Live from the ER

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.

Mom: “Soloing.”

Me: “How are you driving?”

Mom: “Carefully.”

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.

Live from the ER

Fear and loathing in Goodwill

Around Christmastime I had a run-in with a man in Columbia’s Goodwill. It niggled at the back of my brain for months, so I wrote this essay for my capstone class. I’ve re-worked it dozens of times; this is the final product.

The Christmas lights had something sticky on them. It was brown. Possibly tape residue. Traces of the substance oozed into the grooves on my fingertips, and I made a mental note to wash my hands when I got home.

The line moved up a step. I listened to the cashier talk to a customer in Spanish. She was purchasing Christmas decorations for her home. For those with tight funds around the holidays, Goodwill is ideal. I’d been asked to provide lights for an upcoming party, so here I was spending $6 on gently used icicle lights instead of purchasing Walmart’s $15 version. I’d come to Goodwill out of thriftiness, not out of necessity.

A couple carried on a loud conversation behind me. Their toddler screamed and squirmed in the wife’s arms. They talked over him. A pause. Then, “Hey honey,” the man said to his wife. From his tone I imagined his face twisted into a sneer, fists balled. “How would you like a North Face jacket for Christmas?”

He’d spotted the white-stitched logo on my left shoulder blade. Accentuated by two white curving lines, it was hard to miss. His voice dripped venom and I could feel his hatred congeal into a thick cloud behind me. My ears grew hot. My stomach dropped.

I was the target of his verbal one-two punch – me and my name brand clothing that did not belong in a secondhand store as far as he was concerned thank you very much. I cringed but was too petrified to respond. I arrived at the front of the line, paid my $6 and fled.

Later, in the car, I thought of all the things I should have said. Not clever comebacks or witty insults but simple, levelheaded explanations. I had not paid for the jacket. My friend had toted it around in the back of his car for a semester. When no one claimed it he offered it to me, the only one he knew whose size is extra-small.

But apparently the man thought I’d purchased the jacket and hated me for it. In Columbia two sorts of people shop at secondhand stores: college students and those who must. He knew I belonged to the former category.

From the acid in his voice, I can only assume he belonged to the latter. He, his wife and their restless child were probably among the 20 percent of married-couple families in Columbia whose income in the past 12 months fell below the poverty line. The statistic for families with “female householder, or no husband present” is even higher – 32 percent.

College students who are not actively seeking work are not included in unemployment statistics. I do not appear in the United States Census Bureau’s report on “Selected Economic Characteristics.” I am not wealthy, but I am not poor. I have a support system – a safety net of parents and friends and relatives and job opportunities that my level of education will allow me to access.

The couple behind me has no safety net. A North Face jacket is beyond their means. It is beyond mine, too, but they couldn’t have known. To them, the logo I wore defined me – it was a symbol of my privilege. They knew nothing about me except that my jacket was manufactured and distributed by North Face. But, in this day and age of branding, jumping to conclusions is designed to be easy.

Logos convey messages. A symbol by itself is useless – a marking on a page or a piece of clothing. It carries meaning only because we assign meaning to it. A red octagon means ‘stop’ only because we have universally agreed that it means ‘stop.’ Even words are arbitrary. They are assigned to a concrete object not based on the object’s qualities, but because human beings assign labels to make sense of the surrounding world.

A North Face logo is a status symbol. Because North Face products cost more than similar “off brand” products, society has concluded that North Face equals wealth and class – two qualities that, in our competitive, capitalist society, we value above all others.

In South Korea, the North Face brand is tearing households apart. The logo is so fetishized that elementary and teenage bullies snatch jackets from their peers. Children beg their parents for the jackets and, if denied, go to extreme measures to procure them. Parents who hate to see their kids unhappy blow their paychecks and sometimes their savings on the designer outerwear. They are obsessed with the status that the jackets represent.

The North Face status symbol hasn’t reached these extremes in the U.S., but it’s enough to bring resentment bubbling to the surface at Goodwill in Columbia, Mo.

It’s easy to imagine the man’s story: a childhood in relative poverty, a struggle up the socioeconomic ladder, a triumphant arrival into middle-class society, an economic crash and a fall from grace. North Face, in all its infamy, is not unknown to him. Once it was nearly in his grasp. Now he despises it.

Our interpretation of symbols has gone a long way toward dividing us. The man’s outrage at the logo on my back was, for him, a knee-jerk reaction. He knew the logo and instantly made assumptions about the person wearing it. In a way, he was right.

I felt for him. His fury and despair and wounded pride had built into a brute force that he launched at the first target that came into focus – me. For me, he crystallized a lurking discomfort that has accompanied me for years in secondhand stores. Walking into them, I feel guilty. My upper-middle-class, collegiate status sticks to me, announcing to everyone that I do not belong.

An invisible gulf, imposed by a status symbol, separated me from the family behind me. But empathy for others can transcend designer logos and hallmarks of privilege.

Easier said than done. The global capitalist economy thrives on brand lust. It thrives on individual competition for brands that represent status; it thrives on the resentment of the man in Goodwill.

But if we make an effort to evaluate a person’s worth based not on brands but on character, perhaps we can undermine the cycle of jealousy. If he’d asked why I was buying the lights, maybe we would have struck up a conversation.

Who knows, we might have gotten along.

Fear and loathing in Goodwill