I woke up feeling Sister’s cool fingers pushing my sticky hair off my forehead.
The orange walls, the twisted sheets, the relentless sun peeking through the curtains—all came into focus.
She was reading one of John Donne’s poems—one written after his conversion. Today it was the one that began, “Batter my heart, three-person’d God.” The book had a faded green cover.
“‘…except you ravish me,’” she read. “Good morning. How are you today?”
Her wimple seemed to accentuate her wrinkles.
“About the same,” I told her. Another day, lying here in this Phoenix hospital. I was too weak to get out of bed by myself now. She was often there, by my bedside, when I awoke, reading poetry to the English major.
“It’s important that you be hopeful,” she said.
I liked her use of the subjunctive voice. Old school would die out soon enough.
A nurse came in to displace her, jamming a thermometer in my rear. She straightened the bed sheets while she waited for the mercury to climb.
“We’re going to have to wash that hair today,” she said. “What’s a girl doing with such filthy hair?”
She then wrapped a blood-pressure cuff around my arm and checked my I.V.
“I’ll send in some girls to help you with your hair,” she said.
Jesus washed his disciples’ feet, sandaled and dusty. I looked at Sister for solace. She stood scowling at the end of my bed, the poetry book pressed against her body. She raised her hand to me before she left as if to bless me.
Doctors flooded in, clipboards erect. I had a fever that never broke. They each vied to be the first to diagnose me. Tests so far proved nothing. An enigma in medicine as well as in love, I wanted to tell them.
Yesterday, my father sat in this room covering his face with his workingman’s hands while a doctor inserted a tube with tiny brushes first into my trachea, then the lung.
“Don’t cough or hiccup,” the surgeon warned, “or we could lose you.”
A week before, a wiry intern had plunged a jackhammer into my pelvis, chipping off a piece of the bone and marrow, sucking it back up to be sent to the lab. I had buried my face in my pillow to silence the screams.
Nothing. Tests showed nothing.
“Perhaps it’s Valley Fever,” one nurse had offered. Negative.
Some aides came in and helped me into a wheelchair. My arms and legs were thin, not the same girl who a few years earlier had posed in a dorm room dressed in a blue halter top and shorts, arms akimbo, hips knocked to one side. I was wheeled to a room wherein they washed my hair. I closed my eyes. The warm water from the hose felt like a waterfall.
A hair dryer was located and placed into my right hand when I was wheeled back to my bed. My hand fell in my lap under the weight of the dryer.
I asked for a towel and wrapped it around my head. The aides helped me into my bed, the dryer lying beside me like a faithful dog. I fell into a deep sleep wherein greens and blues streamed in separate lanes.
When I awoke, Sister was on my hospital phone.
“How dare you send the same chicken leg again today? I want something good sent up here, something tempting for her. She needs to eat.”
Sister had also read pre-conversion Donne. “The Flea.” “The Canonization.” She knew a little bit about temptation, even if such knowledge came vicariously from books and sinners alike. I was glad she was looking out for me, the girl with the mystery illness. No withered old chicken leg for her. Tempt her. She’s young and susceptible to the world’s wiles. How could she know this — and not the hospital cafeteria?
Was it this proclivity that put me in this bed? I had traveled to New York City a few weeks earlier to visit a college friend. No, I won’t lie. And I wanted to look for a job. I wanted to work in New York. I walked on Manhattan streets until my feet bled. Was that what opened me up to some germ that eludes city folk but targets the tender rube?
Or was the germ on the silverware in the Times Square restaurant where my college friend and her boss, a Yale graduate, had taken me for Eggs Benedict?
Or was it to be found on the lip of the Champagne bottle someone had passed to me in Central Park where we sat en plein air and listened to a concert?
I had gone home, sick, the germ having found its host.
Home was now Phoenix, not Pennsylvania as before. While I was in New York, my parents had gone through with their plans to move West, so now I would have to join them, my dreams of living in the Big Apple burnt to ashes in a feverish body.
The long airplane trip. The difficulty swallowing.
Then the stomach hemorrhage, blood on unfamiliar walls. The ambulance. The hospital E.R., a Catholic hospital. The frantic search for a viable vein to start an I.V. A nun, a different one, came in and was successful. A rolling vein was nothing to her. Try to stick an errant soul. Now, there’s the challenge.
Sister squeezed my hand. “I’ll be back to check on you,” she said before slipping out. Sister slipped out. Shortly thereafter, temptation arrived in the form of a sandwich. I tried to push the tray away. A different nurse came in and removed the wet towel swaddling my head.
“I’ll send someone to help you dry your hair,” she said. “Try to eat something.”
My arms, weighted down with needles and tubes, were useless. Sometimes Sister fed me, leading forks and spoons into my mouth, airplane style.
“There, there,” she would say, bringing tears to my eyes. All is forgiven. Take this and eat, and you will be whole again.
That night I was put on ice, so to speak. Nurses placed me on a blow-up float like I’d used on a lake in summer times past, but this one was filled with ice water to lower my temperature, still hovering above 100. We will break that fever even if we must break the girl.
I liked swimming without inflatables. I learned how at the local Y, conquering my fear of the deep end so I could earn a certificate. Cold lake water didn’t bother me, but feeling the squishy lake bottom did. I loved a clean chlorine pool, unaware that the chemical was insufficient to what the kids were dumping into it. Back then, though, I was equal to the germs.
When I told my mother over the phone about the nurse commenting on my dirty hair, she brought me frilly nightgowns, so no one would dare say that to me again. Pastel nightgowns with floral appliqués fit for a honeymoon. I put one on, but it didn’t absorb the sweat like the cotton hospital gowns, so I put them away in the drawer.
I now had a body rash from erythromycin. Hives all over. This was the third or fourth antibiotic they’d given me; now it, too, was off the list.
“How can we make you better if you keep rejecting the medicine?” one doctor had asked me, as if it were under my control.
When I told Sister about this, she assured me he was joking. “They are frustrated,” she said. “Whatever you have is eluding them.”
The next day a doctor told me I would soon have a needle inserted into my left lung where a dark spot appeared on an X-ray.
It hit me that I was in serious straits, twenty-some days in. Should I tell my mother what I wanted to be laid out in, just in case the needle slipped or the fever couldn’t be quelled? I decided upon a brown dress my grandmother had made for me several years ago. I would also tell her I wanted my long hair framing my face so people could see how good it could look. I wanted a nosegay in my hand. I wanted Ophelia.
This had to be different from the fever gripping the languishing females in the 19th-century paintings, their long coils of copper hair topped with a crown of flowers, their bodies practically floating in diaphanous loose white cotton gowns. This was hell. A fever that pinned you down, enervated you. Sweat in your hair, your head, under your arms and at all bodily junctures. Shortness of breath, coughing, bloody sputum. The fading away….
I was torn, straddling two worlds. Laid out one minute and wanting to go back to New York the next. I had snagged an interview at NBC before having to board the plane. I might be able to do it again once I was well. I had no intention of staying in Phoenix, so much of it undeveloped desert. I was an East Coast girl, dependent upon seasons and cycles and changeable skies. This dream of living in the wide-open West was my father’s, a vagabond soul confined his whole life to working in cement boxes where he was told when to arrive, to eat, to leave. It was not my dream.
Later, I was wheeled to an operating room. A paper tent was placed on my chest to prevent my seeing the procedure. A short, white-haired doctor came in and explained he would be puncturing my left lung with a long needle to extract whatever the spot held. You must lie still, he told me, because you’ll be awake.
He hummed “Moon River.” The puncture wasn’t as bad as the drill bit plunged into my pelvis days before. I thought of Audrey Hepburn sitting in her apartment window, singing the same song. They allowed her to sing in that movie, but not in My Fair Lady where her voice was dubbed. I loved the line “my huckleberry friend.” Some thought it contrived, but I loved it with all its harsh consonants, belying the fact that all relationships are easy.
The surgeon’s moves were slow and deliberate. I occasionally saw his hand surface above the tent, as if for air. He hummed the whole song and repeated it. I pictured his wife taking him to Breakfast at Tiffany’s against his will and his coming out humming the song in spite of himself.
Young doctors swarmed around him, watching what he was doing. I could feel the pressure, what had to be the needle penetrating the upper left lobe, as if the surgeon were grinding his elbow into my chest. That was the point in old movies where a full orchestra came in out of nowhere. I waited for the double basses and cellos to remind the audience a reckoning was about to occur. But, in my case, what? An answer at last? It was important to be hopeful, Sister had told me. To be hopeful. To be.
I don’t remember anything after that. A deep sleep. Sister by my side, praying, when I awoke. She was dutiful in spite of my not being Catholic. Once I had been in love with a Catholic boy who wanted to marry me, but I had broken his heart. The boy I had dumped him for lacked his good qualities. Perhaps all this was karma.
In the New York employment office, I dealt with a guy from Sheepshead Bay. His accent was as thick as mine was nasal.
“You ready for the City?” he asked, no doubt noticing my new shoes, the fall suit in high summer. “It can be a pretty lonely place here.”
“I have friends,” I told him, changing up my sole New York friend to friends.
I had just graduated from college, Phi Beta Kappa. My gold key, in fact, was hidden by my jabot so I would not be considered ostentatious at interviews—but I would know it was there.
He gave me a mid-town address, 30 Rock, for the NBC interview—one of its shows, “Saturday Night Live,” needed a good typist, someone young. Not only did my clothes not breathe, my shoes were whittling sores in my feet with every step. My throat was red and inflamed, making it hard to swallow. I remember wanting to lunch at Delmonico’s to make it all go away.
Perhaps the germ lay waiting within the sheets of my college friend’s guest bedroom. The house was on loan by her uncle, who was in the hospital at the time of my visit. The sheets had been damp, almost wet, which I attributed to the house being situated in a leafy neighborhood. I asked to sleep on the couch instead, propped up with pillows, the better to swallow.
I had kissed a guy before I left for New York. He had freckles, but not the Howdy Doody kind. His were much more subtle—gold dots—especially when he was tanned. He was cute, but had no frame of reference. I’d known him since we were in kindergarten together, and I got yelled at for playing with his cowlick. I wasn’t in love with him, nor with the Catholic boy.
I went for so-called bad boys, who weren’t bad on the surface, just after you got to know them. They were smart and charming at first, but ultimately deceitful. The one I really loved was the one I met at college. He told me we would be married one day, even taking me to meet his parents. He played a resonator instead of a regular guitar. He put a continental kit on the rear end of his car. He was distinctive in many ways but common as dirt in others.
Once I surprised him by showing up one New Year’s Eve, after I had driven for a good four hours, and he told me he was with another girl that night.
“I’m sorry,” he said, holding his front door open just a crack. “I wish it weren’t so.”
He stopped writing after that. I missed his letters, full of phrases like “pyrrhic victory” to describe how challenging it was to be so desperately in love with someone who lived so far away.
Sister continued to pray, probably thinking I was still asleep. I must rally and go back to New York. I’d get a good job and fall in love with someone who loved me back. He would love me even more knowing how close he had been to losing me, to never having met me. I would tell him about the ice bed, the needles in the pelvis and lung, Sister’s goodness and the nurse who had insulted me. I would at last wear the fancy nightgowns.
I would tell him not to worry—no need to be so protective. I am strong. Yes, sadder, but stronger, too. He would kiss me, with the Chrysler Building spire as backdrop.
A few days later, a team of doctors and interns entered my room then encircled my bed. The nurse who had commented on my dirty hair was in the room, too, satisfied that I looked presentable.
“We have a diagnosis at last,” one of them said. “It’s tuberculosis.”
One of the younger doctors nodded his head. Perhaps he had been the one peering into the microscope, looking at the slide, solving the mystery at last. I scanned the room for my mother, my father, but they weren’t there. A younger nurse standing by my bed put her hand on my shoulder.
I closed my eyes and saw a tangle of veins. The harsh Phoenix sun was not to be held back by the curtains that tried to filter it, let alone block it.
“…except you ravish me,” I mumbled, remembering Sister’s sonorous reading of Donne’s last line in the holy sonnet, wishing she were beside me, her cool, dry flesh proof of another, better, world.
JUDE HOPKINS taught composition, news writing, and news editing at the University of Pittsburgh at Bradford and composition at various other schools in New York state and California. Her essays and poetry have been published in The Los Angeles Times, skirt! Magazine, California Quarterly, Grey Sparrow Journal and Timber Creek Review.