Monday, 21 March 2011

In Which I Am Uncharacteristically Serious

Since coming out of the hospital about 5 weeks ago, I’ve been trying mostly to just get on with life. Aside from resting and booking follow-up appointments, the most effort expended has been on resuming the normal rhythms of my day. This has proved more difficult than I anticipated, mostly due to the fact that I didn’t receive a diagnosis in the hospital, nor was I cured when I left, so I wasn’t really sure how to treat my own body. Every miniscule pain or deviation from normal cycles was cause to fret. I wasn’t sure what limits to place on exertion: was lifting a 2-liter bottle of milk out of the fridge ok? How about carrying it a quarter mile from the grocery store up the hill to my house? Should I avoid walking long distances or walk more? I didn’t feel frail. Or did I?

The fact was, I hadn’t felt better in years. I had no headaches at all. No menstrual migraine, no ongoing sinus pressure, no waking up feeling like my eyes didn’t fit right in the sockets. No ice packs or pain relievers. Gradually I began to feel optimistic, but still I was waiting for some concrete answers.

In the last week, I finally had some. And my, what a week it’s been. If I previously thought I had contemplated the big questions while in the hospital, I was a child, and now I’m an adult. The diagnosis is simple, and it recalls the poetry of complex theoretical maths rendered into elegant equations. My kidneys are on the fritz, originally kickstarted by childhood illness. As a result I developed elevated blood pressure. This caused further damage to my kidneys, which caused worse hypertension, which damaged my kidneys, hypertension, damage, hypertension, damage, and on and on for nearly twenty years. Until now. Now it has spiralled so completely out of control that at age 29 I woke in the wee hours with all the symptoms of a heart attack. Fortunately I have a Husband who immediately catapulted from bed and took me into the ER. Alone I might have spent hours wondering if I should be worried before maybe making an appointment with my doctor for later in the week. What I understand now is that a lack of Husband could have been fatal.

In the hospital, I unsurprisingly spent considerable time thinking about my future life before death. Husband and I discussed seeing a solicitor about making a will. I thought about the possibility of a future spent in and out of the hospital, or more in than out, and I thought about my criteria for living a meaningful life. I wondered even if I should voluntarily remove myself from the human gene pool to avoid passing on bum genetics to future generations. As someone with a deep respect for biology, that is a serious and important consideration to me.

I thought this meant I was contemplating death. I thought it meant that I was thinking about life and death together. But I wasn’t. I was still only thinking about life. Now that I have a diagnosis, death has come to the forefront of my contemplation. But not in the way I thought it would.

For fifteen years I have had migraines. They have been mostly manageable: they respond well to simple medication, they are mostly regular and predictable, I can often carry on a relatively normal day with one. But every now and then I have an absolute clanger. One that leaves me splitting my time between hugging the toilet bowl and sleeping the deepest, darkest sleep. When I have had those ones, I occasionally thought, What if this is the one that never goes away. What if this time, it’s for good. How long could I put up with this before I went mad and topped myself? This last question wasn’t me being morbid; it was a practical consideration. The human body is capable of tolerating astonishing punishment. It could be a hell of a long time.

Last August I started with a migraine that would blow the rest of these bad ones out of the arena. It was a migraine that wasn’t. It did funny things. It made my neck stiff. It caused “visual disturbance,” as they call it. I saw the doctor every few days for two weeks. I was put on narcotics and was unable to eat or work. And I thought, It’s heeeeeere. This is the one that will never go away. Imagine my relief (!) when it turned out it was only the worst sinus infection in the history of mucus. Antibiotics were forthcoming. Oh, the wonder of medicine! Two weeks later it was back. More antibiotics. Then again. Bigger faster stronger antibiotics. Then I cashed in the antibiotics, and my acupuncturist started poking my sinus points with all her might, and that made an amazing difference. But it wasn’t going away; it was just firefighting. Now I know it wasn’t really my sinuses that were the problem at all. The inflammation and headaches were my head trying to cope with an overachiever of a heart. I felt like death throughout it. I was exhausted and lost a dangerous amount of weight. I was anemic. I felt often upon waking up that I was near the limit. But that’s just melodrama.

Now I understand that the reason I felt like I was on death’s door is because I was. That monstrous headache in August was the beginning of my end. My blood pressure was surging up into malignant levels. I was dying and nobody knew.

Now I do know, and I can’t help dredging up the tired dodged bullet cliché. But I fully understand it in a way I couldn’t imagine before. It isn’t just avoiding something unpleasant. It’s seeing and living an alternate reality. I don’t only think about getting things in order for my eventual death (hopefully now a long way off thanks to meds and close monitoring); I think about the death that wasn’t. My past death. My death that would have left Husband a widower burying his first wife before he was 26. My death that would have left my mother perhaps unable to make the life-affirming change she has recently made. My father perhaps seeing visions in his vegetable garden, my sisters looking warily at each other. Bewildered? Angry? Afraid? I don’t really know, and neither do they, thankfully.

I recently read an article about why writers write about grieving. It’s the best way they know how to process their feelings, blah blah blah. I don’t know if that’s what I’m doing here. I’ve processed these feelings innumerable times since last Tuesday. Why am I sharing this publicly? I typed it on a computer that doesn’t even have internet access. I had to transfer it by memory stick. There's no cautionary tale from which to glean a moral. But you, dear reader, are my friend, my family. When it comes down to it, once I’m dead, I’m sure it won’t matter to me anymore whether I was 30 or 98. But it will matter to you. My grandmother recently passed away calmly, quietly, surrounded by loved ones, aged 94, after leading what can only be described as an absurdly full and active life. We were sad. But we rejoiced in the memories of her life, and her peaceful passing. I want you, dear reader, to rejoice in the memories of my life when the time comes, and not to have a burden of shock and fear.

So I am publicly promising to do everything I can to give you cause to rejoice at my end. I promise to do all in my power to stay alive as long and as meaningfully as possible. Now that I understand that dying is so exactly like living that once I didn’t even realize it was happening, I’m not afraid of it. But I’m not ready for it. I’m not welcoming it. I’m not going to beat it; none of us are. I’m just going to slap it around and tell it to get lost for a while.

Saturday, 12 March 2011

Various Things, Notably Oscar Wilde

Per Kelli's Facebook suggestion, my thoughts on The Picture of Dorian Gray:

I read The Importance of Being Earnest as a teenager, and was immediately enamored. It was possibly the first thing I had ever read where I laughed out loud and occasionally had to stop reading to get myself together. Loved. B can testify that when we were about 15 I invited her over for a "culture day" at my house in the middle of summer, where we read it aloud to each other and listened to Ella Fitzgerald albums all day. You know, normal teenage summer plans. I also lent a copy that my sister had given me for Christmas to another friend, who then lost it. And then replaced it because I kept haggling her about it. So basically I was an Oscar Wilde evangelist from a young age.

And then...nothing. I didn't follow it up by reading anything else of his. I think my problem was that he didn't write many novel-like things and novel-like things, including plays (I read LOTS of plays in my teenage years) were somehow my comfort zone. He wrote essays and editorials and poetry and short stories. And for whatever reason, my teenage self couldn't get beyond novels and plays. I wasn't a big magazine reader until I asked for a New Yorker subscription when I was about 17. And even then I always skipped the fiction section. For a dedicated fiction reader, I was weirdly averse to reading short fiction, especially new short fiction. I also NEVER went outside the tiny area dedicated to fictional novels at the library. I had some bizarre cultural hangups at that age. In any case, I did add Dorian Gray (it being novel-like) to my read-before-death list, but I didn't actively seek it out.

Skip to grad school. Needing a short but much needed break from reading British Archaeological Reports, I took Dorian Gray out of the library, and was promptly disappointed. At the time I remember recalling a Tufts prof alluding to a scholar who called Finnegan's Wake all the witticisms of Ulysses with none of the story. I was also reminded of a couple of acquaintances from my Brooklyn hipster stint who could never shut off. Being with them was like being at their personal comedy show ALL THE TIME. Any opportunity for a witty comment or pun wasn't just taken, it was publicly ravished. It's fun for a while, and then it quickly becomes amazingly tedious. So there were lots of negative, eye-rolling-type feelings being dredged up.

On reflection, I think I was harsh. There is most definitely a story, and while it's an old one, it's a good one. Wilde's retelling of it is particularly of interest because of the course of his own life. Dorian Gray was written and published well before Wilde's disgrace and ousting from society, yet it bears all the hallmarks of an author already reviewing the decadence of that society and reflecting on the vanity and materialism it encourages. It's as if he already knew it was going to end badly and was writing his memoirs in advance in fable form. The other characteristic of the book that surprised me and to which I should have lent more weight was its sinisterness. For all its jolly wit, it is deeply disturbing. It's much better than I gave it credit for at first go. And those are my thoughts on The Picture of Dorian Gray. The end.

I am currently reading Luka and the Fire of Life, by Salman Rushdie. I haven't read any other Rushdie yet, but of course I'm familiar with all his various scandals and fatwas, etc. I am enjoying this story very much. It is purposefully (I think) reminiscent of a bed-time story in its meandering way. It's sort of like a children's fable about free speech and responsibility. Extremely hip parents should read this to their children.

I am also currently read Anansi Boys, by Neil Gaiman. I can't decide if I like Gaiman or not. I read American Gods which was pretty good (short review on my Goodreads page). And I read Stardust, which was less good, though it had great potential. I am frustrated by him because he has a fantastic mythological imagination, but he can't seem to get into it without relying on a kind of sheepish use of jarringly modern language at inappropriate moments. It feels like he is afraid people will think he takes himself too seriously, so instead he half-asses it. It's like teenagers who are afraid of liking the wrong thing--wrong band, wrong teacher, wrong activity--so they say, "Yeah it's lame. I only do it because my parents make me." I want Gaiman to grow a backbone and just go for it full throttle! Alas.

This is rapidly turning into Megan's Thoughts on Books. I shall endeavor to write about something else next time.