Originally published by Dămfīno Press
copyright (c) 2016 by Anjoli Roy
The soonest they can see me is in ten days.
You have to establish care with a primary care physician, for insurance purposes, before you can see a specialist, a busy receptionist says through the phone.
I’m sitting here with my head in my hands, my phone jammed up against my face. My toes are ashy, frozen from a too-cold classroom. The trades rip through the jalousies of the open-air staircase. I’m sitting down.
I swallow that iron taste clawing at the back of my bleached tongue.
I don’t think I can wait that long, I say quietly. I might not make it, I add with a laugh.
I can be a touch dramatic.
I list my symptoms on my fingertips. The pain. Going to the bathroom a dozen or so times a day. Red each time. How this has been going on for close to two months.
I feel like there isn’t any blood left in my body, I say, laughing again.
I listen to the receptionist’s tone change, her voice suddenly underwater as she cups the receiver to talk to someone else, perhaps someone who knows more than she does. When she turns her mouth back to the receiver, it feels like she’s sitting right beside me.
You need to go to the emergency room, she says. The line goes quiet. She’s waiting for a reply, maybe something that will tell her that I’m taking her seriously.
I hang up and check my phone for the time.
Ten minutes left of break.
I dial Mom in California, the nurse who worked in the ER for close to two decades, and tell her what the receptionist said. Well, honey, go to the ER. She sounds exasperated. She probably thinks this is the hardest she can push me if she wants me to listen. Go get your little bag from your class and go, sweetheart, Mom says.
I tell her I’ll go to urgent care to start. It’s not like I’m dying, I reason.
Mom sighs, resigned, because she knows me, knows the more she pushes me to the hospital, the less likely I’ll be to get there. She knows I distrust western medicine even though she is a nurse and Dad is a doctor. In fact she probably also knows that that might be the reason. I grew up under my older sisters’ branches. When we were small, our parents were like phantom shadows, disappearing in a bright sky. Something we learned: Western medicine doesn’t heal. It only covers symptoms.
Ten minutes are up.
I head to the classroom of the graduate-level creative writing course I’m just halfway through, but my body lurches to the bathroom, where I bleed more, the pain increasing, seeming to be scolding me too. I haven’t eaten today, I remember to myself, noting that I can’t have triggered a food allergy. I haven’t accidentally consumed the gluten or dairy I gave up more than four months prior, or the nightshades or cane sugar or any of the other foods on my growing list of things to avoid that I’ve recently abstained from in hopes of healing myself. More iron? Acupuncture? A nervous system realignment? More grounding? Rebounding? Sunshine? I am still running, riding my bike to and from school, swimming almost daily, except in this past week, when I’ve been waking up and feeling like I might fall over.
I sit on the toilet for a while longer, waiting for my body to settle down, for my gut to empty whatever might be left. A tiny window at the top of the bathroom wall frames a piece of a rainbow.
What am I missing? I flush.
I recall what the bioreprogrammer said. That blood is always about clan, and that it’s usually about mothers. That I might need to forgive. That I need more of a spiritual connection, to build trust. To let go. Stop beating myself up. Is it time to check out that Unitarian church? I ask myself. But I’m not Christian. My path to God has always been quiet, outside, and usually alone.
At the sink, I watch water streak down my face, which I pat dry. I hide sunken eyes behind grown-out bangs, deciding to sit silently through the last half hour of class, telling Mom’s voice in my head that waiting until 6 p.m., sans dramatic exit, is fine, and urgent care is open until 8. I’ll get to a doctor in plenty of time.
* * *
I rush out of class, make my wobbly, electrocuted-and-faulty-firing-synapses walk about a half-mile out of Mānoa Valley down to King Street to catch the #1 bus that drives all the way out to Hawai‘i Kai. I arrive at Kahala Urgent Care and text my ex.
I’m worried about you, he says in words that surface on my screen, all the way from New York.
I swallow the ibuprofen I never take when the nurse says I have a fever. I catch my breath when the doc, without introducing herself, storms into the exam room and demands to know why I’m not at the hospital.
Has no one told you to go to the ER today? she asks with a face that looks like Mom’s.
You might be the third person who’s told me that, I say with a shy smile.
So dramatic, all this.
The cab I take to the ER is impeccable. The nice driver man in the pressed suit walks around, opens the door, and closes it for me once I get in.
It’s okay to go to the main entrance? he asks. Only ambulances are allowed to the ER. He eyes me in the rearview mirror.
When we arrive, he tells me to take good care of myself. I feel him watching me walk through the sliding glass doors like a dad.
Nice guy, I think to myself.
I swallow hard again.
I wait for four hours to see a doc. The man with the head injury goes ahead of me, as does the woman with the full body rash.
These are the people who belong in the ER, I tell myself. Go right ahead, I traffic-direct in my head.
My phone battery is almost dead. I laugh when I get a voicemail around 9 pm from my roommates, who I’ve lived with for the past six months that I’ve been in Hawai‘i: Anj, this is your roommates. You looked a little dead leaving the house this morning, and you’re usually home by now. What’s going on?
I text them back, say I’m fine, I’m at the ER but they’ll probably just give me fluids and send me home. I’m touched when they freak out that I’m there alone, that I called a cab like a person without people.
After enough pleading on their end, I promise to text when I’m leaving so they can come get me, regardless of what time it is, even though I’m not sure I will.
When a few nurses check me out and let on that things are a bit more serious than I think, I send out a few texts to my family in California, to my ex, to my roommates, that I’m staying the night there, that I love them, just before my phone dies. I laugh at how dramatic this all is.
The ER is full to capacity. They give me a hall bed next to a man with a bad migraine when I’m finally admitted. They make me put on a dressing gown with small blue flowers on it, even though I’m in a sundress already and the man with the migraine doesn’t have to wear one. I wonder if they’re trying to assimilate me, make me understand by putting me in this drafty costume that I’m not just going to get fluids. I’m not going to be sent home.
I talk story with the migraine man a bit, who gets chatty in his Southern drawl, after his intravenous pain meds hit. He teases me, nags me in a way that reminds me of Mom about being sure to drink all that iodine-laced iced tea they’ve given me in preparation for my CT scan. He asks me if I’m all right when I come back from the bathroom once, twice, three times, to throw it all up. Another nice guy.
When the nurse comes back to ask the migraine man how he’s doing, he collapses back on the bed and starts complaining of pain again, begging for more meds. I see the fuss he makes about the too-weak prescription they’re sending him home with. I look away when he struggles to put on his jacket, stretching his arms over his head, his big moon belly revealed over the top of his pants all bare and pale. I wish him luck when he leaves, and mean it.
I feel hot tears sliding down my face again, feeling sorry for myself now, because there’s no one other than the night nurses, who are understaffed, checking on me now and I’m alone and things are beginning to feel real.
I think about our grandmother, our mother’s mother, Mary, who passed away the year prior and worked in a nearby hospital before the Second World War. She was a nurse too. She’d worked in the maternity unit, before Pearl Harbor was bombed, and she helped to deliver babies. I try to think of Grandma and her gentle, warbling voice. I hold my own cold, feverish hand and pretend it’s her warm, papery one. I tell myself that Grandma is there with me, that I’m not alone.
I try to focus on this thought instead of the round patch of blood my IV is dripping on my sheets, or how they’ve given me two bags of water and somehow I still don’t have to pee.
I get wheeled over for the CT around 3 am. The wide swing of the bed around the corners of the abandoned, nighttime hospital corridors feel like a Disneyland ride. I want to say this to the nurse, the nice person who’s been taking care of me even if he did make me bleed with that IV, but I keep it to myself.
You’ll feel two things when the iodine goes through your vein, the CT man says. First, it’ll feel like a rush of wasabi through your body. Spicy, he says. Then, it’ll feel like you made sheeshee.
My eyebrows shoot up.
No worry. You won’t. He smiles.
The CT scanner, with its space-age white plastic orb that surrounds me, takes just two minutes. The CT man is right. The wasabi rush comes, as does the feeling of peeing my pants. I move from the CT scanner back to my bed, and the CT man changes the paper sheet that I was lying on. I hear his sharp inhale. I feel myself between my legs. But I’m dry.
Just kidding! the CT man says, pointing a gotcha finger at me.
At last, I get into a room where I can sleep. It’s 4 am. A nice night nurse checks my vitals and talks story with me a bit. She touches my cold feet, puts socks on them. I’m so grateful for her and start to tell her as much until she peels back my thin blanket, releasing my most fragile, thinnest skin of heat that has been my only barrier against the deep freeze of the hospital.
* * *
This is too much, I start to say, then stop when she stretches across me a warmed blanket and replaces the first one on top of it.
Maybe that’s the nicest thing anyone has ever done for me, I say with a deep, smiling sigh.
The nurse chuckles.
I don’t sleep much, with the nurses coming every few hours to check my vitals, during which they gasp, without fail, at how low my resting blood pressure is.
I’m a runner, I mutter to them groggily. I just have to sit up.
I’m astonished at how frequently they come to draw blood. I wonder, this time more seriously, at how I have any left in my body. I call my family collect on the white landline to update them, to ask them to update each other. I give out the hospital number. I am surprised when my oldest sister, Joya, the at-home free-birther who loathes western medicine even more than I do, says she’s happy I’m in a place where I’m getting care.
I tell her about the phone session I had a couple days before with the bioreprogrammer. I start to cry again, tell Joya I worry about her, she who is my second mom, and that I worry about her and her husband, and her relationship with our mom, who Joya has had a fraught relationship with up until very recently.
Don’t, Joya says, like stopping is as simple as a contraction. We’re fine.
* * *
With daylight sharp and high over the green ridge of the Ko‘olau mountains out my hospital window, my mind spreads open like a fan. I remember I have my computer, and that hospitals have wireless. I learned that when our stepdad was dying at Huntington Hospital in Pasadena two years prior. I’d spent nights with him, listening to his ventilator as I curled up on a small padded window seat, working on grant proposals because that was all I could do to keep from crying my eyes out, not understanding how cancer could so quickly take this strong man from our family when up until the end, days before he was hospitalized and began to wither to bone, he still rode dozens of miles daily on his bicycle. That was before Mom, Dad, our middle sister Maya, and I found ourselves joining hands around him as he drew his last breaths, us crying, him rattling his last shaky breaths.
* * *
I start shooting out updates on Facebook. I remember that today is February 14, the first Valentine’s I’ve spent single and alone in nearly a decade since my ex and I first started dating.
I update about how this is the worst Valentine’s Day ever but say that maybe that’s just because I’ve had so many good ones, sounding cheery and fine and not at all in the hospital even though the doc has come to see me and said they need to keep me for several days, maybe a week, depending on how long it takes for the bleeding to stop.
I surprise myself with how easily I submit to high doses of intravenous steroids. I refused injections of them for my alopecia areata, an autoimmune condition that surfaced last year when smooth, round patches of perfectly bald scalp skin started to dilate on my head. I’d fretted about losing my hair but rejected the idea of steroids anywhere in my body at the time. Injections in my scalp? I’d asked the dermatologist. Right next to my brain? I forgot the expanding patches when my stomach started to hurt and I started to bleed, and losing hair became the most trivial concern ever.
On the third day in the hospital, the gastroenterologist gives my pain a name: ulcerative colitis. Another autoimmune condition. He tells me I will be on drugs for the rest of my life. This drug, he says, is like throwing sand on a tar fire. He gives me the name of this forever drug, which I almost immediately forget.
I tell Dad all this when he calls and prods me for information.
I tell him I don’t remember the name of the drug but repeat that simile about the tar fire for him, because that’s what stuck in my English graduate-student brain.
We’re sending your mother, he says in his doctor voice.
And then the parade begins.
My neighbor Roxy is the first. When she surprises me by stopping by with a stuffed monkey and soduku, I cry and can’t stop myself. I apologize, telling her that I’m so happy she’s there. She stays and visits and scolds me for not calling her for a ride to the ER at least, for letting things go for so long. She offers to check up on my worm box, to water my plants.
Bryan finds out through Facebook message. He asks about my self-pitying Valentine’s Day post and I tell him I’m in Queens.
New York? he asks, reasonably because if I were still with my ex, I probably would have flown to be with him over Valentine’s Day. When I correct him, say, Queens Hospital, he shows up what feels like moments later with poems and conversation, as does dear-one Aiko, who climbs into my bed and hugs and kisses and scolds me for not telling her earlier that I was in trouble.
My roommates Ryndell and Elise come too and sit on either side of my bed with legs crossed, beautiful as siren sentinels, and gossip with me about crushes and love.
Dear friend Sahoa, who is sweet all the way through, brings flowers and charm all the way from Wahiawā.
Dax brings a flashdrive that’s the shape of a penguin and has all the rom-coms I could possibly want to watch plus the episodes of Girls I’ve missed. He says he wants to sign whatever waiver he needs to to qualify for giving me emergency rides to the hospital.
Christina looks down at me in my bed like I am a dark face at the bottom of a pond and says, Get better, as a command (because it’s hurting her to see me like this, and she loves me).
Eri comes in the evening and brings night-colored nail polish from Kāne‘ohe to paint my toes and pass the time. She brings me an avocado from her yard and it is the most delicious thing I have ever eaten.
Even my roommates’ friend, Sarah, who I’m not very close to yet, comes to smile at and hug me.
Mrs. Manghnani, an aunty who I love very much and looks out for me, braves the drive from Hawaiʻi Kai even though she’s just had cataract surgery.
My officemate and living-life-out-loud-and-laughing Lyz, and the beautiful, storytelling No‘u also come, and then even Roxy’s husband arrives in bike shorts and keeps his helmet on throughout his visit as he reads the books my other friends have brought.
When I’ve been put back on a clear liquid diet, I am so sad I can’t drink the green juice my dear friend Marion brings. The peppermint aromatherapy spray she hands me makes me feel fresh and alive.
And the man, who I’ve been practicing being in love with, comes. He stops by more than once, one time even before I’ve gotten my teeth brushed. He climbs into bed with me in a way that tells me I’m not plagued, looks through the art books he’s brought, and leaves me with a book of his childhood poems that makes me swoon.
And so my dams break and I come out on Facebook that I am, in fact, in the hospital. Then the deluge comes, via chats and texts and phone calls and kisses blown to me from Mānoa Valley and all the flowers, it feels like, that the island of O‘ahu has to give continue to shower me despite how my mother has flown out from California to care for me.
She’s come to get all the medical facts that I can’t keep in my sieve of a brain and to check on me and love me and let me know she’s okay so I can stop worrying and to make sure I’m okay too.
She’s astonished at my constant stream of visitors, at how even my PhD department’s Acting Chair comes to bring me flowers.
Is this a Hawaiʻi thing? she asks.
I shrug, tell her I’m not sure, that I feel overwhelmed. So much love.
On the first night that Mom is here, I try to convince her to sleep in my bed with me since there are no roll-aways in the hospital for visitors. I plead a little with her since the one cushioned chair in my room doesn’t recline and she refuses to stay at Mrs. Manghnani’s house, to leave me, just yet. I recognize that her nurse’s training is what is making it impossible for her to lie down with me.
I listen to her when she says beds are for patients. I let her convince me that she’s fine as she pushes together a few of the plastic chairs to the one that doesn’t recline and builds a bed with extra pillows and blankets. I try not to worry about her more-than-sixty-year-old body falling in her sleep as she curls up on this little mound, looking impossibly small and fragile. I let myself feel her here and love her, feel myself forgive her for moving out of our house when we were small. I feel my plastic pillows, covered in scratchy hospital-grade cotton, gathering small, salty splotches. I watch her sleep.
I have one of my worst nights in the hospital. I’m not able to tell her this just yet, but I get up every hour or so to bleed. I am so happy she’s here, with me, loving on me. I tell myself to accept this love from her, let it wash over me.
When Mom has to fly back to California before I am discharged, middle sister Maya, the lawyer, the no-mess-around one, flies out to sort out payment processes, legal matters, and most important to look me in the face and make sure I’m okay the weekend after I’m released from my full-week hospital stay.
After we’ve had our long hug hello and rented a car and driven to the north shore, where I begin, slowly, to thaw the hospital out of my bones, I announce to her happily what I’ve learned about my overwhelming parade of visitors:
These are the folks who’ll come to my funeral, I say.
Wasn’t this a game we played? When we were being sad kids and felt unappreciated? We’d think about who would care if we were gone, who would show up to cry, who would miss us and feel a gaping hole in themselves if we were gone. It was a game that all dramatic kids played, wasn’t it?
She looks at me a bit angrily, like this is a cheap thing to say. She looks at me the way all of our loved ones have been looking at me for getting sick and not telling them sooner, for not seeing a (western) doctor and getting (western) medicine before I got this bad. She looks at me from behind her glasses with her worried, loving, furrowed face before glaring at the smooth hand of the ocean.
I feel the delicious noonday sun that hovers directly above us. I feel my shadow tucked neatly inside of me, my darkness all collected. I watch Maya’s face, silhouetted against the bright white light on the water, and want to curl up on her the way I did when I were kids, when we had bunk beds and she’d let me climb down next to her when I was scared, which was often. Don’t touch me, she’d say, serious even when we were babies. She’d press a crease into the blanket border between us, but she never shoved off my cold feet from her warm ones or my little sister hands that would find their way onto her sleeping shoulders, even as she snored softly with her back turned.
My heart clenches when I watch her keep her now-brimming eyes directed at the horizon, on the ocean’s great palm, when she concedes, Yes, they’re the ones who’ll come to your funeral. And then some.
I feel the forever pills in my bag, the supplements at home in my dresser drawer, the vegetables in my garden. I feel all the little pieces of our sometimes-broken, always-loving family. I feel the warm expanse of generous friends. I feel the sun on my face.
I feel what Maya is saying and understand, of course. These are the folks who’ll come to my funeral, but it’s not time to die yet.