I was not a healthy child. My earliest memories include the indescribable pain of chronic ear infections and the occasional high fever that required being wrapped in alcohol soaked towels to bring my body temperature down to safe levels. At a time when most children’s identities were being formed by the sensations and interactions of the outside world, my world often began and ended in the small dark isolated setting of the sick room, a simple place connected to activities and realities beyond only by a window and a door and a very keen almost catlike sense of hearing.
Perhaps this is how I began to accept that in more ways than one, I was different and set apart, because these were often my actual physical circumstances. People were shadowy visitors, coming and going as distant voices and footsteps in the hallway, interrupting my retreat with concerns and comforts, and vanishing. My position in relation to the world was one of inability to participate, albeit it temporary and involuntary. The far greater realities for me were the comings and goings inside my mind, the ebb and flow of pain and strength in my own body. At a very early age, I knew my own mind and the workings of my body inside and out, I knew that the one provided extraordinary possibiilties, while the other would likely continue to frustrate and fail me, and I knew that my most intense experiences seemed to happen when other people weren’t around.
This past week I’ve been away from home. I started my travels with a bad headcold that got worse every day. The sickly child I once was has fortunately managed to grow up into a much healthier adult, but I still get at least one bad upper respiratory infection a year, which, if left unresolved, can evolve into something worse, like pneumonia, a risky business for someone with asthma. At the first signs of a cold, I do everything I can to keep it brief. But this time, I was on the road, with changes in routine and surroundings, and fatigued from months of hard work and not taking the best care of myself. In addition, because I wanted to be a participant and not an invalid, I behaved as if I weren’t sick, staying up late, socializing, overindulging in food and drink. The result was I got sicker by the day until I finally had to admit defeat and spend a whole day in an unfamiliar bed, with the familiar companions of a closed door, a dimly lit window, and the bedcovers pulled up over my head to muffle the sounds of my unstoppable head-and-chest-splitting cough.
I wrote recently about how certain scents can bring back entire landscapes of memory in vivid detail, even allowing you to relive the original with intense immediacy. Being sick has this same effect on me. Suddenly I found myself no longer a rational capable middle aged woman being cared for by her boyfriend’s lovely welcoming sympathetic and solicitous family, but a 5 year old girl, curled into a ball crying because all the fun was happening beyond the confines of my sickroom while I was so thoughtless and selfish as to be unpleasantly ill and need taking care of. I felt that same strange blend of isolation, self-pity, guilt, frustration, longing, vulnerability, embarrassment and resentment, and a strong desire to at least be in my own home while reduced to this state. Then I stopped resisting, sank into my misery, and found the same door of imagination opening for me, in response to my door to the world of social interaction being closed. All boundaries of time and space dissolved and in that safe interior place, I was home.
Unfortunately this little crisis of collapse occurred on the morning of Brian’s big opening at Salon Indigo, and I am not a five year old free of responsibilities, so after several hours of fully and unapologetically occupying my mental and physical cocoon, I had to become a self-sufficient adult again, and rally my strength long enough to attend. Exiting my sickroom I felt like Lazarus emerging from the tomb. I was unsteady on my feet, and had almost forgotten how to look people in the eye and speak to them without the protection of a blanket over my face. The very air felt like a personal attack in my defenseless state. I remembered all the times as a child when the fever broke, the bedrest was no longer necessary, and it was time to return to the outside world. And for a moment I felt that same mixture of relief and regret.
The happy ending is that the reception was a success, and my headcold has loosened its grip on my mind and body. I slept through the night last night without being awakened by coughing. I woke up at sunrise with words beginning to gather themselves in my mind for a new post, one sure sign that I have conquered a challenging experience, the desire and ability to write about it. And I thought of all the writers I’ve read whose childhood memories and memoirs have contained stories of illness, and how those experiences helped to define them as observers and interpreters of life. So, perhaps being a sickly child isn’t such a bad thing, and perhaps as an adult, a forced “time out” is occasionally necessary, a silent agreement between body and mind to re-create those conditions in which the only matters that require attention and action are those of the imagination.
Tomorrow, we begin our travels back north, and in a case of irony all too typical of my strange temperament, now that I am finally healthy enough to appreciate them, I am sure I will miss this place and the wonderful people I've met, and wish I could have stayed longer! December already has a few topics lined up to explore in this blog, which I intended to resume after my return home, but this topic said “me first!” and I had no choice but to listen.
Best wishes to all.