“I enjoy convalescence. It is the part that makes the illness worthwhile.”
–George Bernard Shaw
For the past two weeks, I have been viewing the world through the haze of the common cold. My head is filled with the sort of thick and furry dryer lint that catches in the screen after I wash the cat blankets. I’m told that a cold that lasts beyond a week could be something else, something more serious—pneumonia or bronchitis. I don’t have either of those; mine is all in my head. But it is quite serious. A war has been declared between body and mind. My body is demanding convalescence and my mind is refusing. I have work to do.
My mind operates under the impression that I engage in really important work, that I am indispensible to the daily goings-on of the world—at least the small world I inhabit. My body, on the other hand, knows the truth—that if I were to take a few days or a few weeks or lie down and die tomorrow, life would go on relatively unaffected—not my life but life in general. A partially edited manuscript on my desk would have to go back to its owner; my absence at upcoming readings would cause one or two folks to pause before they shrug it off to irresponsible behavior; a university on the east coast would send me first a concerned email, then a terse email, then a termination letter after several deadlines pass; my brother and sister would wonder if they might inherit anything (they won’t); and my husband would have to attend to the unpaid bills and refill the cat dishes. In other words, my life could be cleared away in a rather tidy and rapid manner.
I spent the first week of my illness in Salt Lake City where I went to speak to a writing class, attend a reading, get my hair cut, and visit friends—most of which I did not accomplish. Instead, I sat in a chair, a box of tissue on my lap, in a small studio apartment across the street from the Mormon conference center. Unable to think clearly enough to work or read, I stared out the window. When the sun became strong enough, I ventured out of the apartment to the lawn where I sat to watch the parade of devout Mormons make their way to conference. Every woman who walked by with her gray hair sprayed hard against the fall breeze reminded me of my beautiful, devoutly Mormon mother. I can’t be Mormon, but I have a tender spot for those women. I adored my mother, but I’m blaming her for my inability to convalesce.
My mother died a very old woman at the age of seventy-nine. For the last ten or so years of her life, she convalesced from one thing or another—falls, congestive heart failure, rheumatoid arthritis, shingles, skin torn to the bone, and my father. At some point she embraced her illnesses, sank into her couch in the television room, and set out to live the remainder of her days as a convalescent.
I dare not relax for fear my common cold will define my days and nights.
* * *
I have a friend who tells me she has learned to move through her life as a majestic elephant—slowly, mindfully, with purpose. At first I had trouble merging the two—the small-boned, fat-free woman and the majestic beast, but, indeed, I can see majesty—splendor, dignity, power—in her movements and hear it in her words. She is seemingly full of joy, love, and peace, and she shares them generously. She tells me I need to nap, listen to music, get a foot massage, and sit on the back porch in the fall sun to watch the remaining leaves fall. Convalesce. Restore. Recuperate. Relax. My body lunges at the thought, but my mind is mortified. Deadlines will be missed and commitments will be broken and many things will fall through very wide cracks! She doesn’t have this problem because (1) majestic elephants are apparently wise enough not to accumulate unrealistic deadlines and too numerous commitments in the first place, and (2) majestic elephants do not swirl in circles of self-induced chaos. They simply go about each single task in front of them, one after another. She provides either inspiration or jealousy steeped in self-loathing—my choice.
* * *
Last night I walked to the writing shed in pure darkness after everyone—husband and houseguests—had gone to sleep. The moon was but a sliver, but the crunching of the browned grasses under my feet told me when I had wandered off the bare dirt path. I did an hour of editing before sinking into my reading chair and reaching for my box of Kleenex to blow my nose.
The world had changed during my ten days in Salt Lake City. The leaves on the giant black walnut tree and the three smaller cottonwood trees in the front yard had yellowed and dropped without my attendance. The frosty mornings have taken the lives of the herbs and tomato plants. The grass and weeds have gone dormant. The apple trees are still full, but production is down. It is a time of rest and restoration for those willing to embrace it.
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