A Vacation from Illness
In the early eighties, I provided home nursing care to an elderly man. Earl was in his late eighties, and realistically, he needed to be in a nursing home. But Earl had been born on his farm in rural New York, and he fully expected to die there. He had reached a stage where many of his body parts were failing. He had diverticulitis. He had frequent bowel accidents. His knees were welded into a bent position due to arthritis. He got around in a wheelchair, but he couldn’t get in or out of it without help. He couldn’t bathe, shave or dress himself. An ulcer on his foot had to be cleaned and dressed daily.
I took on the responsibility of Earl because I liked to hear him play his fiddle and tell stories about the old days. He was a neighbor. A few short months after taking the job, I was burned out. Part of the stress was due to the fact that Earl was not an easy man. I understand his temper a little better, now. It’s awful to be stuck in a body that limits your freedom and causes you pain. The other part of the stress was caused by the relentlessness of Earl’s problems. As soon as one problem cleared up, another one took its place. Earl was a person who was not going to get better. He was going to have multiple health problems for the rest of his life. But when Earl struck up his fiddle, his eyes danced and his foot thumped the floor, and the room filled with the ghosts of dancers swinging their partners.
I’m feeling a sense of déjà vu, now, with my own 58-year-old body. I shouldn’t be experiencing this for another 30 years, but I am, thanks to the recklessness of an ENT who took power tools to my normal, healthy skull several years ago, and cut out essential parts of my nose and face.
I spend my days tending to the needs of my broken body. For thirty months, I’ve been tending cycles of pain, infection, suffocation, and immobility. As caretaker, I recognize the chronicity of the cycles. As patient, I grieve the waning of my life force and my interactions and movements through life.
Something unplanned occurred this past weekend. A friend came to my house for dinner. I was realistically too sick to cook, but I did it with the help of some strong medication. As my friend and I sat catching up on our lives, I recalled that I’d briefly dated a man from his town a year earlier. Any such event would have had to be brief as I am only ever upright and able to smile for a few weeks at a time. In fact, it’s been so many weeks, now, that I had forgotten having these kinds of experiences in my recent past.
After my friend went home, the lapsed romance recaptured my imagination. In the two or three weeks of our association, we’d hatched fantasies of traveling the country, rebuilding his farm, or settling down by a river. Then it was over and I never gave it another thought.
The excavated memory was sweet as fresh violets. I got up the next morning, and went looking for the place where we’d met. I found the park, deserted in a downpour. It was raining inside my car, too, sweat pouring off my forehead and drenching my hair. I’ve had this latest infection four months. Nevertheless, I couldn’t return to my bed. For this brief moment, I was too alive to be dead.
I went to a nearby mall and dragged my body through the stores. I looked at all the pretty colors and touched the fabrics. I wanted to buy one special thing that symbolized the life I was imagining, as I did every spring. I finally found my lovely thing—a flowy, violet blouse with pintucks in the front. The cashier tied up the shopping bag with red ribbon. Who knows? Maybe I’ll take it back.
I think it has served its purpose already. I just needed to take a vacation from illness. Like Earl did whenever he played his fiddle.