I wrote this essay a while back and, because lately I only have time for half-formed thoughts when it comes to blogging, am posting it here in lieu of actually coming up with new content. Please forgive me for taking the easy way out, and enjoy.
My mother’s first serious surgical operation was two months ago. Appendicitis isn’t cancer or heart failure or a stroke—about 7 percent of the world’s population (roughly 50 million people) will develop appendicitis over the course of their lives—but when my sister and I received a group text that read, “Going to the ER with excruciating abdominal pain,” we freaked.
Strangely, she didn’t.
“Is anyone going with you?” my sister asked.
Me: “How are you driving?”
A later progress report from mom read, “Blood drawn, IV in, urine out. Had CAT scan with IV injection of dye to photo guts. Overnight stay.”
Sister: “Should we come home?”
We’re both far from our native Texas—she in Colorado and I in New York.
Mom: “Nah, I should be home tomorrow.”
Two months later, staring up at an ugly tile ceiling in a gown patterned with blue paisley, I marveled at her blasé hospital texts. That night a thin, flexible tube was maneuvered into her abdomen. One of her organs was carved into teeny slivers and sucked out of the cavity of her torso, string by string, like jack-o-lantern goop.
Now, I lay awaiting a verdict on whether my ovarian cyst (“That’s a big one!” the ultrasound nurse had exclaimed) would need a similar procedure.
Just thinking about the process—the tube, the scalpel, the slivers of tissue extracted like parasitic worms—was enough to sink a cold lead ball into the pit of my stomach. I started hyperventilating. I called my mom. “One second,” I said when she answered. “I’m lying down and there are tears flowing into my ear. They’re getting my phone wet.” A pause to wipe them away. Then, “I’m scared,” I said.
“I know,” she replied. “I was, too.”
Her only other surgery had been the extraction of her wisdom teeth. She’d had them yanked in her 40s when I was just ten. To me and my sister, mom’s bed rest was free entertainment. We knotted the waist of a pair of panty hose, filled both legs with ice (to reduce swelling), tied the toes around her head, fashioned a construction paper top hat and called her Abe Lincoln.
I’d been too young then to understand the gravitas of surgery—to realize that the slight tremor in her voice pre-op meant she was on edge. She hid her fear 12 years ago as she did two months ago, to keep her footing as indelible matriarch.
Granted she didn’t want to worry her two far-flung children—didn’t want to inconvenience us by suggesting we travel to be with her—but she also played the hospital visit off to her co-workers and students. “I’m fine,” was her constant refrain, and she was back at work the next week. Minus a few sympathy bouquets, her absent appendix was soon forgotten.
To be ill is to admit, shamefacedly, to weakness. If we do fall ill, some ingrained vein of stoicism keeps us from admitting to what extent the fever, the cough, the vomiting, the surgery, the tests, shake us.
When a friend of mine got the flu in January, she refused all deliveries of soup and offers to accompany her to a nearby clinic. “I’m fine,” she insisted, citing the 40-minute ride from Manhattan to Williamsburg to encourage me to stay home. It didn’t matter that her body was rebelling against her in every way, returning her to a state of childlike dependence and even to a childlike diet (broth and soft foods only).
Worse, our gut reaction is to apologize to others for our illnesses. “I’m so sorry if I cough at you,” an interview subject told me recently. “I’m just getting over a bug.” Last week, one of my professors did the same as she took her seat at the head of class, “I’m so sorry, but I seem to have gotten another cold.”
We do our best to cancel out the burdenhood of illness with stoicism, and if that doesn’t work we fall back on a constant flow of apologies. “I’m so sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” I found myself repeating to the ER nurse as she drew blood from my arm. I was crying, and I was embarrassed. No one says of the sobbing 22-year-old, “she was such a good patient.” That label is reserved for the jovial happy-go-lucky types who don’t put up a fuss.
Feverish, sweating under piles of blankets next to our overcrowded nightstands (somehow they always fill up when we’re sick: thermometer, tissue box, magazine, half-drained lukewarm vat of Emergen-C), we nonetheless perch laptops on our knees to answer emails and G-chats. Somehow the struggle justifies staying home. Such dedication! Such vigor! Dear co-workers, you are not abandoned!
But your undertakings are more for you than for them. “I was in the ER all day today, so I might be in late tomorrow,” I emailed my supervisor, never dreaming she’d reply with, “Stay at home! Rest!” In other words, we’ll be fine without you.
Whether grave or glancing, illness forces us high overhead until we’re looking down at the puzzle that is our life, and the piece we occupy in it. When we’re sick, who notices our absence? Who looks worried? Will someone feed the cat? How will the life we’ve built around ourselves continue while we’re sidelined? Quite simply, it will continue. And that’s scary.
My convalescence only lasted a day during which I caught up on emails, called worried family members, wrapped up a few assignments, bought cat litter, and swept my apartment. The next day I was back in class, fervently apologizing for sending a pitch in late.