If only I hadn’t decided to go out on deck that night.
Anchored in the middle of the Galapagos chain of islands, our boat floated on the Equatorial Line with the ease of a high-wire aerialist. The lure of the night sky called, and I slipped out of our cabin to stand by the rail. How could I not go out and see the Southern Cross high above me to my right—the Big Dipper and the North Star to my left? I was smack-dab on the middle of the earth.
Who could have guessed that one of the mosquitoes using me as target practice that night was illiterate? We were in a “No Malaria Zone,” dammit. I’d checked twice with the CDC before we left for South America. My luck—Ms. Quito Mosquito, an Anopheles by genus name, was an empty-headed beauty queen who didn’t care about the pronouncements of the World Health Organization. She was an indiscriminate vampire who’d gotten mixed up with some malaria folk. Filled with their plasmodium, she paid it forward, thrusting the microscopic parasites into my bloodstream. I really don’t blame her. She was a fact of Global Warming. I became one of its victims.
I almost died. That sounds so melodramatic I feel embarrassed to write it, but it’s true.
“Her fever is still spiking at 105. Now her kidneys are shutting down,” the doctor said to my husband. They stood on either side of my hospital bed talking as if I weren’t there. I was—I just didn’t have the energy to open my eyes. I was so weak by that point my body couldn’t even gain purchase on the bed. The nurse’s aide would pull me to the top, but I’d slip to the bottom within an hour.
“Well, what do we do?” my husband asked.
“I don’t know,” the doctor said. “But I’m thinking she has only twenty-four hours left to live.”
“What are you talking about? For Christ’s sake, she’s strong and healthy. She just did the Inca Trail two weeks ago. You better figure out something.” The aggressiveness in my husband’s tone was comforting. Although he knew nothing about taking care of someone who was ill, his Type A personality got things done.
They moved out of the room, but I could hear the murmur of their voices from the corridor. I tried calling out, “What are you talking about?” but my feeble attempt went unheard. What was the doctor saying out of earshot? I wondered. Could it be any worse than what he’d just said?
We’d been having problems with the doctor from the beginning of my illness five days before. My first symptom had been an aching in my legs, which spread to all my joints. That morning I was supposed to pick out granite for our house remodel. I told my husband I felt achy and exhausted—we both attributed it to our arduous trip in Peru and Ecuador. I drove myself to the warehouse, but by the time I got there I felt I couldn’t keep my head up. I managed to choose the granite and through force of will to make it home and to my bed. From then on, the world became murky.
I do remember calling my daughter in Los Angeles and telling her how sick I felt. She started keeping close tabs on my symptoms and began plugging them into the computer. On the second day, she called the doctor to tell him she’d been checking online and she thought I had malaria.
He freaked out. “Don’t you ever call me again with this kind of crap,” he told her. “I am the doctor—I make the diagnosis.”
Even though we’d just returned from a third-world country, he refused to consider the possibility that I had an infectious disease picked up on my travels. He was obdurate until he got scared that I would die. In desperation, he relented. Fortunately for me, it wasn’t too late, and fortunately the infectious disease specialist was from Pakistan. He’d seen malaria many times and put me on the malaria antibiotic doxycycline. Within eight hours I was able to sit up and dangle my feet over the side of the bed.
The next morning, the aide who had wiped my face and arms with such care for four days while I shook with fever was able to guide me into the bathroom. It was the sixth day since I had fallen ill.
“Oh my God. My face is so yellow,” I said when I looked into the mirror.
“Not as yellow as it has been. It’s much better,” the aide said.
I looked again and thought the color appalling. Then I saw how thin I was—beyond gaunt. I hadn’t eaten anything since the aching began. When they weighed me, I had lost fourteen pounds. I also lost my appetite. It took days until I learned to eat again. When they brought me a tray of food, a slab of something covered in gravy, I was so nauseous that I almost passed out. Finally I was able to nibble on soda crackers and sip some ginger ale.
For much of the acute stage of my illness, I was in Hallucination Land. Once I was hospitalized, I saw myself in the Chicago train station every afternoon at 4:00 p.m., waiting in line to buy a ticket to Syracuse. It was always my turn next. On the Sunday the neurologist administered the spinal tap, I hallucinated up a soothing mid-century décor for the procedure. The room was low-lit with futons in aqua and coral. That night I was forbidden to move for eight hours, but the bone-aching pain made me toss and turn. A handy-dandy hallucination had me imagining I was cradled in the arms of four strong women, although in reality it was my husband holding me tight.
I had other mental experiences that were not exactly of the “real world.” I saw a faraway light with a door sliding shut on it. I knew if I didn’t keep the door open, it would be the end for me. One afternoon I was overwhelmed with the effort. “I’m too tired,” I said in my head. “I’m going to let it go.”
But my father came to stop me. I think he was dressed in one of his satin smoking jackets. He’d been dead for two years. “Daughter, we don’t give up in this family,” he said.
“Okay, Dad. I’ll keep trying then.” Knowing he was close by, the task no longer seemed as difficult. Dad was as real to me as the nurse who came in to take my temperature. Maybe more real.
Then there were the children only I could see reflected in the blank television monitor. Dressed in white, they stood around my bed, which was now in a lush garden. I leaned forward and a cherubic baby popped up from behind my pillow.
“Maybe they were angels sent to guide you to heaven,” my friend Else said when I told her later.
I shook my head. “No, that wasn’t it. They were taking care of me. I am safe with them by my side.” It was as clear a statement as my slurred speech allowed.
The slurred speech thing got me into trouble. In my head, I heard myself talking normally. I had no idea that the thirteen words came out as four aloud, and garbled at that. My husband thought I’d had a stroke. My son and daughter, both hundreds of miles away, were frantic. Friends who came to visit me in the hospital told me later they cried at the elevator when they left. They all thought they had lost me. I, of course, was in oblivion.
Going back to the general topic of malaria for a moment, the parasite burrows into the liver. I know this because malaria has become a hot topic, and it was the cover story in National Geographic. That’s why I was jaundiced. But I can tell you from experience that those little buggers hit each body organ hard. Talk about the domino effect. As they circulated, the newest system they entered went wonky. I had MRIs, CAT scans, PET scans, a colonoscopy…you name it. But I felt it was my head, inside and out, which took the brunt of the barrage. I lost everything from memory to handfuls of hair. Parts of my memory, short and long term, were wiped clean. Even today it’s hard to figure out if I’m having a senior or a malaria moment. One strange aside is that my ability with numbers increased. I am better at math and can memorize numbers that I never could before. As for my hair, it seems to have highlighted memory. Lots of it still falls out every year in May—in memory, I guess, of my case of malaria.
Joking aside, the language issue was tough on me. If I am vain about anything, it is my facility with language. Words have always come trippingly to my tongue, but for months I had aphasia—I might have said fork when I meant foot. Some words were simply gone. Like Ottawa. I was reading Middlesex and I had no idea if Ottawa was a place, a car, or some kind of food. Not knowing made me feel as if I were surreal. I couldn’t write for a year—couldn’t put the proper mix of words together. It was so frustrating, I abandoned the effort. This from a person who thought the essential items to bring to the hospital besides clean underwear and lipstick were a pen and notebook. I wrote every day while I was there. I kept the notebook—none of the handwriting looks like mine.
When I went home from the hospital, I was still very sick. My recovery was no faster than the pace of the tortoises we’d watched in the Galapagos. I had a fever and a cough for months. I woke up sweating and parched every night. I could not get my energy back. I also used to have the shakes all day long. Those tapered off, but even now, six years later, if I get overtired, I’ll wake up in the middle of the night, shaking. And I could not get my energy back. I didn’t have that buffer between feeling tired and complete depletion. It’s only in the last year that I don’t have to nap each day.
As I reread what I have written, I am struck by how close I was to dying. I wonder when it is finally my time if Dad will be there again, this time to welcome me in. In? In to where? Heaven? But I don’t believe in Heaven, do I? Or life after death, for that matter. I believe that when we die our individual spark leaves our earthly bodies and soars back into the teeming, churning mass of the collective energetic field of the universe. But what if I am wrong? What if on that May afternoon when I looked into the television that wasn’t turned on and I saw a lush garden—what if I were seeing heaven?
When you almost die, it does change you forever. As my body started to shut down, I didn’t think about the novels I never got published or whether I’d been a good mother and grandmother. I accepted I was dying and I had few regrets. Except I remember distinctly asking myself, But what about the fun I was going to have? Where did the time for enjoyment go? It will be a shame to miss out on that.
I have never forgotten that. I have a worker-bee mentality, but I am getting better at plain enjoying life. I also lost my ambition. I had a novel half finished and completely outlined. I think it was good—I liked the characters and the plot was strong. At first I wasn’t strong enough to go back and finish it. By the time I got my concentration and language back, I’d lost interest. I eventually returned to magazine writing, doing feature interviews with entertainers, authors, politicians, and professional athletes. But when my editor quit, I left with her. I wasn’t willing to put up with the unsteady ego of a new broom. And I don’t miss it. I love the freedom to be able to travel whenever we want. I love the freedom to be able to write an essay, a blog, a poem, or a short story without feeling I have to have it published to prove myself. I want to experience life not to only write about it. I no longer think I have an endless stream of days, so each one is more precious than before.
If I could, would I change that moment and not go out on the deck? Part of me says yes—I have certain health problems that I know were brought on by the trauma of the disease and the fever, and I’d certainly like my full head of hair back! But the experience is part of the fabric of my life. I have learned so much from it. Besides, I got to balance for a while on the greatest equatorial line. I got a peek into eternity.
Cyndy Muscatel‘s short stories, poetry and essays have been published in many literary journals. A former journalist, she now writes two blogs. She teaches fiction writing and memoir, and is also a speaker and workshop presenter. She is writing a memoir of her years teaching in the inner city of Seattle.
Read an interview with Cyndy here.