Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah
This is what it felt like.
Early on, when they still thought it was meningitis, and I was recording temperatures well into the hundreds, I decided to entertain myself by giving each of the different coughs that rattled my lungs a name. The first of them came after a short tickling on my bronchi, quickly followed by light gusts squeezed from my throat and pushed up past my teeth. Of the different coughs, these were the most sympathetic. They were the kindest, most gentle reminder that I might die, and so I gave them a gentle name. Lilith.
Lilith tapped me awake at about four that morning, less than an hour after I'd finally slipped into a savory unconsciousness. My eyelids, the only part of my body I could still move with ease, were slow to rise. I reached for the room's remote, a rectangular box with buttons that glowed orange. With the remote, I could adjust my bed to lie flat or rise, I could control the television that was bolted on the wall in front of me and worked sporadically, I could use it to buzz the nurses and it also controlled the lights. The remote was what remained of my autonomy; it controlled my ability to rest, to distract myself, to get assistance and to see.
It felt like a lifestyle locked in a remote control.
I pushed a button. The room lights blinked on and, as white light settled onto the surfaces of the room, I felt a familiar ache in my eyes and head. Lilith squeezed my lungs once, twice, a third time. I pushed another button on the remote. The bed hummed into an upright position. A cup of orange juice that my favorite nurse, Dalta, had left me was waiting there on the table rolled beside the bed. It was filled half-way with crushed ice, just how she knew I liked it.
Dalta was a Haitian woman, probably in her fifties, who wore her black hair in loose, falling curls. She had smooth dark skin and her eyes had a deepness to them, the kind that told you she was somebody's mother. During our second conversation, after she’d pulled the thermometer from my mouth and frowned at the reading, I told her about a friend I'd lost and how his was the first death I'd really been a part of, up-close. Dalta listened to me talk about him and as she scribbled recordings on my chart she said, “he's in a better place now.” I told her I didn't think so. She said I reminded her of her only son. He'd died in a car accident on route 59 three years before. Near the mall. I used to work there. It was an honest disclosure she didn’t have to make. I think she knew that sometimes you have to hear about someone who’s dead to remember you have some obligations as a member of the living. She packed away the thermometer, put my chart on its place in the door and said I was stubborn just like her son. I hadn’t eaten a thing before she told me about him, the first three days I'd lived on orange juice, milk and the cocktail of fluids that pumped into my body from the I.V. After she told me about her son I asked her if she could bring me a snack. She brought some sliced peaches. I ate them slowly. In my mouth they felt like pure, thick mortality.
I carefully picked up the cup and sipped the orange juice. It was still sweet even though some of the ice had melted. I let it slide down my throat and soon Lilith disappeared. After a few sips I was no longer thirsty but still, I sat and drank out of boredom. Whenever there is something to do in the hospital room, even drinking a cup orange juice, it’s a blessing. In the earliest hours of the day television is nothing but news and infomercials. I didn’t like the news – it reminded me the world would continue, with or without me – and infomercials are infomercials no matter how you feel.
I was bored, as I often was in the hospital. The saying “bored to death,” popped into my head. I smiled to myself. I picked at the peeling skin on my left arm. They didn't know then that I was suffering from toxic shock, so the python-like shedding skin was a symptom they couldn't explain. Most of the skin came off in soft brown flecks, littering the white bed sheets like dirty snow flakes and leaving me with a good fresh new layer of skin underneath. The skin on my hands and feet, however, turned hard and formed a cracking crust the doctors eventually snipped away, leaving a raw, sensitive, reddish layer that burned when in contact with, basically, everything. Opening a carton of milk was torture unless I carefully handled the box with my fingertips.
A dry, sleepless, hour passed, but there was moderate peace. Headaches, yes. Lilith came often, but nothing worse until, with the first signs of morning, I felt a pressure I’d fearfully anticipated.
The bathroom was only eight seconds from the bed for an able-bodied individual, but when you’re admitted for meningitis but they’re not sure, and for the first time you imagine not existing – just like all of the people who died for righteous causes or took their own lives for no good reason at all, and you think how two weeks after the funeral you’ll barely be a memory, and how nothing will change, like your life was a table cloth a magician quickly pulled from beneath a fancy dinner, leaving everything, from the cutlery to the entrees, beautifully, devastatingly intact – after that nothing comes easy. Nothing came easy, but even knowing how weak you’ve become, you still expect to get out of bed without much trouble.
I struggled, it felt like heavy disappointment to swing both legs over the edge of the mattress. Blood rushed down to my toes in a tingling current. My feet were wrapped in yellow hospital-issued footie socks, and the bottom of my foot was cased in a hard shell of skin that was ready to be removed. The upper half of my body followed my legs off the bed. I stood above wobbly knees.
Once standing, I took a deep breath – before I could exhale I felt a choking in my throat and knew Mavis would follow. The coughs I called Mavis, unlike Lilith, pounded my chest like a linebacker. Mavis struck several times and stomped me in heavy, dry heaves. The fit of coughs pushed me back on my ass and onto the bed, as if to tell me that I was not going anywhere. I turned over on my side and allowed Mavis to beat me. I hacked up dry air until I was exhausted. Eventually Mavis settled into Lilith and then I was quiet. I breathed in the scent of fresh linen and sickness that came from my bed sheets, then I got up and sipped some of the orange-flavored water left in my cup before returning to my feet.
Mavis was also the name of a kid I’d given a bloody nose to in the fifth grade for, supposedly, stealing a basketball card of mine. I found the card in my jacket before I’d even cleaned the crusted blood from underneath my fingernails.
I stood up feeling drained – except for my bladder, which was ready to burst. I glanced at my I.V.; I decided to try again. Since being admitted the I.V drip had been my medicinal ball and chain, bound to me in blood and medical tape. It was a metallic rolling skeleton, topped with two pouches of clear fluids, one of which was a generic antibiotic they’d prescribed until they knew exactly what was wrong, and the other a saline solution. The slim plastic tube that was connected to the needle in my forearm was a short leash of about three feet of slack which was as far from the I.V I could ever be without the threat of dislodging the needle from my flesh.
Once I unplugged the I.V I turned to begin the journey. I held the neck of the I.V as loosely as possible so I could roll it down to the bathroom without hurting my sensitive hands.
My first step forward was fine. I thought some of my strength was returning. I raised my foot for the next move and stepped right into a familiar swell of nausea and disorientation. It wasn’t that the room was “spinning,” but that things were not still. I bent my knees some and tried to stay on my feet as the world seemed to tip over the edge of a cliff, slowly. I was still very close to my bed. If I didn’t go to the bathroom now I would absolutely wet the sheets I didn’t have the energy to hold it in. I could have buzzed a nurse.
I closed my eyes and swallowed spit. I waited until the world was straight again and took another step. I felt the cold of the floor through the hospital socks and shivered underneath the thin hospital gown I wore over bare skin and basketball shorts.
Christmas had been two days earlier. I'd heard the past few days had been cold ones. I didn’t mind that I’d spent Christmas in the hospital. Some good friends and family spent much of the day with me, more than they had any other Christmas I could remember. My best friend's mother showed up early in the day and offered me a T-shirt she'd imagined I might want that had belonged to her son. I told her I appreciated it but I couldn't accept. She'd nodded in agreement then wept a little at my bed side before telling me to feel better and leaving. The rest bought me sentimental little gifts, a few Archie comic books, a Stephon Marbury rookie card, a pin that read You’re Lucky… Zombies Eat Brains!!! I felt guilty: I’d stolen Christmas from everyone else and made it all about me.
I stepped again t, dragging the I.V as I went. I moved forward another step and then again quickly after, and stopped to rest. I felt the kind of tired that I imagined could make a weary solider embrace the napalm or make a bucking salmon come up for its first taste of fresh air. But, I’d made it almost completely around the bed, and the rest of the way would be a straight shot to the bathroom door. I leaned against the wall where a poster board showed my name, the name of my nurse and the name of my “Living Assistant” for the day. Today my living assistant was an old lady who helped me wash my peeling skin with a heated cloth from a package. The living assistant, Julia, spoke with a faint accent that I guessed was Polish. She did a good job of acting like she wasn’t disgusted by the scabs of peeling skin that spanned my chest and back.
When I felt ready, I walked another step and moved with a deliberate slow, reminiscent of the elderly. I was about halfway and felt I was doing well. I stepped forward again. Lilith tickled, and then tickled again. I stood still. I gritted my teeth and tried to control my breath, slow in slow out. Lilith came again, and suddenly I was out of breath. I pushed my left foot forward, to brace myself for what was to come. I waited a moment and again, Mavis. Mavis hit and hit and hit and hit and hit, then stopped, then hit and hit and hit. Every blow a dry heavy hack. I fell to my knees, my hands wrapped around my midsection, making an “X” over my abdomen. My throat burned like I’d gargled tequila by the time Mavis faded away into Lilith. Soon after, Lilith faded into silence.
I considered sleeping there on the floor, it was cool and very clean. The hospital is always very clean, it has to be so people don’t think about all the sickness patients leave behind. I imagined Dalta finding me in a puddle of warm urine, unconscious on the tile floor. I gripped the neck of my I.V to pull myself up, my hands felt as if they were handling hot coals.
I was on my feet again and stepped forward, I took shallow wisps of breath. I stepped forward because I was ashamed of how difficult it was, and because I thought maybe, somehow, getting there would mean I’d be out of the hospital soon, and again because I had to take a piss and I was on the verge of reenacting the most embarrassing moment in my life. 2nd grade. Bus ride. Soaked corduroys. I still can’t explain it.
I took a step forward and dragged the I.V along right into the bathroom. I didn’t waste time feeling proud. I didn’t bother to flip on the lights. I dropped my shorts and underwear and plopped down on the toilet. I sighed heavy relief. Then I took a deep breath and I was scared because I felt a heat on my lungs that I’d felt only a few times since I'd been admitted.
Lilith was gentle and Mavis was painful, but there was also Gabriel. I named the cough after my best friend who committed suicide by carving his wrist open with his mom’s best kitchen knife nine months before I arrived at Good Samaritan hospital. Gabe was my best friend, and then he wasn’t. Not because he was dead, but because of what he’d done. He mentioned me in the note he left, thanked me for being such a good friend, “like a brother,” he’d said. I named the coughs Gabriel because when they came I could imagine what was going through Gabe’s head when he did what he did. I could imagine what he was thinking and when the coughs came I felt like I'd be reunited with him, and that I'd get to ask him, face to face, how he could just leave us all, and how he could think floating through some black infinity was better than staying back, walking on solid ground with me and everybody else.
The heaves came from my stomach and jolted up towards my jaw. Phlegm lodged deep in my esophagus shot out and I struggled to stay on the toilet. Gabriel, Gabriel, Gabriel. I coughed and coughed and coughed. My chest felt tattered and broken. I tasted copper and splashes of blood staining my lips. I sat hunched over, begging for air and God and anything else that could help me.
“Breathe slow honey, I'm here.” It was Dalta making rounds and ready to record my morning temperature. She moved to help me off the toilet seat.
I raised my arm and motioned for her to stop.
“I’m okay,” I said in a low voice. “I’m fine.” I pulled my shorts back up and went to grab my I.V.
It felt like progress, or something close.
About the author:
Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah is currently enrolled in the MFA program at Syracuse University. He is quite happy with that. He would, at some point, like to be considered a connoisseur of something, preferably food based. Maybe beef patties? He already thinks he knows a good beef patty when he comes across one, so it would be plausible. He might work towards that. He is from Spring Valley, Rockland County and often he posts his thoughts and feelings here.