February 19, 2020

An ailing American in Paris

It was a blissful June afternoon in Paris, and everything was perfect. 

I was dining with my friend Francoise at the Café Marly, surrounded by a mix of French glitterati and striving, reverential tourists: Asian women in Dior, Americans in hats, bankers from London. Over my left shoulder was the Louvre, shimmering in her summertime glory.

I was halfway through a Salade Niçoise when the omens of illness began to take hold.

“Would you like a coffee?” Francoise asked in her beautiful French as we finished our food.

“Actually, I have a slight headache today, so I think I’ll skip the caffeine.”

Skipping a coffee in Europe is like skipping out on life; one would do such a thing only in very dire situations.

Later that evening, a glass of wine turned my slight cerebral discomfort into a splitting headache. Could it have been the red, I wondered? Maybe the rich tannins of that old Bordeaux were too intense in the summer heat. I focused instead on the plate of cheese before me: creamy époisses, nutty Comte, Camembert, bleu d’Auvergne. If one cannot drink, I decided, certainly one can still eat.

It would be eight weeks before I could stomach cheese again.

For the next three days, I rolled around an airy French flat off Rue Saint-Sabin, downing water by the gallon, convinced my fever would break and I’d once again be wandering the streets near Place des Vosges, slipping into courtyards of 16th-century chateaus for live, free opera recitals. But while it seemed everyone else was sitting in cafes, clinking glasses in bars, laughing and shouting and falling in love beside the Seine, I was suffocating inside — hot then cold, sweating then shivering. The area near my ribs felt bruised.

By Friday, I had chills so violent they woke me from my sleep. I could hardly walk without losing my breath. Family and friends persuaded me to ditch my Airbnb, check into a hotel, take a bath, order room service and get on a plane home by Monday. I lasted a glorious hour at the Hôtel de Nell before summoning Uber to take me from Opéra to the ER.

What happened next is mostly a blur. 

I remember waiting for what seemed like a very long time in a sterile room on an uncomfortable bed, gripping my stomach as it throbbed. It was the middle of the night. After a blood test, the doctor rushed me in for a CT scan. I remember the burn of the iodine they injected, the warm rush that flooded my body, making it easier for the scanner to see my organs. I remember the radiologist stepping out of the mysterious observation room to ask, “Have you been to Mexico lately?”

“Asia, Southeast Asia,” I said. My mind drifted back to all of the places I’d been, the images changing with the back-and-forth flow of the CT’s moving gurney … the beauty of Inle Lake and the temples of Bagan in Myanmar, the flash and fantasy of Bangkok, the beaches of Cambodia. I saw the sharp, brilliant colors of the markets, the children of the slums, their faces, the poverty, the majesty, the street food…

Then I vomited. Then came the morphine. Or was it the other way around? Is that what it’s like when your life starts to flash before your eyes?

For the next six days, my arms became pincushions for two IV’s and countless needles. One morning, I sat in a wheelchair outside the ultrasound room, still too weak to keep my head up. I was alone — in a foreign hospital, my diagnosis unclear, waiting for the doctors to take another look at something on my liver — was it a mass? In the last two years, I had lived through the death of my mother, the death of my stepfather and my father’s cancer. I was a realist when it came to illness. And in that moment, when my ailment could have been anything, I surrendered. I remember saying to myself, ‘What kind of a sick person do I want to be?’ My next thought was, ‘How the (expletive) am I going to break this to my sister?’ Oy. It was enough to give me a heart attack.

I quickly learned that even a well-intentioned, hopeful sick person can be compromised by pain. Pain has the power to destroy character; it can sink your highest self. I also learned I am not invincible — I know, you’re thinking, ‘Duh’ — but until your body betrays you, and you are powerless but for the blessing of modern medicine, the fragility of the body is a reality most of us repress. I stubbornly wanted my will to prevail, when in the end, it was antibiotics that saved me. Being sick turns known truths into profound realizations. 

When I was finally diagnosed with a liver abscess caused by amoebiasis, which you get from contaminated food or water, people told me I was “one lucky Jew.” According to Wikipedia, “Most infected people, about 90%, are asymptomatic, but this disease has the potential to make the sufferer dangerously ill. It is estimated that about 40,000 to 100,000 people worldwide die annually due to amoebiasis.” 

When my doctor finally told me I had a 90 percent chance of complete recovery, my sister panicked. “Only 90 percent?” Jewish anxiety, I learned, is more resilient than any parasite.

In the end, of course, I was lucky. I have fully recovered. So many people have it so much worse. They’re given terminal or chronic diagnoses, have to have major surgeries, or maybe take meds for life. I was bestowed with the blessing of r’fuah shlema, a complete healing. My illness didn’t demand that I learn how to cope with lifelong infirmity.

But I did get a glimpse. I slid right to the edge of comfort and control, and felt, for a moment, what it feels like to not know; to fear; to feel pain; and anger; and regret. I should have been more careful. … Why isn’t my body listening to me? But I’m so healthy! Will I ever again … How did this happen? 

And I never thought I’d say this, but I (expletive) love the French. They saved my life. They served gourmet hospital food in courses, delivered by waiters wearing white gloves, and they were really generous with painkillers. They never said a word when I lit a yahrtzeit candle for my mother in the middle of the ICU, and watched it burn by my bedside for 24 hours. I like to think she was my little bit of light, softly swaying next to me through the dark, uncertain hours.

It’s strange to come so close to death. Whether through illness or accident or loss, it really doesn’t matter; it’s the human brush with the inexplicable, with powerlessness, that changes everything that comes after it. I can no longer pretend I’m invulnerable. I can no longer pretend I have forever to become who I’m meant to be. 

The stoics wisely taught that there are things we can control, but many more things we cannot. It is ultimately not me who is in charge of my fate. Any of us could die — or lose someone we love — at any moment. Yom Kippur offers us the chance to enact a kind of spiritual “death,” denying our bodies in order to focus on our souls. Being sick is a lot like that, because it renders you literally and spiritually naked. Who are you when you can’t perform, or produce, or make love, or eat, or drink, or even get out of bed? 

Being ill forces you to cultivate inner resources. When your body fails, spirit is all you have. It’s the one thing you can control: How do I see this world? What do I believe in? What can I do with my borrowed body and able mind while I’m here?

So I ask you to forgive me, God, for ever having taken life for granted. Forgive me for ever having acted recklessly with my precious body. For not using this magical casing and everything in it, to the best of my ability, every single day. I promise to do better this year. G’mar chatima tovah.