I caught malaria in Panama, when I was 12, and it’s never really gone away. During the rainy season all the little streams and tributaries emptying into the Panama Canal swell and their currents are fast and irresistibly dangerous. All the kids loved jumping in with either a fat log or a twisted branch, hanging on for dear life, and being swept away. The stream we used had bends and turns like some mile long snake, and the ride was like a wet roller-coaster, only one had to jump off before being dumped into the Canal, as the drop was severe and sure to cause much pain. It was like skiing or snowboarding, in that the ride was great, although short, and it took forever to walk back and do it again. Maybe I took the ride two or three times. At one point an infected mosquito bit me and several days later the malaria attacked me like an anarchist vegetarian protesting consumer dissatisfaction with McDonald’s spraying their french fries with beef-juices.
My parents took me to a hospital, as I steadfastly clung to a high temperature, as well as dallying with wicked sweats and chills. My dad had contracted malaria during his younger years in the Korean Conflict (later, perhaps Scully knows why, he told my mother that the disease left him unable to have kids), and he knew what was up with me. Apparently there’re four different malaria parasites, in Panama the Plasmodium vivax is the prime punk, and I’d been one of a dozen who’d been sampled by that season’s rude diners. Fortunately, as science demands investigating such matters with spinal taps and other painful procedures, a few U.S. Army soldiers had also been bitten and they were poked and prodded in ways best left to horror movies, rather than experienced in real life, and I was spared any unnecessary torture. I remember watching the Mets on television lose a chance to repeat their previous “miracle,” Coke and Jello tasted equally like toilet water, my parents bought me lots of new comic-books (as opposed to the usual thrift-store old ones), and I went home after a week. That should have been the end of the story, but it continued.
At 16 I had a bad bout while on vacation, no doctor would treat me without knowing exactly what it was ailing me, plus I’d trouble reaching my parents for treatment permission, as they too were out traveling. By the time calls where made, prescriptions written and filled, I’d ridden the worst of it out and the episode was chocked up to bad luck. It came back quicker next time.
Two tears later I had left the Midwest for San Diego. There was a beautiful girl, an angst against suburbia, we’d both lost our closest brothers recently, and the next we knew it was sunshine and fun. Then my dad died, we flew back for the funeral, then back to California, however the “fun” had changed. One night we did things that the late Dr. Tim Leary would have been proud of, on those famous Sunset Cliffs, and sometime around 7 or 8 in the morning we called a preacher from the Yellow Pages and asked if he’d get his butt down to the ocean and marry us. It cost $35 and I believe we tipped him ten for being timely. Well, our families soon heard of our marriage, and it was just a few weeks later we left the Left Coast, returned to the Midwest, and proceeded to get married again, so friends and family could be present. A week before the second wedding, the rude parasite decided to leave my liver and make my life interesting.
Leaking perspiration and shaking like an epileptic attempting disco, I was admitted to Henry Ford Hospital. It seemed like an old, run down hospital, and was. The floors were dingy, paint was peeling from the walls here and there, and nothing inspired confidence. I was 18, newly married, penniless, and doctors were taking expensive lung x-rays and poking my butt with my mother in the room. One, I didn’t trust them, and two, I knew I couldn’t afford them proving my malaria had come back.
A large, black nurse cut through it all. She saw I was sick, embarrassed, and didn’t need to be a test-case. She told me to have courage, as the great magician Harry Houdini had died in the room next to mine, and ‘til this day I have to wonder how that was supposed to make me feel better! I told her my dad had recently passed away, I’d no medical insurance, and I needed to get the hell out of the hospital as soon as possible. I asked for several blankets and a dozen cans of Seven-Up. She brought me what I asked for, I did some powerful sweating that night, and the next morning, albeit weak as veal-on-the-bone, I checked myself out. The “second” wedding took place a few days later. The nurse helped me, though she didn’t have to, and I’ll always be grateful and remember her fondly.
That I now know Houdini died at Grace Hospital only confuses me more. Still, I survived and that’s what’s important... Maybe I was at Grace, maybe I was told something tall and stretched, but I don’t care. How could I? Why should I? Sweating the small stuff doesn’t come close to the sure calm of waking after a night of skull and soul shivering and knowing it’ll be okay. At least for a while...
A couple of years later, after a divorce, a move to Boston, and when least expected and most inconvenient, the parasite took control again. I was waiting for an apartment to become available in Boston’s Fenway neighborhood, staying with an elder poet friend, in a backroom some might describe as a closet, and I began a fever and coughing up things which resembled tapioca with chunks of tobacco in it. When I spat, it landed, and quivered for far too long. With a fever, some chills and no thrills, it lasted almost a week. It wasn’t pretty, but I was polite and did clean up before I left. I don’t know if that bout of illness was malarial or some pissy influenza. It was bad, whatever it was.
That was early 1979 and every couple of years since, if I’m run down, had a few too many colds in a short amount of time, maybe partied too much and not taken care of myself, I’ve crashed and burned with a serious something. Cold, flu, malaria; I don’t know. Probably all three and then some. Once, when in Chicago after a trip back to Boston and some most unclean clams, I sampled hepatitis a. Fever, yellow eyes (as well as other things), and white pooh. When the fever passed and I could make my way to a hospital, an emergency room doctor in Chicago asked if I wanted anything. I asked if I needed anything. He said, “No.” He was being a smartass and there was nothing to be done, as the fever had passed and I was on the road home. Still, malaria lives in my liver, and that clammy hepatitis virus further screwed my chances of the happily ever after. Oh, well!
A few years ago, during the original airing of Stephen King’s televison mini-series, Storm of the Century, I was up in the Downeast section of Maine, where the King story was set, and came down with what I then referred to as the “cold of the century.” I won’t discuss the redhead I was with, my sweating on her couch, rather than her bed, feeling better the next day and going out on a trip which started out playing pool in a local bar and ended up going to Canada and bringing snow back, because ...she wanted it that way. The next day I got a ride back to Massachusetts with a friend, and when she stopped for gas a few blocks from where I was staying, there was a newspaper with a front-page story describing a severe flu outbreak. She hissed, backed away from me like I was one of The Undead, and, rubbing the keychain, she never did come down with anything. Me? I stayed sick for a few more days, then the “storm” passed. That was three years ago. Ouch! My, how time flies when you’re healthy!
Three weeks ago, I was feeling a bit ...off. I’d just returned from a trip home to the Midwest, work wasn’t going well, my personal life was a tad worse, and I suspected I was due for something unpleasant. It was a Sunday morning and I was to introduce my galpal to an elderly couple I’d recently become close to. The fellow is a diffusionist of some repute, we’d talked off and on for several years, but until he’d recently moved to Massachusetts and we’d started to visit together regularly, we hadn’t connected. In the last several months, we’ve gotten close. I’ve been invited to dinner, met family, neighbors, and we’ve even gone to a funeral together. It was time for him and his wife to meet ...mine. I was nervous and I shouldn’t have been. It went off without the so-called “hitch,” but minutes later, I was back at my apartment throwing up. It was starting again.
Well, something was starting again, but I had no idea what. That it was Father’s Day, she was out for some reason, I was left alone with her kids in the rain, went out for pizza and candy, and got nothing but exhausted and sweaty for my efforts, seemed some twisted and poetic reward. Maybe unhappiness helped things along. It isn’t important. That night I lost a few gallons of perspiration in her bed. The next morning, after she’d gone to work, I drove back to my apartment, many miles an hour below the speed limit. It was the best I could do.
It started off well enough. I knew it was going to be a rough one, so I tried to do some kind stuff to my body. I opened a can of Minestrone soup, heated it up, lost my appetite by the time it came to eat, but I did consume three or four ounces of the broth. I considered this a major success and a step toward recovery. I went to sleep, optimistic I’d be better soon, and awoke after an hour. And, I was hungry! I ate half of some Manwich my galpal had prepared the day before. Everything was fine, I mistakenly thought at the time. I went to sleep for an hour and woke up in a different world. A bad world. A real bad world.
I was soaked in sweat. My skin was afire with fever and I knew the Fates were throwing feces into my puny air conditioner. Relaxing, as best as I could manage, I continued reading The Yellow Cross: The Story of the Last Cathars 1290-1329, by René Weis (see my column, “6-22-01 The Yellow Letter”), which while educating me in the history of some folks who made some pretty poor belief-system decisions, also further depressed my otherwise already collapsed sense of hope and promise. Spoiled folks got killed to be different and I can’t understand dying unless one has to, there’s no other choice, or you're saving someone. Religion is a fashion which comes and goes, changes with style, and dying or being killed for fashion, makes me sick. And, when I’m not feeling well, it makes me really sick. For several hours I read some of the Cathar book, went to sleep for twenty minutes, woke up and changed into a dry t-shirt, read some more, slept some more, and got sicker. I never believed it could get that bad, but it did.
I want to talk about it, but I can’t. I don’t know for sure what happened. I remember looking in the bathroom mirror and seeing my face all red, swollen, and without a single wrinkle or line. It was around then that everything seemed to be tinged in pink. My fever was at an all-time high. I’d never felt sicker in my entire life. Oh, the coughing, the vomiting, the sinuses bleeding from tiny ruptures, was all frosting on a stale, store-bought cake of indisputable wrongs. Around midnight, I noticed my phone flashing a red-light, indicating I had waiting messages. The galpal had called a couple of times. She said she hoped I was okay. I wasn’t. There was a dull chill of loneliness everywhere. The hurt singularity that’s Rick was trying to dance gallantly despite a feverish leaking of dreams, which apparently didn’t want to come true, and wasn’t up for entertainment, real or otherwise. Everything was failing. There was a couple of phone messages, but I was alone when I shouldn’t have been.
Over the next dozen hours I went through every t-shirt, work or casual, most every pullover and even a few dress-shirts, that I own. It was twenty minutes of fever-sleep, a change of clothes, reading about stupid French people who favored one gospel over another for a bit, then passing out. There were hallucinations. Dreams that carried over for several minutes (and, perhaps, a couple that continue even now), making my skin tingle with the surreal. I knew I was sick. Real sick. And I knew I was alone.
Monday night was the worst. Tuesday was an ugly affair and I remained alone. At 43 years of age, with family and friends here and there, I was alone and scared. I fought back at some point. My meager medicine cabinet provided Cepacol (numbing my throat so I wouldn’t cough so much and subsequently throw-up), and a generic Mylanta to sooth my stomach (as well as, unbeknownst to me, at the time, help me move the lower things). Wednesday morning, I ventured out as one of the unwashed and grossly uncomfortable to buy a thermometer. At eight in the morning it was 102.8 degrees, which soon dropped to 101, went back to 102, climbed to 104.1, went back down to 101, and I went back to bed wearing any article of clothing that was clean and dry. It was, of course, okay, by then. I was still pathetically ill, but I’d rounded a bend of sorts. I would survive. The only question was ...one of quality.
A fear had followed me. What had I done wrong? I’d been married a couple of times and was trying to get married again. The core of my being concerns sharing mine with others. Others? Postcards, e-mails, a voice message from time to time, didn't satisfy me in the rough times and never will. I was supposed to be a family guy. Well, I was also supposed to be healthy. I’m afraid it’s all been in vain. The pink glow of fever won’t go away. Maybe I should join a cult. At least then, I ...wouldn’t be alone. Right; do the opposite of everything I’ve fought for. No, my goals are not the problem. it must be my methods. Oh well, better luck next time. Luck or the lack thereof, that is.
sad, sick, but I remain,