As I lay dying – And by dying I mean in the colloquial Southern sense of suffering from a physical malady nowhere close to terminal, but so irritating as to have left one unable to imagine for even a moment the possibility of a world without the present misery. – I was able to muster up enough lucidity and self-pity to remember that the day just broken was, in fact, my birthday and that I could not recall ever having been ill on my birthday and that it was, well, patently unfair to be ill on one’s birthday.
As I lay dying – And by dying I mean in the existential sense that we are all, every moment and with every breath, dying. – for what eventually amounted to nearly an entire week, I let go of the self-pity, recognizing that when you’ve had as many birthdays as I have the law of averages is going to catch up with you eventually and you are going to be sick on your birthday and that, as with most things, fairness has absolutely nothing to do with it.
So, as I lay dying, there was plenty of time for more than a few quixotic, fanciful, and/or irrational thoughts about everything from toilet paper to television to tenderness.
Toilet paper: I have always been just a bit angst-ridden over paying extra for Charmin Ultra-Soft tissue. That angst has now been alleviated. That I still have a nose and that I do not look like W.C. Fields after going through, at last count, nine rolls of Charmin Ultra-Soft (as well as nine packs of pocket tissues which are, let the record show, nowhere nearly as soft as the Charmin), I will never again question the extra expenditure.
Television: When I finally broken down and got a satellite dish, I removed the extra television from the bedroom. The expense of connecting said second television to the DirecTV account was simply not justifiable and I can watch only one at the time, right? As I lay dying, I couldn’t read because my eyes were constantly watering and so I was limited, for five days, to National Public Radio. During the annual fall fund drive. The toll-free number is seared onto my memory and I have less desire for a gray hoodie that says, “Public Radio Nerd,” than I would have ever thought possible. I am rethinking that decision about the televsion.
Tenderness: I am fortunate to have so many friends and such a wonderful family, many of whom called to wish me a happy birthday. I did not answer their calls because they would not have been able to hear me, but I did – many many hours later – find brief solace as I played back the voice mails, the long string of familiar voices wishing me well without knowing that well is exactly what I desired to be. And beyond the birthday greetings, there were the check-ins, the tentative inquiries as to whether I needed anything, the generous offers to come “take care of” me. A couple of folks offered to drive across the state for that purpose and handled my swift rejections with a sweetness of spirit I might not have managed had I been on the other side of the equation.
It was from those offers that ultimately came the only redeeming moment of the days that I lay dying. My niece Kate was one of those checking in. On Day Two she texted me that she had just spoken to her grandparents/my parents and that they were going to come by. “They don’t have to,” I told her.
“That’s a useless thing to say.” I could hear her annoyance in the words on the screen. “And you need to stop teaching people to not try to take care of you when you need it.”
I felt as though someone had popped my hand as I reached for an extra cookie, as though my favorite teacher had given me a bad grade, as though a photo of sick me was now in the dictionary next to the definition of reprimand. I wanted to pout a little.
Except I knew she was right. As much as we talk about extending care and compassion to each other, we resist it being extended to ourselves. Is it pride? Or fear? Or some other equally dark character trait that prompts us to say, “I’m fine,” when we’re not. To say, “No, thank you,” when what we really want to say is, “Yes, please.” To pull away when what we want most of all is to be drawn in, surrounded by, embraced.
We need to work on that. All of us. You. Me. We need to be able to say, “I need your help,” and then gracefully accept the help. We need to work on accepting the fact that life isn’t fair and sometimes we’ll be sick on our birthdays, but that, unless we are hell-bent on being stupid, we don’t have to experience it alone.