On Christmas Day my back went out, or rather it started kind of seizing up, starting at the top of my right hip and radiating up, down, and out from there. That night we drove around looking at Christmas lights as the baby alternately repeated wowww and screamed with boredom, and for me just sitting there in the car was, like, a literal pain in my ass. A pain I briefly forgot about when it started snowing heavily right in the middle of our drive; big fat white flakes that almost slowed to a stop in the yellow beams of the headlamps before rushing to press themselves against the windshield. And then a pain I was reminded of, again, when we arrived back home and I went to get out of the car, which involved kind of standing halfway up and then carefully clambering out the door as if I were pulling myself out of a hole in the ground.
This is necessary because the beau’s car, a Subaru Legacy wagon, is actually located underground. At some point in the development of this vehicle the engineers were like, how can we make the center of gravity even lower, and someone went and got a shovel and started digging. Am I joking? Maybe. But know that I am serious when I say that I keep a harness, a rope, and a belaying partner in the back for those times we park next to a high curb.
I managed to extract myself from the vehicle and collapse on the couch, and then over the course of the next few days I proceeded to treat my back condition via a strict regimen of largely ignoring it. Sometimes I would permit the beau to bring me food and drink and other times I hobbled into the kitchen to get it myself, bent in half like I was playing the trope of an elderly woman. On more than one occasion I insisted on going for a walk outside even though every step felt like daggers in my backside! I did modify my exercise routine by hunching gingerly over my elliptical and taking smaller strides, because of course I have an elliptical. It’s a dinky little self-powered guy that squeaks and squeals like the Love Shack run out of lube but I love it so. I got it back in ’14 at the intersection of late pregnancy and early winter, and to this day one of my favorite cold-weather weekend sports is to knock out about six miles while hollering at the Property Brothers from the comfort of my own living room.
Anyway, the pain eventually went away, so I’m not sure what I was even trying to tell you here. That sheer obstinance can fix anything? That aging is a wild, teeth-rattling ride? That the back incident was one blip on my clear radar of good health and for that I am insanely, unfathomably, obnoxiously fortunate?
Well hang on because I still had some karma coming!
Early in the New Year one of the other families in Vera’s nanny share fell ill. The mom had a bad cold that had improved and then worsened into an ear infection, and shortly thereafter her kid came down with the exact same thing. I kind of threw up my hands and went “well, what can you do” because seriously, what can you do. Vera had already more than been exposed to it, and keeping her home now wouldn’t magically pre-cure her. I mean also it would do me no good to keep her home, as I had a lot of clicking around on Facebook to attend to, so back to the nanny she went.
She came down with a cold just a few days later and I was like, see, this is what you get for always putting your mouth on every available surface. I recently caught her in my bedroom with her tongue out, hovering just one scant millimeter from the pull on my dresser doors. “Please do not lick that,” I said, and she turned slightly to lock eyes with me as in one swift motion her tongue coated the entire handle like a cat deftly smoothing down the fur on its forepaw. Thanks! Great! Thank you for that.
I responded accordingly to the heightened health alert in our house by washing my hands so vigorously they cracked and bled, because common health wisdom about illness prevention says to wash your damn hands and cover your damn mouth. Common health wisdom does not explain what to do to prevent illness, however, when your sick baby coughs directly into your face with no warning, or surprise-attack sticks her fingers in your mouth, or licks every available surface and then some. Burning sage? Nipping bourbon from a flask? Jazz hands? I had no choice but to try them all.
Well, you know where this story is going, right? The baby’s cold worsened into an ear infection and it became clear I was the next target, yet I didn’t want to believe. For half a week I danced at arm’s length with a cold, convincing myself all the while I was gonna get away with it. And I would have gotten away with it, too, if it weren’t for you meddling kids! I was using this homeopathic nasal spray that I swear up and down has prevented me from getting sick for the past two and a half years, and I briefly believed it had magically protected me again. But then… then the ear pain came.
What even happened? I don’t know. I spent the day feeling vaguely crappy, and then I bent over to pick something off the floor and when I stood up some fluid in my left ear shifted. Up until that point I didn’t even know I had fluid in my ear! 15 minutes after that, the pain was so bothersome I knew I had to go get it checked out. It was 9:00 at night but I had watched how this process had shaken out with everyone else and homie was not about to play that.
I drove across town to the nearest open urgent care facility, whimpering all the way. It felt like someone was jabbing an ice pick in my ear. “It feels like someone is jabbing an ice pick in my ear,” I told the physician on duty. He peered in there with his pokey light scope. “Hmm,” he said, “it looks a little inflamed.” A little! Maybe he didn’t hear the part about the ice pick??
He ended up writing me a prescription for an antibiotic “in case it got worse,” but he said he thought I might be able to power through using a combination of over-the-counter remedies. That sounded reasonable enough, so after a stop to pick up some decongestant and nasal spray, I went home and took everything at once plus three ibuprofen tablets on top of it. “Now I can get some relief,” I thought.
In bed that night I couldn’t get comfortable. The fluid in my ear wouldn’t stop shifting, and it was so loud! Since I wasn’t falling asleep, I laid there and tried to think of ways to describe the sound. At first I thought of someone squeezing the sides of an empty aluminum can until they crinkled. Then I thought it felt like Pop Rocks in my ears, then I thought it felt like the grand finale at a fireworks show. All I needed was for it to be summer and to have a drink in my hand and to also not have an ear infection, eh?
Midnight became 12:30 became 1:00. I thought about the last time I’d taken the decongestant and the ibuprofen, because I already wanted to take more. The whole side of my head was tender and throbbing, which wasn’t helping me fall asleep. I googled stuff on my phone under the covers, careful not to let the light wake my bedmate. One thing the internet said was to apply heat to the affected area, so around 1:30 I went downstairs and I put a rice sock in the microwave and then I sort of leaned my head against it on the couch. Like Chuck Norris I did not sleep, I waited.
At 2:36 the DVR began flashing “boot” and then restarted itself, which is a thing I hadn’t been awake to witness since the foggy, desperate days of middle-of-the-night pumping. The first time I’d seen it happen I thought maybe there was a ghost in the machine, or the world was ending. It was a feral time of my life but then again so is the night. I’m better off not knowing what goes on in that dead space between the parentheses of consciousness, and having to be awake for it was making me cross.
Around 3:00 I was finally able to dose myself again and as I climbed back into bed I thought, “Now I can get some rest.” Great idea, except now the pain was even worse and weirdly coming in waves. At the top of the wave I’d grit my teeth and grip my sheets, and at the bottom I just tried to power breathe. It occurred to me that maybe this is what labor was like. I was in labor, but with knives, and I was pushing them out of my ear canal.
At some point the pain subsided enough that I was able to drift off, I think, because shortly after that I awoke to the sensation of something running out of my ear. I pressed a tissue to the side of my head and looked: it was dark. Completely addled, I stood and threw on a hoodie and went to the bathroom so I could turn on a light. Yep, definitely blood.
I sat down on the tile floor and pulled out my phone to see how much I was dying. Was it a lot, or just a little. Like how much death should I anticipate, here. What Google told me is that my eardrum had probably ruptured, and that this was sometimes a side effect of pressure from an infection. Well, that sounded probable, but I decided to wake the beau up anyway just in case. If I did die, I didn’t want him being like, “Well, that was a surprise!” If I died, I wanted him to be like, “Oh okay, it was probably the bleeding from the ear, that probably explains it.”
Do you know how stupid I am? I never got around to choosing a primary care doctor. That would have been a great thing to have, in this case. I could have called my doctor and been like, hey, got some ear blood, just an FYI, hit me back if I should do something or call someone or need to send for a priest. I thought maybe I was going to have to drive back to the urgent care clinic again to get checked out, but instead what I did once it was a reasonable enough hour of the morning to use the phone was call one of the other mothers in the nanny share, the one who’d been the first to get sick, and leave her just the absolute weirdest voicemail ever. I sounded, alternately, I like I was chipper AS FUCK or on the brink of tears. I have blocked most of the message out of my memory but I do recall that I ended by saying “You don’t have to call me back! I’d appreciate it if you called me back!”
She called me back. Did I mention she works as a physician in a clinic? She works as a physician in a clinic. That was a large part of the reason I’d called her. She listened to my story of woe and said “Oh, that’s pretty normal for an ear infection.” She said something about how, before treating ear infections with antibiotics was all the rage, people would put drops of olive oil in their kids’ ears and just wait for the eardrums to burst. That sounds so metal! People were metal before metal was metal!
She offered to have me come over to her house that night so she could look at my ear, and friends, I did. I came over before dinner and stood in her kitchen next to beautifully plated quinoa salads as she held her kid on her hip with one hand and looked in my ear with a lighted scope with the other. It felt a little… European, I guess, in that I rarely get a medical examination in a home setting and never while there is quinoa resting gorgeously nearby. The last time something even remotely similar happened was in the ’80s when were living in Germany and my friend fell off a slide and some people in uniforms came to their apartment and stitched the kid up right there on the kitchen table while her siblings and I ate macaroni and cheese and watched. Really imbued the whole event with a sitcom family vibe.
But a home exam was just what I needed. I hadn’t wanted to go back to the urgent care facility because it hadn’t felt nice there, it had felt like I was walking into someone’s job. And that’s what all medical care is — someone’s job! — and that’s not a bad thing. But in that moment when I felt borderline hysterical after a night of no sleep and a day of walking around actively weeping because it felt like someone was kicking me very hard in the side of the head, I wanted a mom. Not my mom, because comfort is not her speciality. She’s more of a “well, it happened and now you need to move on” sort of person and while I admire the bootstrappy pragmatism of that sentiment I also believe that sometimes you have to sit in it for a while first, like a pig in mud. I think this is what we are looking for when we seek out doulas for birth; we’re hoping to increase the odds of surrounding ourselves with people who will at least pretend to act more invested in the experience than your average employee. And in this particular instance, I was sitting right in the middle of it and just wanted someone to gently brush my hair out of the way and reassure me that I wasn’t dead. “You haven’t died yet,” is what I wanted to hear. Also: “Please lie down and I’ll cover you with this blanket.”
I wanted a doula for my ear knives.
And while she never got around to covering me with a blanket, the mom physician was the closest thing I got to an ear doula, and for that I was glad. I went home that night and just… waited to get better. The illness and pain were gone within a few days, but the “not being able to hear out of one ear” thing dragged on forever. It was surprisingly disorienting! Everyday sounds became jarring, frightening noises, because I couldn’t tell where they were coming from. For weeks I was Grandpa Simpson and the whole world had gone scary and weird.
Since then I’ve pushed myself too hard at times to act normal, like I did with the back injury, because I’ve been so tired of feeling not normal, which is an annoyingly privileged thing to say. They say you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone, and they’re right. Health! Is the most important thing in the world, greater even than love. Because love isn’t going to get your hearing back. Love won’t, like, stop your baby from sneezing in your face and licking everything in your house.
Don’t be like me, you guys. If you are feeling good right now, don’t take it for granted. Run away and lock that shit in a safe for safekeeping. Dig a hole and bury it in the ground!
Careful, watch out for that Subaru.