Not 10-Years-Old

rxHalloween 1979. I am 10-years-old. And too sick to go trick-or-treating.

In my diary, the one I have received earlier in month for my birthday – covered in blue flowers, with a lock, and the smell of old-lady perfume – I write, “I still have the ammonia.”

My mother cannot bear to tell me it is pneumonia, not ammonia that has me walking to the bathroom on tiptoes, holding my head, because full steps hurt too much.

This is not the first time. For three years in a row I have been diagnosed with either pneumonia, bronchitis or both. Always at this time of year – the season of ghosts and goblins, copious amounts of candy, the addition of one hour, and my birthday.

And then one day…nothing.

Seems I have outgrown my respiratory weariness.

Until now.

I am walking up the stairs of the metro station at Puerta Del Toledo. My head is spinning. My eyes are dry. My throat, itchy and sore. I felt this coming on at lunch yesterday but had hoped to ward it off by jumping into bed early that night. I have already been sick twice this season.

But this time is different. I feel it in my lungs.

They are heavy. It is as if I can feel each alveola filling with air. I walk to my student’s home, trying to will the illness away. By 1 p.m. I am canceling my Spanish lesson and sending texts in hopes of finding others to take on my evening responsibilities.

I receive a deluge of responses, all with the same message – “Go to the doctor.”

A friend of mine, a native Madrileno, offers to make an appointment for me.

“Tomorrow at 9:30 a.m. Text me when you arrive.”

“Does the doctor speak English?” I ask.

“I don’t know.”

A little more than 12 hours later, I text her.

“Call me if you need help,” she writes.

Somehow I have gotten it in my head that she is meeting me here, but clearly I am confused. She is at work and I am fuzzy and unclear about pretty much everything.

“Okay,” I write back.

I check in, more or less without incident. And at 9:30, the doctor herself calls me into the exam room.

“Habla Ingles?” I ask, crossing both fingers and toes.

“No.”

I burst into tears.

“Lo siento. Lo siento. (I’m sorry. I’m sorry.),” I squeak.

I am sick. I am overwhelmed. I am scared.

I am 10-years-old, holding my head and walking on my toes, missing Halloween.

And yet clearly I am not. I am 47 and in Madrid, typing back and forth with the doctor using Google Translate – telling her about my symptoms and my medical history.

She takes my temperature. She listens to my lungs. She checks my oxygen levels.

No fever. My lungs are clear. But she wants to run a blood test to find out why I keep getting sick.

I do not understand what she is saying, even with the translator. Probably because this idea is foreign to me.

I remember being in the emergency room in Chicago. Once a heart attack was ruled out, they sent me home.

“So what is it?”

Shrug. “Not a heart attack.”

The doctor calls my friend the Madrileno, who translates.

I get a prescription for ibuprofen and lozenges, as well as for blood work. The doctor schedules an appointment for a follow-up visit – with her English-speaking colleague.

I look at my watch. I have been in her office for an hour. A line of patients sit waiting in red chairs in the hallway.

I go downstairs and have my blood taken, then walk to the train – gingerly, nearly on my toes. On the way, I call one of my girlfriends to tell her “it is not the ammonia.”

“Good,” she says. She tells me that I have done a brave and scary thing — navigating the healthcare system of a foreign country in a language that I don’t quite know.

“Guess you can handle more than you think,” she says.

Guess I am not 10-years-old.

Artist’s Date 23: Seeing The Angels Who Have Stayed

The woman sitting next to me reeks.

Her two friends wave and come down the aisle to greet her.  One comments on how wonderful she smells.  She asks if it’s (insert name of fancy perfume here as I can’t remember it).  It is, she says, adding that she can only buy it in Paris now.  It’s no longer available in the United States.

“High class problems,” as my friend Dina likes to say.

She is coughing uncontrollably into a hanky.  Hacking,really.  She says she has been sick for weeks.  This is her first outing in as long as she can remember and she’s not even sure she can make it through the whole performance.

I am seething.  I say nothing.  I pray to myself, “Bless her.  Change me.”  My friend Dina taught me this too.  I say it like a mantra until the lights go down.

It is cold in here.  I pull on my wool hat.  It is May.

This is good.  I am not thinking about what I am going to write.  Not thinking that I have committed to 52 Artist Dates and that this is number 23.  I am simply “in it,” observing its smells, sounds, and temperature.

I am at Steppenwolf Theatre Company to see Head of Passes.  I’ve never been here before, but I know that it is a Chicago must – both a jewel and an institution.  The play has received good reviews.  Tickets were $20 plus a $7 handling fee on Goldstar.  When my friend Mimi called to cancel our plans, I took it as a sign and hit “purchase.”

head of passesOn the way here I have one of those “my life is really cool” gratitude moments.  I am driving to the theatre on a Thursday night, by myself, as casually as I might be driving to Trader Joes – as if “this is what I do.”  And it hits me, this IS what I do.  I fill my creative coffers every week.

They say it takes 30 days to create a habit.  I am only on day 23.

I pull into the garage as I realize I can’t feed the meters for the length of the performance.  $10.  A date would pay, right?  Why not me?  This has become my guiding principle – would someone who liked me do this for me?  If the answer is yes, I do too.  Another new habit.

The boy at will call is cute.  He hands me my ticket – second row, off-center to the right.  Awesome seats – illness and odor directly to my left notwithstanding.

The writing is good, rich with wonderful lines that make me laugh uncomfortably like, “Black people don’t like the rain.”  Another about the folly of loving something, someone, who is going to leave you.

Then I am full of folly.  My heart is big and shiny and open.  And someone is always leaving.  Through death, divorce, moving, changing.  I don’t take it as personally these days.  Not like when I was 18 and thought I was the only one experiencing the pain of loss.

I am sitting at my grandmother’s house with my mother and father.  They have come to visit me at university, and together we visit her, my father’s mother, who lives just a few miles away.  She and I are not close.

This visit is more painful than usual because the man I have lost my virginity to has left East Lansing for a spring internship in Illinois.  I am heartbroken.  He is gone.  He was never really there in the first place.  He is engaged, or engaged to be engaged, to a girl in his hometown.  I am not his only indiscretion.

My mother tells me these visits are hard for her too.  That she misses her own mother, my Nana.

“Everyone leaves me,” I sob, making it suddenly all about me.  Nana.  Bill, my red-headed Mr. Wrong.  My friends see him in the cafeteria and shake their heads.  They don’t see what I see.  He wanted me.  It was enough.

Selah laughs sweetly at the doctor – at his folly, for allowing himself to care for her, to be saddened by her imminent death.

But she doesn’t die.  Her children do – tragic, senseless deaths.  Two boys, now grown, delivered by the doctor. And a girl, also grown, brought to Selah as an infant by her husband, the father.

He reminds me of my red-headed Mr. Wrong.  He didn’t bring me a child, just a sexually transmitted disease.  I loved him anyway.  And Selah loved this girl, raising her as her own.

But first, the house collapses onto itself.  Onto Selah.

She emerges, covered in a white choir robe.  Her hair is closely cropped, like mine.  Her matronly dress and braided wig lost.  She is conducting church services – for herself, by herself.  She is the choir, the audience and the minister, all at once.  Her faith, if not her mind, intact.

In the final scene Selah slips back through the rabbit hole of sanity and out of the condemned house, assisted by a construction worker in a hard hat, a dead ringer for the angel who has visited her throughout the two acts.

I think of my own angels – the ones who have taken me by the elbow, guiding me out of my own mess, too many to name.   No longer focused on who has left – not even the woman to my left – I can clearly see who has stayed.