My husband and I were both already fighting off the usual autumnal head cold when I contracted a stomach bug. I had helped a young student one-on-one with his reading shortly after he had been sick in the sink and hadn’t told anyone. By the end of the school day I felt queasy, and by the time I drove home, the fever and chills set in.
After the usual negotiation with God about being sick (“Please not in the car. Please not in the living room. Please not here. Please don’t let it disturb my blood glucose readings.”) I was unable to do anything but sleep, dream fitfully, and try to ask for what I thought might make me feel better. I whined a lot, when I wasn’t moaning or whimpering. I make a terrible patient.
My husband is a gracious nurse. He made sure that I ate enough to keep my blood sugar even, brought me hot tea and cold compresses, tucked extra blankets around me when I was chilled and gathered them up when I tossed them off when fevered. The bands of abdominal cramping diminished in intensity, then stopped. The fever burned out, I was hungry once more, and the daily grind reimposed itself upon me. I took a shower, put on adult clothes, and rejoined the world.
I got to thinking about disease, dis-ease, and the process of settling into the next stage of life. I am in transition, from being a person who is mentored to a person who can edit her own work and mentor others. Anyone who’s given birth knows that transition is the ugliest stage of labor. I have been as whiny a newly minted graduate as I was a patient. And I thought of one of my favorite poems, Randall Jarrell’s “A Sick Child.” You can hear it read well here. In it, a sick child tries to articulate what he wants, but “if I can think of it, it isn’t what I want.” Every scenario he can envision that would brighten his day somehow disappoints. He continues to hope: “And yet somewhere there must be
Something that’s different from everything.”
The poem ends with a heartfelt plea: “All that I’ve never thought of – think of me!”
But, a funny thing happened on the way to the poem. I remembered the title wrong, and when I searched for “The Sick Child,” I found this stunning painting by Edvard Munch. He painted it as his farewell to realism. It is said to be of his fifteen year-old sister. She and he both had tuberculosis; he recovered, and she died from it. This was one of his last traditional paintings, before he branched out and created works like “The Scream.”
I was struck by the lighting, the love; the sorrow, the distance, and the closeness. Suffering can bring out the best in those around us, and observing it can bring about compassion. Compassion makes us better artists, better writers, and better people.