First thing I do when I come home from work every evening is get on the old University cast-off PC and see how my symptoms are doing; listen to my body. I got a little headache some days, a little cold others. These aren’t anything on their own, but add ’em up and there you go, symptoms, a syndrome even. You gotta watch out for the aggregate, the sum of the little pains and aches and twitches that make up your physical day. It’s what they mean as a whole, this is what I’m telling you. My dial-up takes its sweet time, so as the tiny PC hourglass empties and drains, and the thing coughs and grumbles and the pages load, I got plenty of time to concentrate and remember what my nerves have been telling me that particular day, what I couldn’t fully notice as I focused on cables and wires and circuits, doing my time as a University electrician.
You get the body messages all the time, it’s just if you’re listening or not. One time I like to listen is lying in bed, waiting for sleep. Because then it’s quiet, everything’s still, and I can hear my heart beat, actually feel it skitter or skip, slow itself down or rev up faster than it should. I lie there thinking: what am I missing when I’m up and about? What signals have I lost in the shuffle of noise and action? This meditation in front of the computer works well, too, sometimes saves me sleep, saves me from a bit too much of the nighttime self-evaluation. I consult the log of illness stored up in my flesh just waiting to be spelled out and read: violent tension in the neck, twinge of pain in the heel of the foot, slight spell of dizziness upon standing up too quick, swollen, not sore throat, maybe a sign of allergies, blurred vision (not contact lens related). Sort them out, group them by type, by area of the body, by severity. By their need to be taken seriously or not.
Now I’m logged on and in, and I’m ready to start making the comparisons, to evaluate the possibilities. WebMD, Mayo Clinic, PDR Health (that’s Physicians Desk Reference to all the healthy people out there): they’re all ready to figure me and my problems out. I tell them what it feels like to hurt, how my worrying takes its shape, and they tell me everything back, impartial, no vested interest on their part. They give it to me straight.
But tonight I don’t know if I can stay here. Because the computer’s telling me some pretty bad things. Today at work I bumped into the walls a few times, staggered around a corner too fast, knocking my shoulder and spinning myself around. Later, I straightened up abruptly and knocked my head on a shelf in some dark and dusty closet lined with wires and circuit-breakers and cable-boxes, estimating that the shelf was at least a good six inches farther to the left than it really was. My knees wobbled looking down one of those endless college dorm corridors as the straight lines of floor meeting wall meeting ceiling seemed to bend and distend and warp, and gray/purple pile carpeting sloped left-right in some weird perceptual shift and I almost fell over, dropping the unimaginably convoluted tangle of wires I held in my hands to brace myself against door 311 to my right. A kid, not much younger than me, the youngest electrician on campus at twenty-five, this kid stuck his head out of the door to see if I might be his, I don’t know, pizza delivery or whatever, and when he saw me swaying there, wires pooled around my feet, he said, “Dude, are you alright?” and I was tempted to demand a doctor on the spot, an emergency crew even, but something held me back, maybe my quickly returning equilibrium or maybe some sort of misguided pride, but, god, how unimportant and shallow pride is when compared to the monstrous burden and mystery of health and well-being!
So it came and went during the day, and sometimes it felt like I was maybe floating or maybe sinking or tilting even, and sometimes it was fine, and I understand how these things work, how symptoms come and go, but you better believe I was hot to get on the old PC ASAP upon arrival at me casa. I type in “vertigo” and “dizziness” into the symptoms window on WebMD, and all hell breaks loose. Ménière’s Disease, Labyrinthitis, Vestibular Neuronitis, Benign Paroxysmal Positional Vertigo, potentially cancerous growths in the inner ear canal, serious nervous system disturbances possibly related to brain expansion or infection, impending stroke-like activity, to name just a few. Level of seriousness ranging from minor to life-threatening. Permanent hearing loss a distinct possibility in some cases. I shake my head from side to side and the room plays like a carousel. This one could require outside assistance, I’m thinking. I pause a second. The local hospital or the campus medical center? My house is halfway in between, so it comes down to levels of care, to preference of treatment. I shakily stand and drift towards the door, down the stairs of the creaking little house on its “quaint” last legs and out into the cool fall air, thinking: this isn’t helping me at all.
The term hypochondriac has been thrown around in my presence, I admit it. But does nobody realize how close we are to death at all times? How sudden it can be? I walk around in a world of physically monstrous objects that can at any moment rebel and crush me with their unyielding substance. Humans are organic crash test dummies only: everything else is at best the car and, more often, the wall. The miracle is to go through the day without flinching every two seconds. And with this weight of external physical terror shadowing and oppressing my every move, it is really just too much to be trapped inside a body that is not only no shield against the world at large, but that is also capable of total and unprompted revolt against itself. Against me.
Do you read the obituaries? I do. And there is a line frequently used, usually tossed off by the anonymous writer with devilish flippancy, tucked in there between “survived by two loving children” (or worse, “parents”) and “his first break came when…” The phrase is “his death was due to unknown causes.” Which you would think would be the cue for launching a full-scale police investigation, complete with top-of-their-field forensic detectives and highly rigorous and carefully monitored autopsies. But it never is. I mean, I never read about these inexplicably dead people again. They vanish, erased from the world by “unknown causes.” And nobody thinks this is fucked up. And when the cause is known but not really explained, like a sudden stroke in a young person, a heart attack in a health-nut long-distance runner, a brain aneurysm in a small child, then it may be even worse. So I maintain vigilance. I watch for all the signs of possible breakdown and malfunction. I’ll accept being killed by a shrieking brick falling out of thin air, but I’ll be goddamned if I ever let a cancer-infected cell go unnoticed for even one fucking minute.
Tonight the medical center glows bright in the clear air, and I feel some sort of distant relief twisted in among the dizziness and unsteady fear. I worked a late shift today, helping to set up the tech specs for some panel scheduled tomorrow morning, so it’s almost midnight now, and the medical center is on its late hours routine, which means I’ll have to buzz the door and plead my case through the intercom to get in. I stop at the double glass doors and peer inside at the abandoned first floor. Late at night, everything happens upstairs on the second floor, where the kids too sick to sleep in their dorm beds lie feverish and coughing under the care of maybe two or three night nurses. I stare at the intercom, at the glowing red light that I’ll need to press, at the cross-hatched oval I’ll need to speak into to tell my story of dizziness and chills and general and pervasive and unrelenting nausea. I’ll have to explain that I’m a University employee, and I’m not too sure whether that gets me late night access to the medical center or not, and the more I think about it, the more I think it probably doesn’t, the more I think that they will probably insist on calling some sort of ambulance to take me up to the real hospital, where I’m not so sure I actually want to go.
I spotted it the moment I rounded the corner of the building, but I chose to ignore the cracked-open window for a few moments while I figured out whether I could really do what I wanted – needed – to do. Looking at the three to four inch gap between windowsill and edge, I know there wasn’t really ever a question.
The window slides smoothly up and I clamber unsmoothly in – where am I? It is a doctor’s office, a consulting room of some sort. There is a bulky, no-nonsense Compaq on the desk, file cabinets against the wall, an examination table with that fresh toilet-paper-like covering pulled taut over the leather. An orange stand-by light on the Compaq illuminates the keyboard and a desk partially covered with neatly ordered folders and reference books, a few ring binders and a Dilbert calendar. There is a red message light blinking softly on the phone. The faint hum of sleeping electronics smothers the room.
It’s beautiful, but I can’t stay for long. I open the door as silently as I can, and slip out into the pitch-black hallway. There is a redness burning at one end, and I squint and move towards the EXIT sign, and open that door and there is a second door leading outside, but also a back staircase, a fire outlet. I creep up in the darkness, a hand playing along the pitted concrete wall, guiding myself around unseen corners. I come to the second floor door quickly. I know there is a fairly decent chance that some sort of fire alarm will go off if I open it but I’ve come too far to abandon the mission now, and besides, this is a campus medical center and I am an employee of this university, and I am confused and dizzy and barely able to stand up straight, so how could anybody, even the Satanist nurses manning the lonely nightshift waiting to exercise some small amount of power over the rare patient who can’t have them fired within the week, how could even they refuse a sick man just seeking a little safe rest?
I open the door and nothing happens. The computer told me not to rule out advanced stage seizure warnings. I think I’m near some more daytime examining rooms that are empty now. I’m in the dark still, but there are some lights on just ahead, and I hear nurse-banter and fingers clicking on keyboards and a faint song on the radio, something light and saccharine and maybe just a little comforting. I know from previous futile visits that the overnight rooms are beyond the nurses’ desk, and I have to get there somehow, so I slink down the darkened corridor, and, coming to the end of that, stick my head around and see the nurses, two of them, one at the computer, absently typing, the other leaning against the desk, back to me, chatting. I see a dimly lit corridor stretching out behind the desk, and I know that this is my destination, my resting place. The computer told me inner-ear cancerous growth can be sporadic, and symptoms can occur with a startling suddenness. My miracle occurs when one of the nurses says, and I strain my ears to report it, “Gonna get some coffee from downstairs, want anything?” and the other says no.
The standing one waddles, fat as they all are, to the front staircase away from both me and the overnight stay wing, and I watch the seated one refocus her attention on the computer screen and hum to the radio and tap her feet just a little bit, softly. I take my sneakers off and leave them hidden behind the corner, and pad down the hall in my socks, so quiet and slow but not nervous because I’m too focused on maintaining my balance, on keeping the corridor straight and still. I’m about to enter her line of vision, if she should ever look up, so I slide very, very slowly to my hands and knees and crawl , snake-like, past her. Her desk area is raised a foot or so off the rest of the floor, and is enclosed by a wall of sorts, making a proper sanctum of coffee cups and junk food wrappers and yesterday’s newspapers. She can’t see me unless she stands and peers over the edge, unless she has a reason to. I won’t give her one. I’m not nervous. All I can think about is that the floor sure is clean down here.