Sometimes I open the little box called “Tuesday” and empty the pills into my hand and wonder if my doctors are trying to kill me. Not sure what they call this feeling, may be “Healing Is Dying” syndrome. There’s probably a drug for it.
I became aware of death healing at the age of five or six. There were ten of us in the pediatric infectious ward—the spinal meningitis lounge—and each night someone would have the nightmare. It was like we took turns afraid of being offed by medicine.
“They’re killing me,” I’d shout in my silent dream voice, and yank out the lines running into my forearms.
It must have something to do with the impersonality of a drug that can nonetheless change your personality or turn your body’s genes inside out. Most healthy people know something can exist if it has a name. The closer you get to the last door—close enough to hear its bolt unlatching—the more you realize that most of what exists doesn’t have a name. It’s only a void because it’s so anonymous, but it’s still a real place in spite of an unspoken and unwritten language which doesn’t have any nouns or verbs or predicates.
One of my doctors calls me “Stud” in hopes it will make me feel stronger. He rings me up: “Hey stud, how are you feeling today?”
“I’ve recently begun laughing when I mean to cry,” I answer.
He recommends new blood work and a week later he tells me that there’s nothing to worry about merely because my body has stopped producing vitamin D from sunlight. “I’m a farmer,” I remind him. “I’m in the sunshine all day and all night.”
Soon, there’s another pill—a green one—pharmaceutical grade vitamin D to go with other vitamins and antibiotics and soft tissue relaxants and anti-inflammatories which can only be acquired by handing a small piece of paper to the druggist. “Remember Stud, these pills are your friends.”
A few days later it happens again, the feeling that my handful of friends are trying to kill me. They don’t seem to be real friends at all, but maybe I’d feel different about them if they had names like Bruce or Jimmie instead of rifampin.
The solution is on the death shelf. It stares me in the face. That is where I keep the fifty or so books I’d always intended to die with. I rename the prednisone Updike for the washy feeling it gives me, layered over feelings of anger. I rename the military grade vitamin B-6 Robison because it’s so small—so local—but makes a wonderful difference. John Hawkes is a much better name than isoniazid; both give my spit and my sweat a subtle metallic note. The rifampin I call Barbara DeCesare because I don’t know whether to take it or to kiss it. Plus it turns my pee a red-orange tequila sunrise color, a detail that seems would appeal to her.
Then there are the alternative medicines for which the muses supply alternative literature. Instead of calling it wheat grass extract (to oxygenate my blood) I prefer to think of it as Steve Roggenbuck. Each mid-morning I drive to a health bistro in Timonium where my ounce of Roggenbuck is cut and juiced by a kind woman who migrated here from Eastern Oregon, “Where the children are still children.”
I like knowing that Roggenbuck is responsible for turning my blood a bright festive red.
Nothing beats swallowing a handful of literature several times a day, even if I worry that so much Updike might hurt me in the end.