A Personal Geography of Fear

Grandma trainChina, 2007

The KFC outside Beijing West Train Station. People sleeping arms akimbo on tables in the crush. Migrant boys’ hipster haircuts sprawled like slaughtered hedgehogs atop the white plastic. The round faces of puffy-jacketed rural girls, soft and inscrutable in dreams.

Normally, the capacity of Beijingers to sleep amidst swirling masses of humanity would be impressive. But I felt as if I had slipped a half-inch from my body and could not get back in.

There is a type of sickness that is tedious and irritating and familiar–the flu with its lethargy and reruns, its Kleenex and toast–and there is a type that is unfamiliar. The latter is like a fog being slowly released in a dark room. Unsettling, with a horrific edge.

Jorge wove through the crowds on a mission for a Spicy Chicken sandwich, and in the pause and separation I began to feel frightened, began to feel that something was happening to my body and I did not know what. It was not a strong enough feeling to incite panic: it was slower, harder to identify, and in the presence of even the slightest distraction easy to ignore.

When Jorge returned we picked up the momentum of travel and I could push the fear aside: motion, motion. We nudged an island of space for ourselves on the cold floor, between the soot-caked migrants sleeping on their burlap sacks of possessions and the clusters of chatting grannies and the college kids all going home for Chinese New Year. We opened a tall Tsingtao.

Oaxaca, 2012

A blue-tiled bohemian bar in the center. The virgin praying in a dry fountain, a light pink snow of papery bougainvillea fallling around her. My grandmother was sick, in the hospital. She’d been admitted in December with congestive heart failure, and it looked bad for a few days, but my grandma used to sleep with her head off the edge of the bed in order to keep her hairdo perfectly in tact–her neck muscles were solid as the roots of an oak– and, ever tough, she’d held on.

This time, my dad told me on the phone, would probably be the same. “They’re just monitoring her heart,” he said. “I wouldn’t worry about it. I don’t think you need to come home.”

The Dominican Republic, 2010

Going up had been glorious. Bobbing through narrow canyons, scrambling up waterfalls with a strong guide’s hand offering the final hoist as we screamed, scared and triumphant. But now we were going back down. I peeked over the ledge. Fifteen, maybe twenty feet into the river, which was slow here, almost still. The rock walls seemed too close, pursed lips, but the guides insisted there was no way we’d reach the other side. Just jump. Just jump. Just jump! from Abbie dog-pedaling downstream below. Jump! Ian shouted, impatient. Jump! from the guides, one of the first English words they’d mastered. Jump, jump!

I jumped. The fall was a lost breath, a scream, a heartbeat before I smashed into the cold. A thousand pearly bubbles brushing the hair of my arms. My heart a clunky piece of machinery. Body slinky and slow in liquid, readjusting.

And pride like a shiver. Pride at having defied myself. Then the immense gratefulness to be slowly swimming back to the light.

Cincinnati, 1992

“How about this?” my mom and my sister compromised. “If you get the flesh-eating disease, we’ll get it with you. We’ll die with you.”

“Really?” I asked, teary.

“Really,” my sister said, with no mocking at all. “We’ll infect ourselves and we’ll all go to the hospital together.”

Relief. A double-dip chocolate chip cookie dough sundae from UDF.

But the fear edged its way back. I was nine or ten, and I’d seen an article in People magazine about the flesh-eating disease: necrotizing fasciitis. The full-page color photo showed an arm blackened and gnawed away by invisible bacteria. At one point, I kept this in my school locker. I inspected my moles in the shower: were they spreading? Bruising? Darkening?

I would feel assaulted with terror on the way to school, or in the afternoon during some idle moment of play or homework, the fear fencing my brain in so all it could think about was this death, this violent death. The whole world narrowed into that pinhole vision of what if, what if, what if and I grew tight with it, jittery and distracted.

My mom gave up trying to explain the odds of contracting the flesh-eating disease: it was like trying to justify to someone strapped in at 30,000 feet and terrified of flying that she is actually much more likely to die in a car accident. It makes no difference: it is the existence of the possibility, the lack of control, that matters.

At some point, I stopped being scared of the flesh-eating disease. I can’t remember when, or why, but I do remember it happened fairly quickly. The fear disappeared from one day to the next, like a headache, omnipresent one moment and then gone, the world suddenly visible again without that darkening filter. My mom and my sister were spared the burden of martyring themselves.

China, 2007

It started during the night. I woke soaked in sweat, shaking, feverish. I clamored down the ladder from my top bunk and groped through the aisle to the squat toilet, which was already, some eight hours into the ride, smeared with shit. I washed my hands and saw my pallid face in the mirror. A small official diagram on the wall showed a man with a dotted black line arching from his mouth to a black ball of presumed expectoration on the ground. A bold red cross was drawn over the man. It was too cold to stay long out of the sheets. I took two Ibuprofen and tried to go back to sleep.

In the morning I descended much more slowly, my body frail and unreliable, and stood for a moment in the aisle, trying to get my bearings. The white morning light washed over endless flat fields, flooded through the windows onto the old carpet and the bunks, and made me dizzy. I remember thinking as if from the other side of a long thin wire, I’m going to faint.

I didn’t, because Turdi Turdi caught me.

Turdi Turdi was an Arab diplomat who occupied the bottom bunk. He was a short, squat man with a bald spot, a dark little face, a nice suit, and leather luggage, and I had seen him looking up at me the night before, and watching me pass in the aisle. Now, he had his arm around my waist, and he sat me down beside him, just a little too close, while I keeled forward. Jorge rushed down from sleep on the top bunk, wild hair all morning curly. Turdi Turdi, who spoke fluent Mandarin, went to search out the train’s doctor.

Lima, 2004

We smoked cigarettes and drank Cokes on park benches in baroque plazas in Lima. I didn’t smoke and I hated Coke, but Andrea made them both lovely, in the way some people make us want to be carefree or destructive or generous, and put us in moods. She and I had worked together at a coffee shop in Madison, Wisconsin. I was finishing college and she was taking advantage of our employee health insurance to get treatment for breast cancer.

We’d down endless shots of espresso at 5 a.m. and talk; she made light of the bright cherry blooms on her cheeks after radiation therapy, told me about meeting her husband Beng on an Indonesian beach when he tried to sell her a friendship bracelet, laughed about marrying him two months later in a traditional Islamic ceremony. She never thought she’d get married.

She and Beng started an Indonesian food cart in Madison, and I worked there over the summer squeezing lemonade and talking travel. In the fall I left for a journey of indeterminate length across South America, and Andrea decided that when Kakilima wrapped up for the season she’d take off, too. We arranged a rendezvous in Lima in December when she arrived; from there, I’d head south to Patagonia and she’d venture into the Amazon.

Andrea was my travel icon. She was around 30 when I met her, and I was 22. As a flight attendant she’d traveled around the world, but her heart was in Asia. Mine was in Latin America, though my experience – a tame study abroad year in France, a week in Mexico City – paled in comparison with hers. She had those perfect qualities of the road: fluid, open, funny, whimsical. We went out dancing all night in Lima with a lanky blonde guy named Chad who worked summers in the Sierras and traveled winters anywhere there were decent mountains. At 5 a.m., we ate something called “airport chicken,” a mystery to us all. We bitched about the goth Irish girl at the hostel who never fixed the showers. We roamed the beach and watched the surfers ride the breaks off Miraflores under curdled winter skies. We drank coffee in the grimy hostel kitchen. We developed the intimacy of travelers, unlike any other intimacy.

After we parted we kept up in emails: she peed on an alligator in the jungle, I made out with an Italian on street corners in Buenos Aires. She and a few guys bought a mule in Sorata and spent fifteen days trekking the Trans Cordillera. The mule escaped twice in rain, snow and sleet, and they tracked it down. It was “cold as hell but the best ever.” I ran into Chad in El Calafate and we bodysurfed a Patagonian River on Thermarests, and backpacked the 8-day Torres del Paine circuit in 6 days, living on instant oatmeal and mashed potatoes.

She’d sign emails, “Miss your ass,” and she was the first and the only person in my life to call me Sam. Always Sam. “Well sistah Sam, take it easy. Let me know how you are. Andrea.”

Oaxaca, 2012

The ADO bus line between Oaxaca and Mexico City was running an ad campaign that featured pale-skinned, chiseled men with five o’clock shadows and women with luscious feathered hair staring out bus windows in dreamy contemplation above the slogan, “ADO: Time for you, time to think.”

I thought about going back to the gray industrial north, about how the light in this valley moved me in a way no other place in the world could, about why I was spending $700 I did not have on a flight home I supposedly did not need to take. My grandma was already back at her apartment, recovering. But I’d gotten it into my head, gone through the motions almost in spite of myself.

And now in the strengthening light I felt relieved, buoyed along by a decision that had seemed beyond me. Relieved to be going home, to have done what most of the time we do not do: follow that urge that says, what if, what if, maybe I should see her now, just in case. Relieved at trusting some inner machinery, whose tick I’d heard and obeyed. The light pinwheeled orange and yellow and lime, streaking dry land, streaking my lap and my hands before it settled into a steady even blaze and the day became day.

Cincinnati, 1992

My mom and my sister were laughing. They were laughing as I hid my face and shook in terror at the velociraptors. Oh, they would not laugh later, no, they would not.

“Please Mom, tell me again. Why couldn’t it happen? I mean, what if there was a mosquito with a dinosaur stuck in amber in Cincinnati? I mean, what if there were velociraptors and they could get out and…”

“Honey, do you need to go to a psych ward?” my mother asked me at some point. I think she was only one-fourth joking. It was one of the weekends I spent with her in Cincinnati, and it had been overtaken by fear. It was late at night, and I was about 85% certain that a Jurassic world existed somewhere in the darker recesses of Ohio, and that one night while we were sleeping one of its escaped bloodthirsty experiments would come blind me with poison and rip out my innards. I needed explanations. Endless explanations.

“Listen Sarah, that’s just invented science. They’ve never found DNA like that and they couldn’t. There’s no way. Dinosaurs couldn’t survive in Ohio. Did you see how the island was tropical? Did you see the waterfalls? We don’t have that in Ohio.”

Nothing worked. I can’t remember how long it lasted, but it was much more vivid and fervent than the flesh-eating disease. I would lay awake at night sweating, remembering the scene where the velociraptor bares its teeth and shoots its yellow venom with a terrible hiss and poor Dennis, fat and clumsy and despicable Dennis, is blinded and devoured in the mud and rain.  I would feel my heart clench, my neck tighten, my breathing speed up into little gusts until I could hear the scurrying footsteps. “Mom!” I would shout. It would be late, much later than I was usually up, and Mom would sit there both exasperated and patient in the yellow light. From there on out on my Cincinnati weekends it was straight Julia Roberts, forget it.

China, 2007

There was an exchange, mellifluent on Turdi Turdi’s end and guttural on the doctor’s, that terminated in Turdi Turdi turning to me and saying, “The fever is too high. They have to stop the train so you can go to a hospital.” The thermometer was just a touch over 40 degrees Celsius: around 104 Farenheit.

There was nothing to do but wait until we arrived in a Chinese city with a hospital. It could be a long wait: we were in the vast countourless territory between Beijing and Shenzhen, square yellow planes of fields stretching to and over the gray horizon, dotted here and there with the speck of a bent peasant. I sat between Jorge and Turdi Turdi, trying to stay awake.

I thought then for the first time in my life that perhaps death would be utterly random. I’d always assumed without ever consciously being aware of it that flying through the car window, feeling the plane lurch towards the ground, there would be just one microsecond of transcendence before passing; some teensy final grace that gave it meaning; some crucial heartbeat of visceral understanding that said this is it and made it okay.  That instant–no matter how embedded in scenes of suffering or fear or horror–would resound with the sudden reassuring click of fate. Not a heaven-or-hell religious fate, not a personal destiny fate, but the same biological rightness we feel eating salt when we crave it or peeing after a long wait or stretching a strained muscle until it sears: a natural instinct followed by relief and surety. Just one millisecond of knowing, as instinctual and essential to our humanness as the affection we feel for babies’ symmetrical faces, as the sexual pulls we can recognize but not tame. How could we not have some part of ourselves, built-in as lust, that prepared us for death?

But in that hour or two before the train stopped in Longshuan all I thought was if I pass out now I might die. If I pass out before we get to a city with a hospital I might die. And I forced myself to stay awake. I might slip into sleep and die on a Chinese train at age twenty-five, and they’ll call my parents and tell them the news, and China will just go on being China and the train will go on and there will be these tides of grief in Columbus Ohio and people will get off the train and go to Hong Kong and Chinese peasants will plow the fields and raincoated people will bike to work in Beijing and everyone else’s lives will just go on and I will have died, stupidly, on a Chinese train. And it will be trivial and brief as an accident, me just as shocked as everyone else.

Cincinnati, 1992

The reprieve did not last long.

“Sweetie, there is no way you have AIDS.”

“But can’t I just get a blood test?”

“Well…I mean…I guess…no, honey. No. That’s ridiculous. You do not have AIDS.”

“But what if?” growing weepy. “What if–”

“Sarah Ann. Seriously. I know it’s scary, but you’re 10. You’ve never had a blood transfusion. You’ve never had sex. There’s no way, honey. Want to see a movie?”

I remember when my mom took an AIDS test. It was back before you could get the results in one day. She had to wait a week. It happened to fall around one of the weekends I came down to visit her in Cincinnati, and all weekend she was biting her nails, pale, pacing the house. She couldn’t concentrate. I heard her talking to my sister. “I know, I know, it’s just nerve-wrecking.” I left before she got the results back, and I don’t remember ever calling to follow-up. I had been scared to see her suffering, but I was not scared of what she was scared of. I thought I just knew: there was no way she was sick. Me, on the other hand, me with my games of make-believe veterinarian in the attic with the cats and my dress-up and my Baby-Sitters Club books: I was at risk. Somehow, at the time, this seemed utterly and imminently plausible. Urgent. I lost sleep.

And then, once again, the fear just disappeared. I shed it, from one week to the next. And after that I must have moved beyond this adolescent fear stage, in which we become violently aware of the random and horrific possibilities of death, because I was not scared like that again until the Chinese train.

Cincinnati, 2012

“I’m sorry,” my grandma said, “I’m just so tired.” She fell asleep as my brother and I ate LaRosa’s pizza, then jolted awake and asked about Jorge, then fell asleep again. We had never seen her like this. We were scared. She was pale as fine porcelain china, her skin gone translucent to reveal veins like hairline cracks, and she had a shocked quality each time she woke up, as if unsure of what was happening. I think she was relieved when we left, and she always wanted us to stay longer.

I said I’d come back the next afternoon so we could keep going through the boxes of old photos and travel brochures and itineraries in her storage unit. I was trying to piece together the story of the woman my grandmother had become after she’d worked full-time, raising two boys as a single mother in the 1950s. Her husband Earl died of meningitis not long after returning from World War II, and left her with my dad, two, and my uncle Bill, four.

Not long after, the nuns came to her door, somber and resigned with what at that time seemed inevitable. “Mildred,” they said, “we’ll take your boys.” My grandma stood firm in that doorway and said, “I will never give up my sons.”

She was a tough mother, uncompromising and often cold. She steeled herself against the traumas of her life, never remarried, and raised her boys strict and solid. They both went to college.

What we did not know was that under her bed were dozens of letters and birthday cards from Earl, small gifts, scarves in yellowed boxes, that she’d kept for more than half a century.

But the point of this story is that once her boys were grown and gone, my grandmother became a traveler. Not like we know the term now, meaning a backpack-wielding adventurer with a chicken on her lap on a second-class bus, but a sturdy and wry member of the Sycamore Seniors, ready to brave the Grand Tetons or Granada or Gatlinburg with the white snow globe of her hair firmly secured from the elements under a tight plastic wrap. Tourism was a luxury for her: it was the thing she could do for herself after she’d put in her time. She worked for thirty years as a secretary in a real estate office and raised her children. Then, she lived a second life.

It was this life that fascinated me, and that connected us, and for all the times my grandmother asked my dad, “When is she going to get a job?” I thought she was secretly proud. Old ladies with tiny puckered faces would approach me in the cafeteria at her retirement complex and say, “You’re the one from Mexico! We’ve heard about you!” And once over a lunch of roast beef sandwiches when I was honest and said I didn’t know where I was headed, she said, “Well, that’s OK.” For my grandma, this was near-blasphemy. But I think in my case she made an exception.

On Tuesday, just before I was about to leave to head to grandma’s apartment, my uncle Bill called to say she’d entered the hospital. Two hours later, the call came from my sister, weeping.

“The cardiologist said grandma’s dying.”

Coffee Bay, South Africa, 2005

The Coffee Shack is a ramshackle backpacker hostel on a beach in the Transkei region of South Africa. Rondavels, traditional grass-roofed huts, dotted the hill on one side of the mouth of the Bomvu River, and the hostel with its dorms, campsites, and sprawling wooden bar lay on the other. Kakilima had closed for the winter, the situation with Beng was tense, and Andrea had headed off traveling in Africa. I was teaching on Reunion Island, off the coast of Madagascar, and taking my paid vacation in South Africa. It was another of the sort of incredulous meet-ups that become increasingly probable the longer one travels. Andrea took it just as naturally and in stride as she had in Lima. “Sam!” she said when we met in the couch-strewn Coffee Shack commons room, as if we were grabbing lunch in Madison.

But we didn’t spend much time together at Coffee Bay. There were a lot of drugs and surfers, neither of which I’d ever been too into, and when we’d talk Andrea had a glazed look that to me seemed sad, although she said she’d never been happier. We took a hike together in the quiet green hills and talked about moving on: about what would prove to be a pivotal transition moment for both of us. I was melancholy, in the process of extricating myself from college and its connections and selves, and she was preparing to leave things behind: several months later, she’d go back to Madison, get a divorce from Beng, and rearrange her life in order to move to Coffee Bay. She’d fallen in love, and would start a business there with her new boyfriend, offering tours and hikes and abseiling and surfing, with an internet café on the side. Eventually, she’d get remarried.

Three months after we met up she wrote, in one of her classic Kerouacian emails, fluent and to hell with punctuation, intimate in the way she was intimate without ever being heavy,

“I still can’t wait to get back to ZA. I just feel so at home there. Such a good way to spend your life if your into that type of living. My friends in Madison could not live in coffee bay. I find it a mission to do everyday activities. To take a shower it will take at least 10 minutes to prepare the water! You know what I mean. Where I live we have no water or electric and a long drop for a toilet. Different life styles…. You can come and visit me anytime you want. by than the company will be off the ground and we will show you the best time EVER! True that.”

China, 2007

The train stopped. It stopped in Longshuan, a small grim city choked with industrial haze. Turdi Turdi got off with us and flagged a taxi.

Outside men slumped under burlap sacks of bricks, dragging their feet along the streetsides. Piles of dusty concrete rubble stood as preludes to rumbling acres of demolition: the city was being destroyed, or rebuilt, or both, and it was such a glimpse of dystopian rising China it would have been almost comical, almost Dr. Seussian in its otherworldliness, had I not thought I might die there.

The doctor was blasé. He said I needed a shot to bring down the fever and told us to pay before he’d give it. Jorge was furious, started yelling: why couldn’t they just give me the shot, now, why waste time?

Turdi didn’t even bother to translate, just dragged Jorge down to the cashier, where he paid something like $15 and got a receipt, which he brought back upstairs to the doctor. The needle was clean, and with the door open and doctors milling about I simply pulled down the right side of my pants: the nurse jabbed the needle in.

It took effect almost immediately. We left the clinical room and sat on plastic chairs in the small bleak lobby. Outside night was falling blue and messy, smeared by the naked bulbs in makeshift stores. I felt the red drain slowly from my face, felt my breathing steady and the me I recognized begin to return to myself. I was thirsty, and there were only small waxy cups of hot water. Jorge left on a quest for bottled water, braving the zigzagging motorbikes in the ruined darkening streets, and the second he was out the open doorway I felt a surge of panic that would come on unexpectedly, over and over, for the next several years. What if he was hit by a motorbike? Attacked, beaten? Lost? It was all possible, all of a sudden. All the terrifying possibilities came swooping into the picture from where they’d been hiding, distant and vague.

A moaning, dying migrant worker was wheeled in on a stretcher. His body was convoluted and bloody: he was beyond screaming, but the woman with him, presumably his wife, was not. She was plain-faced with rough hair pulled into a ponytail by a scrunchie, filthy second-hand clothes, and the pointy-toed leather shoes worn by peasant men. She screamed at two well-dressed men who accompanied the stretcher, and who both looked bored, as if they were customer service employees at Target hearing the harangues of a deranged customer. I asked Turdi Turdi what it was all about.

“Those men hit the migrant worker with their BMW. She is screaming that they should pay, but they say it’s the worker’s fault. She says it’s their fault and they don’t want to pay. She says he’ll die.”

Turdi Turdi then changed the subject.

“You’d make a lovely American wife,” he said.

“Thank you, but I don’t want to live in Shenzhen,” I said. As if the issue were not my husband, currently navigating the Longshuan night, but the wasteland of high rises and factories and prostitutes that was Shenzhen.

“But I have a lovely three bedroom apartment, I make a lot of money, I speak perfect English. Does he?” Gesturing towards Jorge, somewhere out in the darkness.

“Yes.”

Suspicion.

“I haven’t heard it.”

“Well, he does.”

“I make a very good husband.” He sidled closer.

“You would get very sick of me,” I said. “American women don’t obey.”

“I like that,” he said. The hospital workers smoked while the woman screamed on, one of the men now shouting back, obscenities or insults of some sort that made the woman shrink back, but not much.

Turdi Turdi took my hand.

“Don’t,” I said. “I appreciate your help, but don’t.”

Jorge returned before Turdi Turdi could get irritated, and we took another taxi to a hotel, where Jorge insisted the three of us would not be sharing a room. All night, heels clomped down the marble hallways, exaggerated girly laughs bounced off the walls, keys rattled, doors rumbled shut, and people had flamboyant sex around us. I sweated and sweated and in the morning woke up feeling almost normal, as if my body had almost–almost–regained its essential equilibrium. We caught a train to Shenzhen, said goodbye to Turdi Turdi, and stepped on the glistening escalators that would take us out of China.

Cincinnati, 2012

I became an adult in my family on the night I stayed with my grandma in hospice. There is a time when we become adults in our lives, and there is a time when we become adults in our families. The former happened for me long ago, but the latter not until I was 30, and it was my turn to spend the night.

On Tuesday the cardiologist had given her a week, at most. It was Saturday, February 29th–a leap year. My grandma, I knew, thought it would be a good day to go: unique. It would give her friends something to talk about: that Mildred went on a leap year. Now how ’bout that. My dad and sister had stayed with her the previous two nights and were exhausted. Naturally, it was my turn. I wanted to stay, wanted the responsibility and wanted to belong and help out, but I couldn’t quite believe they let me do it, they didn’t ask twice or three times or insist on accompanying me. I had always been the baby, and now, I learned, I was old enough. They left, and it was just me, that silent hospice room, my grandma sleeping, the sleeping bag on the floor, my Touchstone Anthology of Creative Nonfiction, the Cincinnati night still and cold outside. I cried harder and quieter than I’ve ever cried. My dad was the only one who knew, by force of instinct. He called.

“Are you sure you’ll be alright?” he asked gently. And I said yes.

When grandma woke I stopped crying and calmed down, and at 3 a.m. I fed her a chocolate milkshake and laughed with her when she kept pulling it back after I thought she was finished. “Just a little more,” she said. “A little more.” She drank it down to the very last drop.

China, 2007

On August 20th, a little under a week after I’d arrived in China, I got my first message from Andrea in over a year: “Where are you my long lost friend? Let me know. Andrea in wisconsin.” I wrote back right away and told her I’d met Jorge and that we’d moved to China, where I had a job teaching writing. How was Coffee Bay?

Two days later, just before heading to the Beijing airport to pick up Jorge, I went to check my email at a coffee shop, and she’d written back, “you kill me! the last yearin mexico w/ a man. Sounds serious. You must be a pro spanish speaker, but now off to china! Good for you my friend. Live it up. What will your man do in China?…So when I was coffee bay the cancer came back, had treatment. this was around the x-mas holidays. It was a pain in the ass because I had to travel 4 hours for treatment plus the government hospital was well a shit hole, but I could not complain, almost free. Just not yank standards by any means. Freaking cock roaches!!!!! But then I got better, life was good again, and then sick again. this time I needed to get home to a hospital. Now I’m living w/ my mom recouping and getting my strength back. What a change of life! I’m very cool with it all. Its just the way it is. Just remember life is short, have mucho funno. Serious..”

I didn’t write back. A little less than a month later, I got an email from Andrea’s mother saying she’d passed away on September 17th.

Macau, 2007

Three or four days after the incident on the train in China, I woke up blue in Macau. Blue lips, blue fingernails, white face. It was 3 a.m. It was hard to get in enough air with each breath. I don’t remember what Jorge took with us or exactly how the decision was made but then we were on the street and Jorge was stopping a cab and saying, frantic, “Kung Vu Hospital!” Lonely Planet, with its listing of the one European hospital in Macau, may have saved my life. The taxi driver read the Cantonese on the thin page, and rushed us there in minutes.

In retrospect, this was extraordinary luck. To be in Macau, a former Portuguese colony, with its European-style hospital where I did not have to pay until after treatment and where doctors spoke English. Where a week-long hospital stay cost just over $1,000, which felt devastating at the time and seemed miraculous when we later moved to the U.S.

In the ER, when the doctor returned and said, “You have a serious lung infection,” I was too stunned to react. I made a stilted phone call via credit card to my dad’s answering machine: “I’m in the hospital in Macau, it’s a former Portuguese territory south of China.” I was admitted, given an I.V. and put on oxygen, and hours later, told I had pneumonia. Pneumonia. That had been it all along. It sounded so pedestrian. I thought, if I had known, I would not have been so scared.

I stayed a week. Jorge went each morning for muffins at a nearby bakery, slept in a sleeping bag on the floor, and watched hours and hours of Italian soccer with me on T.V. Little by little, the world became normal again, expected, even mundane: I could feel anxious about whether we’d have to pay to change our plane tickets to Kota Kinabalu, and compare day-to-day muffin consistency.

We flew to Borneo, with strict instructions for me not to run for at least a month; stayed in the $8 a night Stay-in-Lodge; spent our days reading Haruki Murakami and drinking endless Kopi Susu; and eventually, made of this event a mere story. I survived, recovered fully. But I lost certain things–faith that death had meaning, the courage to take certain risks–that I wasn’t sure I would ever regain.

Cincinnati, 2012

My grandma died at 2:25 p.m. on March 3rd, 2012. Bill, my dad and I were in the room. Everyone was worried it was going to get much more painful: suffering, disorientation, a sharp decline. Grandma was sleeping. Dad had dozed off. Bill was working on his computer. I was reading. I was the one who looked up, for no reason really, just looked up. I saw a stillness in her face, the only difference from a minute ago. I tapped my dad on the foot. He startled awake, and I nodded towards Grandma.

It was quiet. When the nurse came, she was astounded.

“This almost never happens,” she said. She couldn’t believe it. Normally, there are signs. Labored breathing, confusion, anxiety. The nurses warn people and prepare them. The nurse was silent for a moment. “Your grandmother was a strong woman,” she told me. “She chose when to go.”

I am almost never home. I am always the one who is not there. For holidays, births, funerals, graduations. I am always the one on a bus in South America, lost in Borneo, in a Mexican market. That semester I had taken off again for the villages of Oaxaca’s Sierra Norte, missed Christmas even when I said I’d be there. But I was home for this.

And after she’d been buried and wept for, eulogized and celebrated, I flew back to Mexico. The light on the drive back to Oaxaca was the same as it had been the morning I left, only at sunset. Pinwheels of orange and red and lime across the southern sky.

The Dominican Republic, 2010

The third jump was 25, 30 feet. The canyon narrower, the river swifter. I could not see the opposite wall or the bottom. Blaine went before me, hurled herself into the unknown, a screaming flailing ball of limbs. The splash was a distant ker-plunk. There was a tiny ledge, a few inches wide, on which to perch before the leap. I stood, and stood, and looked, and drew in a confident breath. “Just do it,” someone advised. “Don’t think about it.” No one was shouting: this was scarier, and everyone worked up her individual courage. I took a deep breath, peeked over and could see only the curve of rock, no water and no end, and I leaned to gather momentum–and then stopped.

“I can’t do it,” I said. And stepped back. I climbed down the rock face and slid into the cool blue-green water. Further on, little Dominican boys were leaping off a cliff into a sea-green pool, their bodies star-shaped in midair, frozen in joy.

 

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About Sarah Menkedick

Sarah Menkedick is the founder of Vela. Her work has been featured in Harper's, Oxford American, The Paris Review Daily, The Best Women's Travel Writing, The New Inquiry, The Common, and elsewhere. Her Vela story "Homing Instincts" was selected as notable in The Best American Essays 2014. Before returning to the U.S. for graduate school, she spent six years living, teaching and traveling abroad. Read her full bio here. Follow her on Twitter @SarahMenkedick.

Comments

  1. Really beautiful, captivating. Thank you for sharing such intimate moments. Your words have put me into a very reflective mood.

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