illness, lost time, and the eddying of self.
For me this year, time stood still as it passed.
Illness always precludes linear motion, acts as an intermediary from point a to point b with no clear answer for how many stops one makes on the way, how many times one must loop around and return to a self and moment unthinkable in its repetition. It’s an exercise not so much in standing still as it is in dropping into a current made of endless eddies, stones as sudden as pop rocks and their bite in the center of the stream. Often, the only thing one can do—I could do—is to move with what demanded no movement on my behalf. I dropped in. I let the current run. I circled rocks and their sudden demand on my energy like a dance. I did little other than survive.
What lay under the riverbed for me was quiet. I didn’t write much beyond morning pages. I drew when I could but the act of gesture was itself a habit in my arm, something I could sink into and repeat with little effort—which isn’t to say it was easy, but that it was routine. I counted time this year with how well my eye could track the slope of a spine, where the scapulas attached to the clavicle, how the muscles of the thigh separated like the break in a river. I wiped my face with the back of palms blue and red from pencil. I filled pages of newsprint and not much else.
Since early spring, I’ve spent most of my time indoors on the same couch, watching the leaves bloom and then lose their color. I’ve read a few novels and comics, glanced at poetry. I’ve tried to muster my attention for beauty but find little solace in the world outside my window which has so readily forgotten my body within it. This pandemic year has been the most painful for me, as the collective rush to return to a normal that doesn’t exist anymore impedes my ability to do little more than wait. Wait as my nerves singe and joints entropy, wait as my heart rate continues spiking and my sight empties into a fringe of cobalt under pockmarks of stars. Wait as my gums decay. Wait as my pain locks more muscles, limits more movement. Wait as what greets me is the sky leached of color and the streets emptied by wind.
One aspect of illness that I am never far from is how it reconfigures a self through loss, though it has opened me to identification outside of merely what I do. Who am I now if I cannot do what I love? Any likeness premised on stasis promises only dead ends.
I had emergency oral surgery in August and laid in a room with a skylight above my eyes. It was raining outside and there was a wad of dead leaves contre-jour atop the glass. The grey of the sky was the same as when I write this. I was under laughing gas and my arms hurt from the six attempts my surgeon had made drawing blood to extract plasma for my gums. Someone had put on a radio station playing the best of the year and I recognized the songs only dimly, as if thrust into a waiting room that played memories of covers you once heard in childhood but could not attach to a name. I started crying and as I did, a bird lit upon the glass, hopping around the leaves, which felt somehow a miracle. I don’t remember what I thanked just that I whispered it in the empty room. When I closed my eyes later as my surgeon cut into my mouth, I thought of the bird and how he might have been singing beyond the glass.
Months later, I used the ice pack the office had given me to bring down the bruises on my nose from my mask after spending the day in the ER. Everyone was so sick. There were no beds available so gurneys filled every walkway and spare space. You wove through people to move and could not help touch the edge of a blanket. On both sides of my curtain, people cried, prayed, yelled in pain. The sound was endless. EMT techs kept bringing in more people and nurses swabbed noses, tried to find spaces away from the rush for those with a positive test. Some people masked, most didn’t. It took my nurses over seven tries to draw blood and I cried each time, cried when the first nurse remarked to another that I had made her nervous. In the middle of the room, a man paced, waiting for tests, and on his back was a yellow leaf.
I had arrived in the morning and waited six hours for the CT scan that ruled out the pulmonary embolism my doctor feared. When the dye ran through my body I wanted to vomit even as the tech told me good job. His voice behind the glass was hard to hear. A daughter on the other side of my bed prayed to her mother and cried wake up. Nurses brought blankets, said they were sorry for the wait, that it would be a few hours for any test. When I left, one of the head nurses pressed her hand to my shoulder and patted me, oh good, you get to go home, babe.
What I miss in the collective concession to pandemic erasure is the continuity in my relationships—the sense that those I am in community with are tethered to me not just through our ties to each other, but also through our shared values and sense of the world. It’s difficult to extend the little energy I have to people whose actions make my life untenable, difficult to explain how the decision to go without a mask or eat indoors at a restaurant is not isolated but a ripple effect that subsumes what currents make movement at all possible for those of us already sick, unable to get sicker. I live inside grief and yet its expression is seen as untoward, unfair. My life is dammed up and I circle the same shores as rivulets empty, the embouchure of the river closes.
Again: another set of pages, another pencil worn down. I cut my pencils like my grandfather showed me as a child, carefully winnowing alongside the tip with a razor blade to expose the graphite in a clean line. My sister gave me a mug from a coffeeshop we loved in Seattle during a time we were both there and one quick trip on the 32 away from each other. Each year, I empty the cup.
Is there sequence in repetition? Can you read change in the gutters?
I’ve started losing my hair again, whether from sickness or stress or both, I couldn’t say and the distinction matters less and less to me. I don’t need a test to know I’m not well, even though definitions help even if just to communicate outwardly—this is what’s wrong with me. Because that’s the silt I feel underneath any ask from a well-meaning friend: what happened to you and how I can I avoid it. Both questions I cannot answer even for my sake. I try to distance myself from fear as my health worsens and I wait for the world to be safe enough for me to access help. Much of what I love and understood myself through I can no longer maintain.
We live near a park where I used to take walks around the lake at the start of the year, would photograph the bare lines of trees against the dead grass. I walked the steps to an overlook and cried listening to Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 - Adagietto as the sun torched red and gold through the black upper limbs of branches, grateful I was alone and the only witness to feelings I couldn’t name. Or perhaps I felt embarrassed by them and their ordinariness, the nakedness in being exposed by a moment when everything paused. I don’t think crying is noble or beautiful, only necessary. I cry often now and think of it as a release and entrance. Now I cannot walk more than a few blocks without my heart rate spiking and my breath hurrying to find some pathway through my limbs. I am in a moment of illness where my daily pain has eclipsed what I used to live inside during a flare, and my energy is spent renegotiating limits, learning what is too much when everything feels an edge. Sometimes when I am afraid for the people I love, I want to offer my body as example: please take care, this could happen to you. There is nothing salvific about pain only that it reminds us we are porous, fragile, that we will end.
Perhaps that is part of the allure of yearly wrap-ups, the sense of being able to affix meaning to what time would otherwise roll through. Did it matter? Did we? If an ending must happen, here is what came before. I didn’t measure this year except by turning the calendar, though even that proved a tease. J and I ordered a new one for 2023 and laughed about how unnecessary it was, seeing as the last few months have been only rows of days unmarked by pen. I wake up, read comics, drink coffee, begin again. I am acutely aware of existing in time that encounters my body as an imposition to its flow yet all I have to offer are practices accumulating pages without an end to tether them. I wrote morning pages for ten months straight until a flare disrupted my habit and then I felt loathe to begin again. This habit of exactitude is one I wish to expunge though I love the clarity that comes from adherence to a rule. Some days, that is the only form I find.