Mr. wOw contemplates a healthy life
Over the weekend Mr. wOw visited a friend in the hospital. It is a very nice hospital – a huge complex. The lobby area looks like a luxury hotel, and everybody’s dressed in smart blazers and crisp skirts and neatly pressed slacks. There’s a fabulous-looking gift shop. You are instantly reassured; there’s no creepy hospital vibe. And in venturing farther into the various pavilions, there’s carpeting along the way that slowly, slowly changes to the cold, shiny hospital floors we know and fear. But by then, you’ve been lulled into comfort.
Mr. wOw’s friend looked fine, except for a some mangled limbs and a morphine drip. Her sister was there, putting my friend’s hair into pigtails. She looked like a little girl, though she is only a few years younger than Mr. wOw. (She has wonderful skin – unblemished by sun-worshipping.) Her two brothers, her son and a nephew were also crowded in. We all had a better time than she did. She was heavily sedated and kept fighting to stay lucid and awake. “I’m talking nonsense now, right?” she’d say. Then she would be totally clear. Then, when the rest of us were yukking it up too much, she roused herself from her near-sleep to snap, “I’d like to know what’s being said!”
I stayed two hours. My wonderful friend will recover, though what lies ahead is grueling.
As I passed back through the pavilions, away from the hospital smell and the equipment in the halls, onto the carpet and out through the woody, comforting lobby, I was struck by how incredibly fortunate I have been, health-wise. (Well, in all ways, really. Considering how I should have ended up.)
Mr. wOw has only spent three nights in a hospital, when I was eight, and had my appendix out. It was terribly dramatic. I had been feverish and my stomach hurt. The doctor came (yes, it was still the era of the house call), looked me over, poked me, and said, “Mother wOw, I think your son’s appendix is about to burst!” Whoosh! I was spirited quickly to the hospital and rushed into the operating room. I still remember beginning to protest in fear as they put the gas mask over my mouth. And then … I was awake. It was all done. Two more days in the children’s ward, which reminded me very much of my time spent up in Peekskill at the orphanage. I acclimated quickly.
Mr. wOw was left with a neat four-inch scar on his right lower abdomen. (You can see it only if I wear very low-slung jeans. Nobody’s seen it in a long time.) However, a couple of years later I was miffed. I read that when Marilyn Monroe had her appendix out, they did it so the scar was beneath her pubic hair, not visible at all. Why couldn’t my surgeon have been as thoughtful?
So that was my one and only hospital stay. Otherwise, I was always in robust health, if a wee bit of a hypochondriac. My wisdom teeth were all big dramas (otherwise I have enjoyed remarkably good choppers). I had an ear wax issue that did lead to an emergency room visit, and most of you know of my sunburn episode. Otherwise, it was just the usual amount of colds and flu and issues with my skin – I spent a lot of time at the dermatologist.
That changed in 1997. I began to feel quite run down. Colds lingered forever. I developed incredibly painful sinus infections. Once, dining with friends, my head began to throb. I excused myself and caught a taxi, the pain was increasing by the second and the cab driver looked worried. He didn’t want a detour to a hospital, or a rider who might be unconscious and unable to pay. I managed to get home, my head exploding, and promptly threw up. I’d read that headaches could be so violent they caused people to throw up. Now I knew it was true.
My weight began to drop, but somehow, it didn’t bother me. “Oh, cool, I can get into these old jeans.” I felt fuzzy. Apparently I looked like shit. So bad in fact that the manager of my favorite restaurant, where I lunched (and still do) every day, approached me. “Wow.” she said. “Are you all right?” “Sure,” I said. “Well, you look very pale.” Incredibly, I took this as a compliment, as I’d always been burdened with a rather high color – I blush easily.
My employer and co-workers were equally concerned. But I wasn’t. “This is just a little something I can’t shake,” I said one Monday, when I’d spent the weekend in bed, lost in a fever, not washing or eating. I couldn’t recall the previous 48 hours.
Finally, I called in sick to work. Very much to my surprise, at around noon, my two best friends appeared in the bedroom, along with my boyfriend, whom we shall refer to as B. My first reaction was, “You let people in the house, when it’s so messy?!” I was ignored. One of my friends perched on the right end of my bed, the other on the left, like two little angels. “wOw,” said one of them. “We’ve come to take to the doctor.”
“Absolutely not! This is just a sinus infection.”
“Great, my doctor is an eye, ear, nose and throat specialist.”
“No! I have to take a shower, I have to wash my hair.”
“wOw, this is a doctor’s office, not a movie premiere. Doctors see dirty people all the time.”
“Well, we are going to just sit hear until you say yes.” I looked to B. for help. He looked very stern.
“Get dressed and get up. We’ve a car outside.”
I saw there was no winning. I got dressed and ran a comb through my hair, which was a bit fuller in those days, so it was sticking up rather alarmingly. Indeed there was a limo outside! We all got in and I continued to protest.
At the doctor’s office, I began to realize that, like it or not, I was looking a bit ragged. Everybody stared. It couldn’t just have been my messy hair. He took me right away, swabbed my nose and throat, gave me a shot and said, “Your sinuses are quite congested.” I smirked, see, just that. Then he took my friends and B. to another room. Later, I heard the conversation went something like this: “Get him to your own doctor immediately, tomorrow. I think he’s dying. I think he has AIDS.”
I was once again hustled into the car. B. said, “He thinks you should have an AIDS test.” I sputtered, “Insane, impossible, absolutely impossible!” (Big lie, it certainly was possible.) B. said, “Please go, just have him look at you.”
I went. My doctor almost fainted when I walked in. “My God, how much do you weigh?” He put me on the scale. One hundred and twenty-five pounds, down from 160, in a matter of two months. “I want to give you an AIDS test, right now.” I began to argue, but suddenly I didn’t have the strength. He did it. “I’m going to rush the results.”
Two days later he calls. “You have a very bad case of pneumonia.” I was relieved. “You also have a mild form of TB.” I was still relieved. That could be cured. “You have full-blown AIDS.” Relief couldn’t be found.
Over the next few days I biopsied, x-rayed and MRI-ed. As I slid into the claustrophobic cylinder, the nurse said, flatly, “Good luck.” I wished she’d sound more optimistic or friendly, but she’d seen too much, I assumed, to waste an emotion.
I was shown my x-rays. I couldn’t tell a damn thing. I said, “How does it look?” The doctor (yet another doctor) said, “Not good.” Silence. Then he said, “I hope you are prepared.”
Prepared? Prepared for what? Elizabeth Taylor’s comeback? We all knew that wasn’t happening.
“Pardon me?” said Mr. wOw at his most Clifton Webb-ish.
“I hope you have your affairs in order. Good luck.” Oh, my God, more good luck. I couldn’t take it.
Mr. wOw is not a fighter. He caves in easily. And so, rather than feeling terrified, I felt an odd sense of relief. “Well, we all have to go, and now my particular struggle is over.” I was not in pain, just wasting away, so I think my emotions were even more distanced from the event.
Not so fast. For some reason, B. who is also a doctor, wanted me to stick around. I was all, “Eh, please, don’t bother, let me die.” He said, “Your mind is clouded, you don’t know what you want.” I said, “What – is this ‘Gaslight’ Mr. Boyer?”
He took me off to a doctor who today remains my primary care physician. This doctor and B. discussed at length what my “cocktail” of medications should entail – how much, what dose, how many. And so, reluctantly, I began my regimen. Eighteen pills a day. But … still lucky. My side effects were diarrhea and vomiting, both at extremely inopportune moments – in public, on the bus. But nothing like the horror stories I’d read about. I was assured these effects would pass. (This was not AZT, which had much the same effect as chemo on cancer patients. I had been diagnosed with AIDS just as better and less traumatic drugs had been introduced. Lucky!) I lost control only once, when I soiled the bed for the umpteenth time. Was this my future? I finally cried, for myself, for B. who suffered with me, for my stupidity and vanity that ever allowed me to be so careless. Not to mention my drinking. The drinking that had lowered my inhibitions and caused me to think I was still the belle of the ball, when all I was was sloppy and easy.
A month later, weighing in at a still perilously frail 130 pounds, I determined to return to work. B. and my doctor advised against it. Begged me, in fact. I could not be stopped. And so I returned to my job, and began making my rounds. Everywhere, people were still concerned, my weight crept up very slowly. But I was clearheaded, finally glad to have been saved, and when people asked what had kept me out of work for a month, I told them. It seemed absurd to lie. Everybody knew. They’d all seen that face before – the face that marked the death of thousands.
A few months later, when I was obviously reacting well to the drugs, my weight still climbing, I reminded B. of the first meeting with our doctor. I’d asked him, asked both of them, “Am I going to die … I mean, like soon?” They both assured me I was going to be just fine, and that other doctor who told me to “prepare” was an asshole.
I asked now, “Truthfully, how sick was I?”
“Neither of us thought you’d last the week.”
Out of all that had come before, this was my real moment of shock. (That and getting a look at my deflated ass after I was coherent enough to react to my weight loss. I said to B., “To hell with AIDS, what happened to my ass?!)
Well, I lasted more than a week. Certain aspects of my life changed, but in time I looked and felt as healthy as ever. I am only reminded of my “condition” when I take my pills. My recovery was really remarkably swift and surprising even to B. and my doctor. And so, once again I was very lucky.
My luck is one of the reasons Mr. wOw is so sure midnight will strike at any moment. My life hasn’t exactly been Cinderella-like, but I have had coaches more often than pumpkins – at least I see it that way. So, I’m ever alert to the random nature of life, how quickly it can be taken or altered irrevocably. I wish I could be less nervous, more joyful.
After leaving my friend at the hospital, facing her long rehabilitation, I did determine to be of better cheer, fight my tendency to depression more vigorously and, though life happens when you’re not prepared, to never forget – even if it all changes tomorrow – how lucky I’ve been. Or, if you must – how blessed.
I’m glad I stuck around. Really. I’d have missed out on all of you.