We’re thrilled to present “On Being and On Being the Right Size” in five parts for the next five weeks. You can read all the sections of the essay here.
I was forty and I didn’t feel very good. And then I started dying.
Not existentially, but quickly, shockingly, actually.
When reading Haldane, you have to look past certain things. His ideas require us to take them with a certain amount of salt. A grain. Two. A hillock. Haldane’s views on race are appalling, as is his defense of the Soviet Union. How could he not have known, a man of his brilliance?
A hillock is smaller than a hill but has nearly double the number of letters. It’s a word equally charming and ungainly. I love it. Haldane would certainly have used it, known that a hillock is not only a small hill but a bit away from other hills, a topographical outcast, a runt.
Haldane has as many troubles understanding what makes up his body as I do with mine. While I see myself in a ludicrous, living Play-Doh sort of way, Haldane regarded his brain as more than the atoms that smashed and swirled in his skull.
“It seems immensely unlikely to me that mind is a mere by-product of matter,” he writes in “When I Am Dead.” What he’s saying is that there must be something else, right? Some kind of something? Soul?
“I have no reason for supposing my brain to be composed of atoms,” he goes on. “… I am compelled to believe the mind is not wholly conditioned by matter.” The hope is that, after death, his mind will merge with an infinite mind. But he knows this is really more a comforting thought than a substantial idea, writing, “The belief in my own eternity seems to me indeed to be a piece of unwarranted self-glorification, and the desire for it a gross concession to selfishness.”
Well, shit. If Haldane’s self-glorification is unwarranted, who am I to seek anything at all?
I wondered if the dog had brought in something and rubbed it on the couch or if one of my sons had done something, some prank. Is itching powder still a thing? I remember ads in the back of comic books alongside x-ray glasses that theoretically would let you see through clothing of the 1950s. But my boys don’t read comics; they get their superheroes from the movies, and besides, they wouldn’t have the cash to send or a stamp to send it with. My wife and I tried to settle on the couch but I couldn’t stop clawing at myself.
“What are you doing?”
We wiped off the couch and I jumped in the shower, but it didn’t make a difference. My wife fell asleep and I went to bed, but sleep wouldn’t come. I masturbated, hoping that would help. It didn’t. There is some strange and humiliating truth that even when everything hurts and the biological alarms are going off, the reproductive system is happy to step up to the task.
I was lying in bed and swallowing hard. What was going on?
This swallowing wasn’t an emotional gulping; it was the only way to keep thin threads of saliva from the back of my throat. I wondered if my throat was closing. A few years earlier, a chef with whom I’d worked had an allergic reaction and his throat closed. He gasped and thrashed in front of his boyfriend as the boyfriend begged him to not die.
I packed a shoulder bag with a phone charger, some gum, and something to read, made sure my insurance card was in my wallet, grabbed lip balm (I can’t fall asleep without a fresh layer). I kissed my wife on the forehead.
“I’m going to the ER.”
“Do you need me to take you?”
“No. I’m sure I’m fine.”
But I wasn’t sure I was fine. If I had been, why would I have gone? I didn’t want to worry her and I didn’t want to wake the kids.
Besides, I had a small pattern of making middle-of-the-night trips to the ER. This was probably my third in the eight years we had been together. She barely stirred. I drove to the hospital, thinking either my throat was closing and I should drive quickly or that I was overreacting and would be sent home. I should have called a taxi or a car service or an ambulance. Why didn’t you? someone asked me later in the emergency room.
It didn’t occur to me.
I parked in a distant lot because ER parking had a time limit. I worried that the staff would turn me away. I had developed a twitch on top of my incessant scratching. Twitch is inadequate as either verb or noun; these were more like tiny convulsions, seismic things that moved in a human version of geologic time, not one right after another, but with gaps that could make them seem unrelated although I knew they weren’t, that they were part of a string of spasms or possibly a single extended seizure taking breaks, deep breaths, and pauses.
In my head, I rehearsed a story to justify my situation. I’m a teacher. I’m not on drugs. Everything itches and now I’m starting to shake but the shaking is more like a surprise contortion and I can feel my joints stretch. My stomach hurts. I’m worried I may void my bowels (does “void my bowels” make me sound like I deserve attention?). Can you hear me? I’m wondering because my throat might be closing and maybe the words are just in my head. I swear I’m not making this up, though there’s nothing you can see, no blood or anything like that. I swear I’m telling the truth. Please believe me.
My wife thinks I’m either exaggerating or at death’s door, and there is rarely an in-between. When I had kidney stones the first time, I called my mom and she insisted it was nothing. I told my roommate, who rushed out and bought every stomach-related medication at the convenience store. It cost a small fortune at that time. I tried to choke down a chewable Pepto Bismol but threw up as I writhed on the floor. My roommate drove me to the hospital and I tried not to cry. But I did because I thought my insides had ruptured and why not cry at a time like that? My mom still feels guilty over that.
I didn’t have insurance then. They sent me home with a screen that looked like the nets used to capture goldfish from the pet store tank. I was told to urinate through the screen to catch the stone and take it back in so they could analyze it, but I knew I couldn’t afford that. Even so, I used the screen anyway, eager to see what the stone looked like. It came out with, honestly, thorns, long spikes as if it were a biological Sputnik, carrying signals from inner space. I would have liked to know its history, but I was left to imagine the reasons—possibly having to do with drinking too much coffee and booze and not enough water—from a list online. I’ve cleaned up my act but have also had more stones in the years since. I fire them straight into the toilet, groaning and sweating and dribbling blood, sitting, hunched or sometimes gripping the handrail if I’m in public. Then I go about my day. I could tell someone, but what would it matter?
Would the nurse believe me? That was what mattered. The waiting area had a few families; they looked at me as I came in. People in ER waiting rooms look to see if the new arrivals are worse off than they are—an “at least I don’t have to deal with that” feeling while also hoping it is nothing serious, not out of good will so much as hoping it won’t push them further down the waitlist. We have been here so long and the baby is crying and I don’t know how to afford this and my god this room is crowded and every time the doors open and they call a name I wish it was mine or my child’s or my husband’s or my wife’s, they are all I have and I want them healthy and my pain is real, please treat me, treat mine, don’t let anyone else delay what we need. I walked in and everyone looked at me and I didn’t know if it was because I was the only white guy or because I had changed out of my pajamas into slacks and a button up because I want the doctors and nurses to know that, I don’t know, I respect their place of work.
Hello and how do you do?
I’m unfailingly polite at the hospital. When I went in for the kidney stones, the guy next to me had been stabbed. Or was it shot? Either way, every doctor or nurse who addressed him was called “motherfucker.” Between bouts of vomiting, I asked my doctors and nurses how their days were, and I was treated brilliantly. Until they heard I didn’t have insurance. Then there were a lot of embarrassed looks.
I wanted to be polite to the admissions nurse. The waiting families didn’t look away. Without glancing up, the nurse told me to sign in and that they would see me when they got to me. It was a busy night, full house.
Then she raised her eyes and her mouth fell open.
“Go back there right now.” She looked at the security guard and he hit the button and I walked back. The nurse met me around on the other side of the security door and walked me to an empty chair, said there weren’t any beds but she would tell someone right away, right away, sit down, right away. I was glad to sit. When not convulsing, I was shivering. I asked if there was a bathroom I could use. I was still worried I would void my bowels and told her so. She pointed to a door nearby.
I figured I must look pretty bad, but what had the nurse seen that caused her to blanche and send me straight back?
Aspen tree groves aren’t groves, not really. Groves are groups of trees but a grove of aspen is a group of tree, singular. In Colorado, people drive to the mountains to watch aspen leaves go from green to gold, and if you don’t pick the right weekend, you miss the most dramatic changes. The colors ripple across the mountains and the valleys in waves, causing a static undulation.
When I was a boy, a man drove around the neighborhood in a pickup truck stuffed with aspen seedlings, each about five feet tall and spindly. He knocked on doors and offered to plant them in your yard, wherever you wanted, get them all set, tree and labor included in the price. My dad said, sure, let’s line that back fence, and he had five put in. Why not more? I asked, and he told me they’d grow and fill in the space, that it wouldn’t be five trees. It would be more.
Because, he went on, aspen aren’t like other trees. They spread underground and then their roots shoot out of the ground and start a new tree except it isn’t a new tree, it’s a part of the existing tree, spreading like a paper-skinned disease. I’d look for the tendrils and, sure enough, there they’d be, coming up along the fence but also in the grass, by the porch. I’d run the lawnmower over them and feel the mower shudder.
That’s what’s in the mountains.
One particular expanse of aspen has a name, Pando, which is Latin for “I spread.” It covers well over one hundred acres of Colorado. Michael C. Grant, a professor of ecology at the University of Colorado, named Pando with his colleagues and calculated its weight as in excess of thirteen million pounds. This far eclipses any other contender for heaviest living thing, although it also feels like a cheat. The largest sequoias may weigh less than half of that, but they are single trees. Still, Pando is an entity unto itself—or himself, since he is biologically a male and has done this without a partner of any kind.
These trees are also known as “quaking aspen” because of how delicately the leaves move at even the gentlest breeze. Early French Canadian trappers and settlers believed the leaves trembled in fear because it was from aspen that the cross was made upon which Jesus was crucified. There are stories that the wood from that particular aspen was so stricken with grief and remorse after the death of Christ that it passed that on to all the other trees. Of course, that makes more sense if they are all, basically, the same tree, curiously immortal and regenerative.
When people go to see the leaves change, they aren’t seeing one tree after another shift. They are watching the entire tree complex shut down for winter, watching the spread from one limb to the next. When we go to watch the aspen change, we actually are witnessing a single tree collapse in waves.
Grant called Pando “The Trembling Giant.”
I tried to move my bowels but my guts were only setting off alarms. I looked at myself in the mirror and saw what the nurse had seen. Like the aspen, my foliage had changed and I was shutting down. My skin was a uniform, perfectly even red, from the edge of my scalp where my hair recedes to below the neckline of my shirt. I pulled down my pants and my legs matched. My arms were so red that my many tattoos appeared to have washed away. My eyes were as red as if they had been painted, only a small black dot at the center of each. I looked like I had been dunked in blood.
It was then that I became scared.
I grabbed one of those circular green vomit receptacles, filled it with a thin bile, threw it away, filled another. Sat back down. I didn’t want to ask for anything I could reach myself, still so polite. A nurse asked if I needed anything quickly. A cup of water, perhaps? I asked for a blanket as I was freezing suddenly, trembling so hard myself the convulsions had become hard to see. My teeth rattled in my jaw, as though loosened from the bone. He got me the blanket, which had been warmed. I wrapped it around myself and was grateful. I trembled slightly less. Then I fell out of the chair and landed on the floor, which was cold against my cheek.
I couldn’t tell whether or not I liked the way it felt.
Falling out of the chair wasn’t a falling out of consciousness. I was aware and awake. Closing my eyes, I felt, would be a form of surrender. I was hesitant even to blink. I saw the lacquered cement floor close to my face and I felt myself go limp against it. I wondered what had last been spilled there, when it had been cleaned and scrubbed. Was I the first person ever to lie down here? It seemed possible. The nurse who had brought the blanket stood me up and put me on a bed, wheeled me into a newly empty bay, took my vitals, and began to shout. Every person in the hospital, it seemed, ran toward me, each of them shouting in turn.
I smiled at everyone.
“Thank you for seeing me,” I said. “I really appreciate it.”
Then I went into convulsions so powerful, so jagged, I thought my bones would break.
Lots of things can cause uncontrollable itching and the collapsing of one’s organs. The scabies mite is one. It burrows into the skin and feeds on every bit of you it can find. Then, it defecates into your bloodstream, your vascular system little more than plumbing; the microscopic excrement causes the itching. And the sores, the crusting of your skin. Humans tend to pass on mites through skin-to-skin contact, mostly sex. There is also a roundworm parasite called onchocerca volvulus. It invades your body through the bite of a particular black fly then remains unnoticed inside you until it doesn’t. The tiny corpse causes intense itching and triggers an immune system reaction so intense it causes blindness. The parasite seems to exist primarily in Africa and a chunk of South America.
It stays there? I wonder about that.
How did those ants make it to Europe?