Featured Image: “You Don’t Still” by Claire Halpine
Yesterday this was my bed. Today it’s my casket.
At 73 years of age I know I look like death warmed over, migraines have leeched the color out of my pasty limp skin for the past 40 years. Even though light-blocking green shades are pulled down tight against the sill, a hair’s breadth of insufferable bright knives between where the shade refuses to touch the window frame. Perhaps those two find touch as intolerable as I find the weight of the cotton sheet on my hypersensitive skin. My eyeballs roll up and back like the yank of a slot machine handle, spinning sightless beneath tissue-thin eyelids that shutter uncontrollably.
Sometimes when I return to work a colleague will ask, “What’s the pain like?” their eyes and one corner of their mouth squinched up in morbid anticipation.
“Exquisite,” I always respond.
Like the impossibly thin flute of crystal champagne glasses shattering inside your brain. Like wanting to die pain. Often I’ve wanted to die of embarrassment, shame, or the ever-present not-good-enough affliction, but never quite had the wherewithal to pull it off. Instead, I opt for migraines which I disappear into for days, but not forever.
Migraines unflinchingly hold your head over the edge of death till you beg for mercy. In my motionlessness, I become emotionless. It’s too costly to cry because hot tears will sear my skin and make it more difficult to breathe. Migraines are a full-body eclipse, sensorial suffering that can only be endured by not hoping to survive. And there is always the possibility of no return because there is no escape.
I will tell you I want off the Fear-Go-Round with its bizarrely painted heaving, rearing horses of the apocalypse, but instead I tighten my hold on the reins that control nothing on a ride in which I’ve taken on too much, agreed to things I don’t want to do, and am resentfully yoked to a never-ending to-do list. Harnessed to a cycle of my own making, I escape into the isolation of a migraine that halts the calliope’s dissonant and haunting music, played over and over like the inexorable demands of my mind. The neuroses of a mother carried forward by her daughter.
This misery, all for the sake of being loved, liked, approved of, tolerated, not ignored, or at least, not dismissed with disgust. You know, people don’t like you, let alone love you for just being you. They tolerate you based on how well, how much, and how fast you can produce whatever it is they want when they want it. The cost to you is unimportant to them. You must be willing to do what is never enough.
Thoreau went to the woods to live deliberately, an elemental life not “frittered away by detail.” He wrote about the essentials of life, “I do believe in simplicity. It is astonishing as well as sad, how many trivial affairs even the wisest thinks he must attend to in a day; how singular an affair he thinks he must omit.” I know with each migraine I’m trespassing on the icy slick edge of annihilation. It’s the reduction of life to its most essential need: the next breath. And there is only a millisecond in which my lungs will or will not draw in a breath, and I have nothing to do with whether they do or don’t.
So different Thoreau’s isolation from mine. So different his conscious endeavor from my production-oriented life cluttered with clumsy fits of meaningless starts that pile up in notebooks and computer files and endless threads of emails saved just in case I need to prove I said it or did it, or was right. It is clearly my mind, not my mother, that drives me to seek refuge in migraines.
Being sick is a character flaw that my mother distains in anyone, especially her children. Having anything wrong with you is a weakness and you should be ashamed of yourself. Since my mother is never sick, when I’m sick, she says I’m lying. So if one of us kids is not sick according to mother’s yardstick, there’s no need to seek medical help. Only when school requires the cursory annual exam do we see the inside a doctor’s office.
It’s 1957 and I’m a boundless-energy eleven-year-old, but today I wake up feeling sweaty and sick to my stomach. Lots of kids are out sick with the flu. I ask my older sister whom I share a room with to tell Mother I’m sick, but she won’t do it. The messenger risks getting caught in the crossfire for taking sides with anyone other than Mother.
I sit up very slowly on the side of our double bed hoping my stomach won’t slosh around again as it did earlier when I rolled over. With one hand over my mouth, I test standing up, then tentatively cross to the bedroom door. I slide my back along the hall wall towards the stairs. Holding onto the banister railing, I try to call down loud enough to be heard in the kitchen that I’m sick.
I summon up more voice that results in a paltry weak-kneed plea.
The no-nonsense command bounds up the staircase, “Get down here now and eat your breakfast. You’re not sick, Char.”
I stumble back to the bedroom thinking I must be exaggerating, Mother knows best. She often tells me I make a big deal out of nothing. I gingerly shrug on my blue chenille bathrobe, tying it loosely around my tummy. I sit down on the bed and feel around with my toes for my slippers because I don’t want to risk bending over. I shuffle along the hall wall again, ease my way down the stairs, and head to the kitchen.
The smell of bacon makes my stomach thrash like a volcano about to erupt. I slap both hands over my mouth and nose. It’s hard to think as my cheeks inflate with each gag. Frantic, I must decide which bathroom to make a dash for — the one upstairs or the one just past the kitchen pantry where everyone will hear me throwing up. In our house your body isn’t supposed to make tinkling, plopping, farting, belching, burping, crying or screaming (never) sounds, yawning (unladylike), no two-handed nose-blowing (again, unladylike), and certainly no honky noises or hocking up phlegm (only men do that), no coughing, and certainly, throw up silently. I know I can’t make it back up the stairs.
I race past the kitchen table and slam the bathroom door behind me. I flush the toilet several times to cover up the unacceptable sounds.
I was 23 when I got engaged, probably the last girl in my high school class to do so, but I wouldn’t know for sure. Once I went to college I didn’t keep in touch with classmates. A month before we got married, my fiancé, Ray Thode (pronounced “Toad,” that probably should have been a red flag since once kissed he did not turn into a prince) who was two years ahead of me, took me to meet his beer-drinking buddy Harry who he’d served with in the Coast Guard.
Ray had been in the military police unit while in the service, and when he got out he joined the police force in our small mid-west town. Evidently, I had a thing for a man in uniform, whether sailor-white or police-navy. I remember believing he would protect me from my mother’s criticism and make me happy. And clearly had a blind spot for the gun and abuse-of-power badge that were part of the package and that I would ultimately need a restraining order to protect me from. More about that later, it’s not why I’m telling you this drinking buddy story.
Harry’s apartment was two and a half squatter’s rooms. When he yelled, “Come on in. Door’s not locked.” I could see why as it creaked open. A ratty scratchy maroon couch, undoubtedly left behind by several previous renters, and whose center leg had given up under Harry’s 250 pounds, was one of two pieces of furniture in the narrow room. A wadded up caseless pillow, crumpled chip and pretzel package wrappers, remnants of pizzas and sandwiches, and beer bottles slovened the marooned raft on which he sprawled. On the floor within reach, a brown chipped mug bearing the insignia “Moulin Diner: From our Kitchen to Yours” held a quarter-inch of moldy coffee with stubbed cigarettes officially announced this was a dump. Directly across from the couch I had no intention of sitting on, was a Magnavox console TV and a slim door that looked like it was probably a broom closet, not that I expected to find one there. The room was so narrow that if you rolled off the couch and rolled over twice on the floor you could open the door or change the channel.
It had been a long drive and I needed to use the bathroom so asked where it was. When Harry pointed at the door next to the TV, I thought he was kidding since I couldn’t imagine he could squeeze his beer belly through that doorway. But that thought was quickly replaced with dread as I realized these two, who were within whispering distance of that door, would hear me peeing. But I had no choice. Look like an idiot and say I’d changed my mind and what I really needed was a glass of water? Or pee? I chose the latter, running water in the tiny corner sink and flushing too early.
When I emerged I was met by hardy buddy-guffawing and Harry hooting, “Did she really run the water so we wouldn’t hear her pee?” Ray was sniggering and threw a heavy arm around my hunched shoulders as though I was a humiliated 11-year-old child bride-to-be.
When I emerge from the bathroom my mother looks disgusted and tells me to get out of the kitchen. My sisters say nothing as I pass the table, quickly finishing their oatmeal and toast in silence, eager to leave early for school. Ashamed yet relieved, I climb the stairs back to bed.
I drift in fits of chills and sweats, sounds below me of endless intentionally noisy productivity –dishes, pots and pans washed, dried and put away, rooms vacuumed, furniture dusted. My mother is too busy to be sick and too busy for you to be sick, so she has no patience or time for colds, sore throats, belly aches, scrapes, or bug bites. The only sicknesses that count are ones you can see. A body is covered with measles. A neck pouched out with mumps. If you had one of those – a real sickness – you could stay in bed. But she still made it clear you were an extra burden for her to bear.
I turn over too fast and gag as my stomach flops and heaves mouthward. I throw off the covers and run quietly on tip-toes down the hall to the bathroom shutting the door so she won’t hear me. After I flush and wipe off the toilet seat, I’m so sweaty that my pajama top is sticking to me, so I hold a cool washcloth to my face, then dab at a spot on my sleeve.
Rung out, I crawl back under the cotton sheet and lay on the edge of the bed for a quick exit. Now I’m shivering so I push deeper down into the bed, listening to my heart beating scary fast against my ribs and waiting for my breathing to slow down, so I can sleep. If I don’t need help, don’t ask for anything, she won’t come up, may even forget about me. This is the good thing about being sick; no demands, no failures. Respite from the relentless never-enough pace of the house in which there is no rest for the not-good-enough. The isolation of sickness promises absolution and peace.
It seemed my mother thought that if her children were sick her image as the perfect mother who had it all under control was threatened. To seek outside help implied she was lacking as a mother and wasn’t capable of raising healthy children. This sort of thinking infused and informed my life in odd ways. For example, when hosting guests for dinner, I ensured there was no indication any effort had gone into cleaning the house, setting the table, preparing and cooking the dinner. Kitchen counters stripped of life. Not a dirty dish, pot, or pan in sight. It had to look as though I had dinner completely under control and no one’s help was needed.
This took meticulous planning and timing and was so exhausting that I couldn’t taste the food or enjoy the conversation during the meal. After dinner, I protested when anyone offered to clear the dishes because if the counter and sink filled with dirty dishes, for the illusion of effortlessness would have been destroyed. Instead, I’d fiendishly scrape and rinse dishes while my guests conversed in the living room. I made myself invisible in my effort to establish and maintain the fantasy that I had everything under control.
Accepting help was a weakness, an admittance that I couldn’t do it by myself. Asking for help was crossing the line of my mother’s code of martyrdom and punishable by silence. Better to make one’s self invisible than to risk the humiliating silence of no response. There is no one coming to save you. Better to disappear into the resentful isolation of doing it myself, to vanish into a sink of dirty dishes, an abusive marriage, or a migraineur’s death rehearsal than say, “Help.”
Wonderful writing, painful, moving and yet inspirational about the way kids find ways to survive whatever life throws at them. Detailing the internal process of a child’s mind as well as the the descriptive detail of the experience of a migraine is quite impressive. I could feel what the writer was going through as well as relate to my own feelings when the feelings were similar even though the experiences were different. I appreciated reading this because of the way it was written and because I also was once a kid trying to find my way.
“The isolation of sickness promises absolution and peace.” Powerful piece of writing on so many levels.