They’re just headaches,’ my dad used to say. And when she’d reemerge from her dark room I’d ask her ‘how are your headaches?’ I knew even then it had to be more than a headache to do this to her- to rid her room of the purple-smelling perfume she used to wear, to leave her out of the butterfly catching competition in the woods behind our house. There was once that Ethan and I had the idea to bake her favorite pie- to coax her out of her room and her sickness via blackberry pie. We’d picked the berries all day long, our bodies sweaty and sticky as they arranged the berries into a pre-made crust from Save-a-Lot. We put the pie into the oven, exhausted but committed, convinced that this simple and pure act could resuscitate her. My dad looked on, proud, humored, wiping his forehead on the kitchen towel, bringing a cold beer to his lips. The smell was hot and rich, covering every inch of the house, following me even to the front yard where I sought the coolness of dusk. But still her door did not open. Still she chose to sit in the darkness. I knew then that it was something more than a sickness that did this to her- it was an evil, an unrelenting and faceless evil who laughed in the face of children baking blackberry pie.