Nonfiction

Making a Statement, pencil/paper/digitally enhanced color, by Jeannette DesBoine

Spleeny

I rang the bell at the emergency room entrance shortly after midnight. As the E.R. attendant ticked through his list of Covid screening questions from behind the sliding door, I panted out my answers, cramping and doubled over against the icy window. Sleet pinged against the tin roof of the vestibule. My hair was damp under my hat, and my breath condensed inside an N95 mask. With each groan, I worried I sounded dramatic. Maybe if I had passed out, I would have believed it was serious. Unconscious, I wouldn’t worry about what anyone thought.

I made sure to thank the front-line attendant when he escorted me to an exam room. I shrugged when the nurse asked me to rank my pain on a scale of one to ten. “Six?” It felt more like eight, but I was sure they’d think I was exaggerating. Besides, I didn’t want to complain.

How I felt didn’t matter. Doing the work, meeting expectations—persisting, smiling, never complaining— that’s what mattered. That’s what I was taught. Since childhood, grit and tenacity co-starred in the action movie constantly rolling in my head.

I was raised by going-gets-tough, tough-get-going women. Though I tried to be like them, I had night terrors and cried at loud noises—my head ached much of the time. To this day, my mother and aunt describe me as having been spleeny—a New England colloquialism that means whiny, prone to hypochondria, and sensitive to everything. “Stop being so spleeny,” they said when I complained of a tummy ache.

At age twelve, I started getting migraines. Twice each month, a stabbing, cold, scorching blade twisted around the nerves in my temple, spreading from behind my right eye, down my neck, and across my scapulae and shoulders. In college, the doctors said I was tense and wrote prescriptions for my nerves. When I was a young mother and, later, a businesswoman, physicians assessed my muscle spasms and suggested wine to relax. Year after year, I heard my type of headaches were often psychosomatic. In other words, it wasn’t an illness; it was just how I was—spleeny, I guess. I swallowed their medicine and got back to work.

I remember lying in a clanking MRI tunnel, cataloging every migraine remedy I had tried without success—prescription-strength pain relievers, anti-depressants, lidocaine patches, Chinese herbs, and essential oils. Sometimes, a double IPA would help a little—if I pressed the cool glass to my head.

Once, a doctor poked my left arm with twenty allergens—wheat, dander, mold, and the like—on the slim chance that one might be the root cause of my headaches. Within minutes, twenty hot and itchy fire-ant hill bumps had emerged on my skin.

“You don’t have allergies, but you have dermatographia.” The specialist told me. “It means you are sensitive to everything.”

She might as well have said spleeny.

Menopause cured my migraines and triggered a midlife reinvention. Please don’t call it retirement. I would not rest or withdraw from active pursuits as the dictionary definition suggested I should—I would persist. Two-thirds of my life had passed, and much was left to accomplish.

I returned to school at age 57 to study for an MFA—just as the world shut down. Professors and administrators emailed their support. “Take a break,” they said. “It’s okay to feel how you feel,” they said, without extending my deadlines.

Throughout 2020 and the year that followed, while Covid exploded, democracy stumbled, and the West literally burned, I persisted. Determined to finish my writing degree, I spun childhood memories into pithy prose. As I dug deeper to find my truth, my stomach began to churn.

I muffled my body’s emotional alarms with antacids and anti-diarrheal chews. The medication labels read, “If symptoms persist for more than three days, call your doctor.” But who’s got the time?

By December of 2021, I had doubled down on self-medication. I was ill and exhausted but determined not to put a damper on a twice-rescheduled vacation. I took anti-anxiety pills for the flights, rum with pineapple juice at the beach, and Kaopectate shooters every night before bed.

I filtered photos of rainbows spanning the azure ocean horizon and posted them to social media, polishing the category-three cyclone in my stomach and the deep gray of my mood into relentlessly happy images. I thought maybe if I could keep up the shiny illusion on the outside, what I felt inside would pass.

Before my suntan could fade, on the eve of a new year, I was in the emergency room. Did gastrointestinal distress even qualify as an emergency? Or was I just being spleeny?

Blue-gowned figures wheeled my gurney to a hospital room upstairs and helped me slide into bed. A doctor on early morning rounds pressed gently on my bloated belly, and I oofed like he’d used a bowling ball instead of his hands.

“What do you think?” I asked, shaping my grimace into a hopeful smile.

He said something about a surgical consult and that he’d see me again tomorrow.

“Tomorrow?” I asked. I pointed out the window where the sleet had turned to snow, barely visible against the dawning sky. “You mean today,” I said.

“I think you’ll be here a while,” he said.

“But,” I persisted. “I don’t get sick.”

 

I spent three days in the hospital. The diagnosis: collagenous colitis, possibly triggered by long-term use of anti-inflammatory medicines like the aspirin and ibuprofen I’d taken most of my life. It was a serious condition but not likely to be chronic. Six weeks later, in my doctor’s bland white and beige office, I sat stiffly in a vinyl-padded chair while she scanned my last test results.

I exhaled when she proclaimed me much improved. She even used the word normal.

“Now, what should I know about nutrition?” I asked, not content with mere improvement. “Should I try probiotics, eliminate gluten and dairy? Why is my belly still bloated? When can I get back to working out?”

The doctor pulled her hands through her long red-gold hair, forming a sleek ponytail before letting it drop again to her shoulders.

“Slow down; you need to rest,” she said. “You were very sick.”

I stared at a poster-sized illustration of the large intestine behind her head, tracing the curves of the colon, as pink and fatty as sausage. She had explained its primary purpose to me. It absorbs what the body requires and eliminates what no longer serves. Mine had become unable to make the distinction. I was sensitive to everything.

The doctor leaned toward me, eyes unblinking above her pale blue mask, and repeated, “You were very sick,” as though I’d never heard it before. And maybe I hadn’t.

I chewed on her words and let them land in my belly. And for the first time, I believed it. It’s okay to feel how you feel.

 

A Year Without Men
Stories of Experience and Imagination.
by I.D. Kapur
It’s 2054 A.D., and the world needs a rest from men. Women have developed a novel solution, and the men can’t wait to leave. When my taxi driver tells me he has bullet wounds from the Russian police, speaks five languages, and is teaching at Harvard, I start taking notes. After the funeral, a widow loses all her married friends. Then karma sends flowers. “Indra Kapur writes with clear insight and an acute sense of humor. The stories in A Year Without Men are varied, clever, and often delightfully surprising! Cue me rubbing my hands together with glee.” — Katherine Longshore, author of the Gilt series. “The stories in A Year Without Men create a powerful sense of place with rich sensory and emotional detail. Characters are appealing in their humor and the compassion they inspire. I want to meet these people and be there with them! Some endings surprise us, and others give us a satisfying sense of the inevitable playing out. The stories have a depth of reality that makes them unforgettable.” — Ann Saxton Reh, author of the David Markam Mysteries “Mickee Voodoo is a very entertaining parody of a “hardboiled” detective story in the mode of Chandler, Hammett, and, more recently, Robert B. Parker…witty banter ensues with the detective cracking wise in a colorful idiom both in dialogue and narrative…delights in wordplay…very clever, and is quite funny…Kapur is a talented and skillful fiction writer.” — John DeChancie, author of The Skyway Trilogy and The Castle Perilous series. Available from Amazon or on order from your independent bookstore.

Bios

In midlife, Catherine Palmer moved to Vermont, hired a life coach, and quit a three-decade career to test the theory “It’s never too late to be what you might have been.” She is writing a memoir titled Typing Lessons. Catherine’s work has appeared in The Boston GlobeAmerican Literary ReviewMulticiplicty Magazine, and elsewhere. She is a contributor to AARP’s online magazine, The Ethel, and publishes a newsletter, The Midlife Anti-Hero. Find Catherine on Substack at catherinehpalmer.substack.com or Instagram @catherinehpalmer.




Caricature by John McKenzie
At 76, Jeannette DesBoine experienced a 'need' to learn to draw. In years of self-taught practice and unwavering patience, her serendipitous drawings have elevated to a signature line of artcards and chapbook covers. Of this journey into the visual arts, she relates: "Practice is its own breakthrough and patience its own reward.”

2 Comments

  1. Wow! The author’s story could be mine. I am still recovering from a stomach bleed in February of this year having lived on NSAIDS for decades. I, too, became very, very sick; required blood transfusions and a new way of living – meaning slowing way down – hard for a plow horse like me. I feel you Ms Palmer. Many slow blessings to you.

  2. I really liked this beautifully written piece, and I identified with the author’s need to keep going in “retirement,” regardless of what time (and unwise use of NSAIDs) is doing/has done to her body.

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