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Illness as Metaphor

Over the course of this blog, I’ve documented, all too well, my penchant for overcommitment. But while I fully admit that, yes, most of the hectic pace of my life is my own fault—no, I didn’t really need to agree … Read More

By / April 24, 2009

Over the course of this blog, I’ve documented, all too well, my penchant for overcommitment. But while I fully admit that, yes, most of the hectic pace of my life is my own fault—no, I didn’t really need to agree to go to my building’s composting meeting this week—at the same time I sometimes wonder if I wasn’t, perhaps, born under some sort of wonky, frantic-making star. For instance: Was it my fault that the workers sanding the floor of our apartment somehow sent large enough vibrations into the second bedroom of our neighbors’ apartment, allegedly jostling their wall-mounted case of three-hundred-plus Mets bobble head dolls, causing three of said dolls to fall out of the case and break, and leading our neighbor to repeatedly harass us about this the day after we brought Pearl home from the hospital, demanding we pay for the smashed dolls, even going so far as to hand us a faux-official-style invoice? And did I somehow cause Coleman to come home from school, that same day, with a raging case of pink eye that kept him home from school and bouncing off the walls for the three following days, as we tried in vein to get him to stop sticking his pink-eye-infected hands in his new sister’s tiny face? And, in fact, I certainly did everything to prevent myself from coming down with my own case of it, which I then passed on to Pearl and back to Coleman, who passed it back to me, and so on and so forth until we, as a family, had gone through four bottles of antibiotic eye drops, and I, as an individual, had tossed out five tubes of mascara? No, none of this pointless agita could be blamed on me. No. But such things happen to me pretty frequently. And so it was that last week—six days after the book’s release, the night of the baby-inflected reading at McNally-Jackson documented in my last post—I began to develop a strange feeling in my throat and an overwhelming thirst. I thought—or hoped—that these sensations were simply do to exhaustion (since I was, indeed, very tired), but, of course, I awoke the next morning to find that I was sick, truly sick, in the way that I tend to get sick: a heavy, chesty, sinusy cold.

The trouble is that when you have kids, you can’t really get sick. Or, well, you can—in the last six months alone I’ve lost had strep throat and full-on, completely-lose-your-voice laryngitis (twice)—but you can’t stay in bed, sipping tea with honey and lemon while watching bad TV. So maybe it would be more accurate to say you can’t really get better. Four-year-olds understand, intellectually, that you’re sick, but they still want you to play with them. And if they can be convinced to lie down with you, they generally cannot be convinced to be quiet enough to actually allow you to sleep, or, at least, not for more than five minutes. This time, though, I was so completely worn out that I actually fell asleep—truly, deeply asleep—while Coleman jumped around beside me and Pearl squirmed on my chest. I had no choice but to rally, though, as the readings continued on: The Barnes and Noble in Park Slope, where the very nice manager is named Peaches (really!), and readings take place in the New Age section, leaving writers (me) subject to meanderings of shoppers seeking books on astrology, which was only slightly less distracting than the fact that as I read my nose became more and more plugged, and I idiotically hadn’t remembered to bring tissues up to the podium with me. But the most distracting thing—hold tight, for here things take a serious turn—was the fact that I was not alone in my illness. On Sunday, I’d received a note from my mother, saying she wasn’t feeling well, that she’d had all our cousins over on Saturday for a delayed Seder and that by the time they left, she’d been so wiped out that she’d had to get in bed. My mother, who is 78, generally has more energy than do I, so it was clear that something was very wrong. “Go to the doctor tomorrow,” I wrote back, “and please call as soon as you know what’s going on.” She insisted that she was fine, though, that no doctor was needed. Argh, I screamed, inwardly, and left a message for my sister, who pretty much never answers her phone. She manages a restaurant in Brooklyn and it’s usually too loud to talk, so she lets everything go to voicemail, then returns calls on Mondays, when the restaurant is closed. My sister is a eighteen years older than me. She’s also a nurse, by training. For these reasons, my mother sometimes takes her counsel on health matters more seriously than she does mine, which makes sense, seeing as my knowledge of medicine is largely cribbed from articles in the “Science Times” and the occasional episode of ER. Or my sister.

My parents live in California, in the southern part of the Bay Area, though they’re both New Yorkers (and still complain about the bad bagels in their adopted city; and the lack of pastrami). Here in New York, whenever I tell people that my parents live in San Jose, they look at me strangely, as if I must be mistaken, and say, “Really? Why?” Here is why: In the late 1960s, before I was born, my mother’s cousin Arthur, a physicist, took a job at Stanford and never left. His parents and his brother followed. My mother and Arthur grew up together—they’re a bit like brother and sister—and during my childhood we visited constantly. A dozen years ago, when my dad retired, they moved out there, perhaps thinking that I might follow. I didn’t, of course, and neither did my sister, who didn’t want to uproot her now-grown kids. None of this—that is, the distance between my parents and my sister and me—would be a big deal if my father hadn’t fallen ill. ‘Ill’ might not be the right word. Shortly before they headed west, he began to suffer from a confusing set of symptoms. For a brief moment we thought he had a brain tumor. Then we were told there was nothing to worry about, he just had a problem with the tiny bones in his middle ear. But year after year, as he went from doctor to doctor, searching for a diagnosis, he began to fall apart. Eventually, he was diagnosed with a condition that has a complicated, unpronounceable name, but basically has the same effect as Parkinson’s, which means he’s losing his memory—particularly horrifying to a man who, literally, had a photographic memory—and his ability to walk, or even sit up properly. As he gets worse, things get harder on my mother, who not only fully takes care of him—the endless doctors’ appointments, the falls in the middle of the night, the cabinets full of possibly-pointless medications—but is rapidly losing the brilliant, hilarious man she married almost sixty years ago. He is, she constantly reminds me, a shell of himself. I won’t, here, go into how heartbreaking it’s been to witness his deterioration. You can just trust me. It’s devastating. Too devastating to dwell on. And all the more so because he fully understands what’s going on. But for now: my mother. Who has been so worn out by the stress of the past few years that she’s not quite herself. And so I wasn’t all that surprised when she called last Tuesday to say she had pneumonia. Her voice was so weak she could barely get the words out and I had to struggle to maintain my composure on the phone. “I’m taking Zithromax,” she told me, knowing I’d recognize the antibiotic in question. I’ve inherited her tendency for lung ailments, had pneumonia myself a few years ago, and can generally count on a bout of bronchitis once a year or so. “It works quickly. I should start to feel better in a day or so.” This, from my experience, is true, but she really did sound very, very sick. “Should we come out?” I asked, not mentioning that I was sick. “If you need us, we’ll come out there. You just have to tell me.” My dad, at this point, can’t really take care of himself. And she, I knew, needed to stay in bed and rest for at least a week, even if she started feeling better right away. But I also knew that she wouldn’t want me around her or my dad, whose immune system isn’t in such great shape, if I had some sort of bug. Which was worse: My mother, so sick she could barely move, trying to fix meals for my dad and shlep him up to Palo Alto for his various tests and injections? Or me, taking care of them, but possibly infecting them, in their fragile states, with a flu bug? I didn’t know. “What do you think?” I asked. “Let’s give it a day or two,” she said. “Let’s see how I feel tomorrow.” The fact that she was telling us not to come out was, I knew, a sign that things were very, very bad, first because my mother has that quality that I perhaps erroneously ascribe to Depression-era Jews of the female persuasion, some sort of vaguely martyr-ish inclination, which dictates that when things get really rough, she’d prefer anyone and everyone to keep their distance. Is it a guilt thing, that she can’t stand the thought of being a burden to anyone? Or is it about strength, that she can’t stand the thought of anyone seeing her at her weakest? I don’t know. But I’ll confess that I’ve inherited it, just as much as I’ve inherited her weak lungs. Regardless, the more sick my mother is, the more she insists she’s okay. The next day she was worse. And the day after that, even worse. She wasn’t, it seemed, responding to the Zithromax. On Thursday, she couldn’t catch her breath and, in desperation, called 911. At the hospital, she was given an intravenous drip of antibiotics and rehydrated, then sent home. “How is she?” Evan asked as I hung up the phone, after she’d explained this to me. In answer, I burst into tears. It wasn’t just the illness—though she did sound terrible—but that I’d never, in my life, heard my mother sound so frightened and lost. We should be there, I thought, but she still insisted that we should wait to fly out. By this point, I sounded terrible myself. There was no hiding my flu and she was, as I’d thought she would be, nervous about my passing it on to her. Pearl had now caught it, too. My mother could hear her coughing in the background. “Let’s wait a day and see if you’re better. Or I’m better. Or Pearl is better.” Nervously, I agreed. But I spent the day—and the one that followed—in a haze of anxiety, unable to feed myself, unable to make even the smallest of decisions, unable to prepare for the next couple of readings, which I wasn’t sure if I’d make, anyway, as we might be flying out to California any second. I called my agent, to warn her that I might have to cancel these readings—and to seek counsel—but she didn’t call me back. I called my editor, but didn’t hear from her, either. It was, of course, spring break, I remembered. My agent was away with her family. The irony: If I hadn’t had all these readings scheduled, we would have been in California, visiting my parents. Would she have gotten sick if we’d gone out there? If I’d been around to help her with the Seder? It was too much to think about. I’ve always been very close with my parents, which has meant, as an adult, having difficulty figuring out where to draw the line between family allegiance and personal ambition (a problem I gave to one of the characters in my novel, Emily). Eventually, I broke down and called my cousin Roz—Arthur’s wife and one of my mother’s closest friends—and asked if she’d visited my parents, if she could give me any perspective on the severity of the situation. Roz is one of the more sane people in my family and she also happens to know all there is to know about lung ailments: Her late daughter, Amy, had cystic fibrosis; and she’s a longtime board member of the American Lung Association. Under normal circumstances, she would likely have been down at my parents’ place, sticking casserole dishes in the fridge, but she and Arthur were leaving for Germany the next day. She had seen my mother, she said, a couple of days earlier, and my mother did indeed seem very ill, but pretty much about what you’d expect when someone has pneumonia. “You can’t come out here,” she said, in her calm, rational way. “You have an infant—a sick infant—and a four-year-old. You can’t take care of them and your parents. It’s just not possible. And you have readings in New York. This is a special time for you. You have to enjoy it a little. It’s wonderful.” This was a novel concept for me. I’d been so anxious—about reviews, about finding sitters, about moving, about everything—that it hadn’t occurred to me to actually try to actually enjoy this time. I suddenly recalled that others had given me this exact same advice. But now, of course, how could I enjoy any of it, knowing my mother was suffering three thousand miles away? Worrying that the worst might happen and I wouldn’t be there. I said as much to Roz. “Your mother will be better in a few days,” she said. “If she’s not, then you can come out. But if anyone’s going to come out right now, it should be your sister. She can come alone.” This, too, hadn’t quite occurred to me: That someone else could take care of my parents during this rough bit. But my sister, for her part, was way more calm about the situation than was I. She’s older, as I’ve said, so perhaps she’s less freaked out by the thought of our parents’ mortality. And having worked as a hospital nurse for twenty years—she just started this restaurant stuff, which seems only marginally less stressful—she’s seen her share of serious illness. “The thing is, Jo,” she told me gently, “if she were in danger, they would have forced her to stay at the hospital. They wouldn’t have run the risk of lawsuit in letting her go home.” Okay, I said, hoping she was right. “The Zithromax is a broad spectrum antibiotic,” she explained. “They’ve put her on something else, too, something more targeted, and that will probably work.” Okay, I said, again, hoping she wasn’t just saying this because she didn’t want to go out there. My sister hates to fly. And things were a bit crazy at her restaurant, which only opened a few months ago. But she was right. The next morning, my father answered the phone in a chipper mood. “She’s much better,” he said. “She’s up and walking around. I can’t get her to stay in bed.” Her voice, indeed, sounded stronger. “You’re better,” I cried, nearly shaking with relief. “I’m worse,” she said. “Contrary to what daddy says.” Now, I struggled not to laugh. If she was arguing with my dad, and insisting she wasn’t well, she was truly on the mend. On and on she went, about the myriad ways in which she was worse, and the various people who were annoying her, and the meals that her nice friends out there brought over for her father, and how everyone says you should have hot things when your throat hurts, but she prefers cold. “Tell me about your bathroom,” she said, suddenly. “My bathroom?” I asked. How could and why would she be asking about our bathroom at this exact moment? “How did it turn out?” she asked. “You can’t really see it any of Evan’s pictures.” Oh, I realized, right. She was asking about our renovation. Of course. Something else I’d sort of forgotten about, or forgotten to enjoy, given all the chaos. My mother, like many mothers, is a bit more interested in such things than am I, which also means she really knows how to enjoy them. It occurred to me, just then, that she might never see our apartment, in its reconfigured state, the apartment in which my father’s mother lived for sixty years, amidst clusters of huge, dark-veneered dressers and green velvet couches, the walls decorated with photographs of Israel and Chagall prints. My mother, a devotee of all things light and modern, had hated this apartment, and thought me slightly crazy for wanting to live in it, much less live in it without doing any work on it. After ten years, we’d finally come around to her way of thinking. Or, really, found the time and cash to do the work. “You would love it,” I said. “I know,” she said, “I know I would.”

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