This essay is dedicated to Christopher Hitchens.
The IV stuck out of my arm. My heart beat tender paces. Inside my neck a small mass that borrowed its head into the muscle. Under the mass, a sack of puss. Inside the puss, tiny microbes whispered "give up."
The mass in my neck swelled to more than two inches wide. The soft parts were tender enough to press your finger in and leave a mark. The IV itched. I wanted to rip it out, pull the vein out with the tiny tube.
That weekend, my body remained in a New Hampshire hospital, but my thoughts with my work back in New Jersey. What didn't kill me did not make me stronger. What didn't kill me left me in the bed to wonder if it'd get worse -- left me tired and without an appetite. "It's not living that matters, it's the quality of life," I wrote on the back of registration paperwork.
Staph. Sepsis. What did it matter? I was sick.
The bed, the food, the nurses, all sweet and nice, all saying my neck seemed less swollen. The doctor. The doctor. His pen clicked and dotted the paper with the word: infection -- with the words: close call. Dr. A told me we we're lucky, and the whole time I tried to figure out who the "we" could've been.
That first night, when everyone buzzed around the hospital, I thought about whom I'd give my books to. I thought about who'd miss me the most. I thought who'd take care of Doris. No one. Nothing. Blank. Blank.
The neck, hot and infected and close to the brain, pulsed and ached. I wanted to cut into it myself and rip everything out. One doctor gave me Benadryl. One doctor gave me pain meds. Another doctor, a sleeping pill. I needed sleep. I needed to fall into the white sheet of paper I rested on. I needed to get back to work, but work became a snail that slugged along the concrete.
After the three CT scans and a month of follow-ups, the infection and the lump disappeared. The mass seemed to vanish. After the biopsy's needle revealed no cancer, and the antibiotics left me with numbness in most of my right hand, after the rashes and the intense dry skin stopped, after the sleepless nights and the other patch of numbness on my left leg, and after the infectious disease doctors -- and the ENT and the GP -- no one knew where the infection came from. No one knows how it started.
On my last CT scan, I looked up at the picture of the forest embedded on the ceiling and took a deep breath as the contrast went in again, as the nurse said again: "Now you're gonna feel like you peed yourself." I started to cry for every person with an illness, for every person facing even worse circumstances than what I faced. I felt pathetic and ashamed of my worry, but also united with those who were suffering or have suffered from illness. I felt connected and comforted by the thought: I, too, touched the grey hand of mortality.
I felt satisfaction in having the honor of kissing death's widow's peak, holding its hand, tall and delicate, telling me to go back, go back -- I think you still have time.