Ten weeks post-surgery, I am still healing, or being healed. Little by little I feel more like myself. I can wear turtlenecks if the collar is loose, I can read because I can now wear my glasses, as the stitches near the bridge of my nose have healed, I can go without my bandages for hours at a time (although my nose is always coated in bacitracin ointment, as is everything around me over time), and finally I want to write again. And so it’s time for both a writing prompt and a plug for a friend’s new book.
The writing prompt is about illness. Writing about illness calls for attention to detail, on the one hand, and the ability to share the fog of being part of an altered reality, on the other. Also, nothing tugs more at the memory than being sick with something old in a new place. Literature is full of good examples of writing about illness, and our lives are a fertile place to mine for specifics.
I am old enough to have had a doctor who made house calls. How often my father paced, while holding me, before dawn, while we waited for our pediatrician, Dr. Zaudy, to arrive. Dr. Zaudy had been an instructor at Harvard Medical School and saved my life when I was an infant sick with pyloric stenosis. I grew up thinking that people can survive cancer, because my grandmother survived her breast cancer before I was born, and that both men and women can be doctors, because the smartest doctor my father could find was a woman. I remember being hot with fever, as Dad held me on his shoulder and paced, saying reassuring things and checking the window to see if the doctor had come. Our floors were wooden, with rugs, and the view from his shoulder changed from carpet to wood, wood to carpet, in the penumbral darkness, until all the lights went on because the doctor had arrived, and everything was, by definition, going to be better.
My brothers and I shared all the illnesses for which there were no shots at the time. I got mumps, and was taken away from Dad and my brother for the duration. The three of us got chicken pox, one after another after another. We had a specific puke basin for when we were vomiting, and we sometimes dosed with cola syrup, pink medicine or even paregoric. When we made it to the toilet in time to throw up there, our mother put her hand on our foreheads to keep our heads from jerking forward. After Mamma died, my brother told me that as ac child he had thought, “What would happen if Mamma died, and there was no one to hold my forehead?” It was a sad and grateful thought.
After Mamma died and Dad remarried, we called our stepmother Mom. She used to read to us when we were sick, in between taking care of our growing family and everything else in the house Dad earnestly placed a soggy, folded face cloth on our foreheads and after he left the room Mom would wring it out a little and dry our necks so they didn’t tickle. We could have ginger ale, a forbidden treat, but only served warm and flat.
The worst illness I had as a teenager was a strange stomach bug that I got shortly after we moved back into the house we had lived in before my mother died. We had lived for a while in another part of Roslindale, one of Boston’s neighborhoods, but we had a series of tenants who couldn’t or wouldn’t pay the rent, including some who also didn’t want to pay for heating oil, so they burned the rosewood mantlepiece in the non-functioning fireplace. So to save money, we moved back into the house we had grown up in, but it was traumatic. My parents were in the middle of a long and bitter divorce when my mother died, and so Dad inherited everything as spouse, but some people were bitter, as was he. He thought my mother’s relatives might try to obtain custody of us, so we weren’t allowed to talk to the neighbors, who were their friends.
Moving is trauma, but life was also stressful at school. My sophomore year I had teachers whom I truly loved – the late, great John Hughes, who took things I wrote for class and typed them up and submitted them to the literary magazine without telling me, Carl Perkins who, at a time when I thought I was stupid, fat, and ugly, took the time to tell me in words and in writing that I wasn’t dumb. “This grade reflects your level of preparation rather than your intelligence,” he wrote on an exam I flunked, and gave me a 56-page assignment to do over Christmas break for extra credit. The assignment started with the earlier problems which I had somehow mastered and took me through what I hadn’t understood, leading into the things we would learn next, so when classes resumed, all of a sudden, I was good in math and ahead of the class. I had just started my job in the kitchen with Ila Moore, and I had finally figured out how to separate Latin and Spanish in my brain.
But Junior year was just much harder. I was keenly aware that my brother and my friends from his class would only be with us for nine more months, now for eight, soon for seven, and I had begun mourning them. I loved U. S. History with the headmaster and hated it with his co-teacher, who was equally thrilled with me. In those days I divided adults into those who liked my brother better and those who liked me better, and my English teacher fell into the second camp. She looked like Mary Steenburgen and had no interest in me writing poems or stories, only essays about how the change in the narrative language reflected the characters; worse, while sometimes she called the language used “elevated,” sometimes she called it “high falluten,” which I could only hear so many times before rolling my eyes. My glasses were not thick enough to hide this. The teacher was not bad, she had a task to do and did it well, but this year I was being taught; the previous year I was nurtured.
And so, I was wounded, And I walked like it. One day after lunch, I had a free period before English, and She was neither evil nor a bad teacher, she just wasn’t for me. planned to go to the library on the second floor. But I looked at the stairs and knew I could not climb them. A sudden urgency came upon me, and I dashed to the nearby ladies’ room and threw up, mercifully in the toilet. My English teacher had been about to say something when I bolted and instead as I emerged, she was reassuring and kind. Someone got my coat and my books, the office called Mom, and I sat on the couch in the lobby watching life take place without me, teachers and students walking by and looking at me with empathetic curiosity. The headmaster and several teachers stopped by to say kind things and tuck my coat around me. Mom took me home and I slept and shivered, vomited and slept, burned and then shivered, for the better part of two days.
My brothers and baby sister were kept away so I wouldn’t infect them. Mom read, Dad came with facecloths, there was flat ginger ale and the promise of boiled rice if I could hold that down, but nothing made me feel better. Worse, I was throwing up yellow bile, something I had never done before. I was too tired to be scared, but my parents were not. Dad tried to appear nonchalant. “Everyone feels better after a good puke,” he said. But I did not.
Sunday, though, was better. I stayed home, but people prayed for me at church and sent home greetings. My siblings lit candles, and soon it was time for, and piano lessons with my godfather. He came to our house each Sunday for this. Obviously, I wouldn’t have a lesson that day, but Sergei Yulievich came to my room and made the sign of the Cross over me many times. His wife, Madeleine, was French, and we often talked during my brothers’ piano lessons. I told her all my secrets, and whenever I was suffering, she said, “Poorrr Aanne! Poorrr Aanne!” in her beautiful accent. My brothers would say this to tease me when I complained about something at home. But this day, Madeleine came to the rescue.
While Serge was upstairs, down in the kitchen Madeleine asked Mom about my illness. Mom explained all the highlights, and Madeleine said, “But I know how to cure this!”
Madeleine often spoke about what they used “during the war,” by which she meant World War II, and would tell us about using beer instead of eggs and how they stretched out rations. “During the war, we did not have doctors, but we did not need them for this, we knew what to do,” she said, and set Mom to gathering things for her.
Madeleine, who was usually so precise in the way she peeled, sliced, and seasoned vegetables, took only carrots, celery, and an onion. She merely washed the vegetables, and peeled only the onion. She cut the vegetables into large chunks and boiled them in a great deal of water without herbs or oil or even salt.
She told Mom, “The first day, she is to drink just the broth, with no salt. The second day, she may have the broth with some of the vegetables chopped up, but not too much. The third day, she can eat the vegetables, with a little salt, and by then, she should be hungry again.
Mom told me the story as she brought me the broth. At first, she had to feed it to me, but then I could feed myself. When it stayed down, I felt like a miracle had taken place. I was able to sit up, and have a sponge bath, and change into a cleaner nightgown.
The next day, the broth with a few mashed veggies stayed down, and by the time I could eat the bland vegetables, I was able to think about the classes I was missing and the wonderful foods cooking downstairs that suddenly smelled good. I wanted to join the living. I wanted to go back to my life.
And, my life was better. There had been kindness and mercy, carrots and celery, prayers and stories. I had been put back together by the love of others.
My friend’s book
When my friend Matushka Elizabeth, also known as the author Melissa Naasko, was writing a book on healing foods, I meant to share the story and the recipe, but then life became too busy. But when “Hospitality for Healing” came out, I was sure to buy a copy. It’s a wonderful book, full of recipes not just for people with the stomach bug but for long term conditions that require thoughtful preparation of food. She has ways of thickening foods so they are easy to swallow, recipes for syrups and soups, things that you can put in Jell-O and thing that you cannot, and more. Her soup recipes have emboldened me to now put three or more garlic in my soups, three or more instead of my very Celtic one clove.
The book isn’t just recipes, it’s also about how to show up, how to heal, how to help. I highly recommend it.
Take the reader through an illness and the way that it is or isn’t healed, using details — colors, textures, remedies and the people who offer them. If you need help getting started, read what others have done and take from it what helps you.
In children’s literature, Sharon Creech’s book “Granny Torelli Makes Soup,” a grandmother heals a rift between two children through her stories as they come together to make soup.
In “Little Women” there are numerous examples of the girls nursing each other or neighbors through the things that they cook and prepare.
In poetry, Randall Jarell’s “The Sick Child” captures what it is like to be sick and yearn for something without knowing quite what.
In nonfiction, Da Chen writes of the way friends banded together to heal him when he was bleeding internally at college in “Sounds of the River.”
In fiction, Dickens captures the confusion of Pip’s illness in “Great Expectations.”
Zooey’s lecture to Franny about “consecrated chicken soup” in Salinger’s “Franny and Zoey” is a must read.
Dostoevsky is the master of capturing illness and its fallout; Ivan’s fever in “The Brothers Karamazov” leads to the Grand Inquisitor dream.
The online magazine, “Survivor’s Review,” while itself about cancer, is an excellent starting place for writing more about illness, whether your own or someone else’s.