It takes me several seconds to lower myself to the toilet. They tell me to drink “sufficient water” so that my kidneys don’t stop working. I’m not sure how much constitutes as “sufficient water” so I drink 12 ounces each time I take a pill and then 12 more for good measure. Flakes of dried pink calamine lotion fall like delicate snow or confectioners sugar at my feet, reminding me (as if I needed reminding) of the painful rash that has overtaken half of my trunk, and continues to spread like a slow blooming flower. A wide strip that begins at my right lower abdomen and trails up across my ribs and back on to my spine. The sections growing independently and then meeting like the transcontinental railway -in spite of the anti-virals, which have at least reduced the nerve pain that had me twitching and convulsing and feeling like I was being stabbed and electrocuted at random. Sobbing in excruciating pain whenever I lowered myself into bed, sneezed, or (even more cruelly) when I laugh (which is never, except for the night when I watched Kramer pour tomato juice into his cereal because he couldn’t tell it wasn’t milk because all he sees is red ever since Kenny Rogers installed a giant neon sign right outside his window. I made Eric turn off the episode. I couldn’t handle the jubilation).
My doctor chalked my shingles up to covid stress and when she asked if there was anything else going on I explained that I just hosted a socially distanced wedding for my brother -trying to do it safely so that my Mom wouldn’t die, and that my father and brother own a bar and winter is coming, and we have been renovating our kitchen ourselves since the spring and it’s currently back to studs and two windows are missing. Did I mention winter is coming? She blinked at me behind her mask and nodded. “Yes,” she said. “You are stressed.”
Eric looks up ways to reduce stress because even though I am just as likely to get shingles as everyone else (1 in 3) I am now more likely to get shingles in the future because I’ve already had it. (Statistics and probability and correlation do not make sense to me). I am already doing all of the things to reduce stress except for laughing because it hurts to laugh. And now it hurts to exercise and to sleep. It hurts to harvest my healthy food. It hurts to walk outside. It hurts to do my yoga. It even hurts to sit and meditate. I think trying to reduce stress in the midst of a global pandemic during Election season while our country is simultaneously flooding and on fire while 200,000 of us have died and so many others of us are fighting for social justice… may not be possible. To that end, my doctor says she’s seeing a lot of shingles patients.
By the time it’s evening my upper back hurts from hunching so the rash doesn’t rub against my shirt. It’s mid September and now is traditionally the time when summer flares again, reminding us she’s still here with her cobalt skies -a color I refer to as “September” even when they came this year in August. I should have known it would be cold now. I should have known when Eric asked who that bug was, clicking? I had just read about clicking katydid’s in Wendell Berry’s Nathan Coulter, within which they were clicking prematurely. It was how they knew it would be an early winter. “I wish I knew when they were supposed to be clicking,” Eric said then. “Maybe they’re telling us it’s going to get cold.”
Truth was, they were telling us, and we heard them, but we didn’t want to listen. Because most Septembers the windows are flung open. We hang the clothes on the line and the extra warmth means they aren’t damp when it’s time to pull them in as the sun sets -so much nearer now in the west, instead of disappearing behind the spruce trees on the north-west side. This year is the coldest September I remember in 15 years, and all I want is to have a reason to take off my shirt. Instead I’m forced to wear a flannel, a sweater and a vest, hunching so that they don’t rub against my skin, making it feel as though I’ve tucked a couple of cactuses under there to protect them from the impending frost.
All of my houseplants are still outside. They need to be brought in. A half-dozen jades. The avocado I recovered one year sprouting from the compost we’d used to hill the potatoes. All of the tropical plants that bring us warmth in the winter: the banana plant, the passion flower, the lemon tree, croton, aloes, agave, elephants ears, philodendrons. A plant stand full of succulents. Like every year, I search the low temperatures of the plants lining the edges of my porches. I think the cactuses can stay out. It gets cold in the desert. So too the sages, thymes, rosemary, geraniums, tarragon. Like a squirrel who’s forgotten where he buried his nuts in fall, I keep finding houseplants I stuck in once-barren corners of the out-of-doors. Back before the mints had grown up to my armpits, pulsing with pollinators and obscuring the corners of the slate patio, I tucked them there, giving me hope of the growth to come. But then they became one with that growth and only their cracked, black plastic pots or terracotta rims remind me that they aren’t permanent fixtures. How many of my friends have I forgotten among the tangle? Eric will have to bring them all inside tonight. The heaviest thing I have lifted in three days is a kettle of water in our kitchen which we now refer to as “the cabin.”
In the morning I graduate to making coffee. And when I do I imagine I lost my right arm in a battle or a farm accident and now have to learn how to survive with one extremity. It takes me three times as long (I would have supposed it would only have taken me two, considering). I pay honor and respect to the humans who are forced by life’s dealing of the deck to live this way forever. I hold in my heart gratitude in the knowing that this monoplegia is temporary, while also trying my best not to focus on the future at all. Just. this. moment. Because focusing on the past or the future puts me in a place where I imagine I “should” be able to do something faster, or at all, when the reality is, I just can’t. There is no should. Just the reality of now. And my reality now is that I can’t. (But in the future, I probably will [unless I wind up suffering from postherpetic neuralgia -which my doctor says is probably unlikely for someone my age in in my health…but of course, there is always the chance]. But since we’re not thinking about the future. This doesn’t matter).
I’ll use my one arm to gather bushel baskets and gloves and pruners and instead of it taking me one minute it will take me ten. I’ll walk (slowly and hunched over), next to Eric and point to the plants that need to come inside. And I’ll go with him to the far garden and use only my eyes to hunt for butternut squash hidden beneath plumes of indigo borage and skeletons of calendula that he will gather in the baskets. Tomorrow I’ll ask him to bring them back outside and lay them on warm stones to cure. And sometime, in a week or two, before the next frost I’ll be able to bring them out myself. Maybe by then I’ll even be laughing.
PS Thank you RBG. Rest in Peace.