Category Archives: Searching for Wisdom

personal growth stories

Too Cool For School? Not Me

I don’t know about you, but I have an affliction: when I try to be cool, I end up looking like a fool.

I think this all started at the end of junior high. Until that time I was a confirmed bookworm who never had time to think of things like being cool—my nose was always in a novel so I rarely registered where I really was in time or place. Nor did I care about how I looked or what I wore. Not until the day I saw Gloria wearing a cool sweater with a dickie collar. Wow, I really wanted one!

The poodle skirt phase was before my time, but I craved having a dickie collar.

I think I probably also wanted to look like the girl in the picture below. She was so white–so American. From her loafers to her plaid skirt to the shutters on her house, she personified the kind of girl who scared me to death. But I wanted to imitate.

Next thing I knew, I really wanted to shop at the Bon.

None of this was happening for me as my mother was against all of it. She thought shopping at Lerner’s was just fine for me. Somehow I wangled white bucks out of my dad.

The coolest was the white buck bag that accompanied them—it came out in almost every class so I could apply a little of whatever that powder was to my shoes, whether they needed it or not.

My mother did loosen up enough to buy me pedal pushers and saddle shoes, which was a great victory.

I was 14 when I started high school—being young was a disadvantage to coolness. I joined this high school sorority to be cooler and started smoking to be cooler still. But it really didn’t work.

I still wasn’t cool. Which was fine at Garfield High School. Just getting to go to school there was cool enough.

In my heart of hearts, I was still a nerd who loved being in the library more than anything.

This continued on into college. I loved to study. Well, maybe not loved—but I admit to liking it a lot. At the University of Washington, I used to study at Balmer Hall—it had big tables where I could spread out my books, notebooks, three pens with different colored inks, index cards and ruler. I remember one day acting very cool as I walked by a group of guys, pretending not to see them. I walked straight into a huge ash can that tipped over, spreading sand and cigarette butts across the floor. I can still hear the clang of the metal as it bumped over the floor. Not so cool, after all.

As I get older, a lot of my “too cool for school” episodes involve falls and/or being a know-it-all. My mother always said, “Pride goes before a fall,”—it seems my karma is to act that out again and again. It’s not that I’m unsteady on my feet…yet. I go to yoga to practice my balance and work out to keep my strength up. No, it’s more that I don’t pay attention to my surroundings.

Usually, before it happens, I’ve just congratulated myself on my fitness, and that my skinned knees and elbows have finally healed. (It takes so much longer now.) I’m thinking things like, I’m doing pretty darn well for a 70-year-old!

Like on our 50th anniversary. I wore a flowing dress and my new diamond ring—I felt youthful and beautiful.

As we walked up a few stairs into the oceanside restaurant, I was handed a glass of champagne. How sophisticated and cool is this, I thought.

I stepped forward to take the champagne, not realizing I was on the edge of the lanai. Yes, I stepped into empty space. I tried to get back onto the stair and keep my balance, but couldn’t quite do it. I started falling backwards and decided the wisest course was to just go with it. Fortunately it was only a short distance into the flowerbed. The horrified onlookers did give me points for the gracefulness of my descent. Except for a few scratches and a rip in my dress, I was just shaken, but unhurt.

My final point about being cool or being a fool concerns my fondness for getting things right. It’s not that I say, “I told you so,” (although I do roll my eyes quite a bit). Like when we were traveling in the Galapagos and Peru with friends. I was wise and ate according to the rules we’d be given. The rest of them ate off the street and tried the national dish, guinea pig. What fools, I thought, as they all succumbed to Inca Revenge, and asked to borrow Imodium.

I, on the other hand, was so cool that I had nary a stomach cramp. Until we got home. Then the 105 degree fever that goes with malaria hit me. Not so cool after that.

Another problem is that I try to stay current technologically: I’m so cool that I use the Internet all the time. This leads me to buy gadgets, which I can’t figure out how to use. Like this electric wine opener. You have to admit it looks cool and very high tech, but I can’t even figure out how to put it in the charger unit. Now, I don’t know what to do with it.

I hate to say it, but being cool is just not my thing. At this point, it’s a battle to keep from making that old saying true: There’s no fool like an old fool! 🙂

 

 

 

Boiling Point Revisited

What’s that saying, “the more things are different, the more they are the same?” This morning while looking through my files, I came upon something I’d written in 2009. I copied it and pasted it below. The Taliban are still around. Putin is still puttering on the world stage. All I need to do is change a few names and you’d think I wrote it today. Kim Jong Il becomes Kim Jong Un.  Obama becomes Trump. Throw in a little ISIS, Syria and Russia and you have the same recipe for nuclear winter.

Here’s what I wrote in 2009:

I’m beginning to get that creepy Cold War feeling. Growing up during that era meant there was always a chill in the air. The specter of nuclear winter loomed over us, raising goose bumps on the hardiest of Americans. News reports and civil defense drills stoked our collective anxiety. Books like “On the Beach” fueled our fears further, but that was fiction. The Cuban Missile Crisis brought it all into focus.

It was October 1962. The Soviet Union was building nuclear reactors in Cuba, and the United States was not going to stand for it. President Kennedy demanded they cease and desist, but the Soviet Union ignored the blockade and the threats.

On October 28, so full of trepidation we were unable to concentrate on our high school newspaper assignments, four of us hunkered around the transistor radio on the editor’s desk. Our advisor was off somewhere drinking coffee, or perhaps it was whiskey, so we had free rein to do whatever we wished. We were thirsty for news of the U.S./Soviet confrontation so when regular scheduled broadcasting was interrupted for a news flash, we leaned closer.

“Khrushchev has just announced that all weapons will be dismantled,” the announcer said. “There will be complete cessation of further work at the existing nuclear missile sites.” The four of us hugged. We had just been drawn back from the brink of nuclear war. We were going to be okay.

In the intervening years, we’ve endured events we could never foresee. But when the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, we entered a time when you could worry more about whether you were keeping up with the Jones’ newest electronic devices instead of wondering if you were going to be blown to smithereens.

Now, with daily insta-reporting from the Koreas, Irans, and Afghanastans of the world, I’m beginning to feel again that nuclear destruction of the planet is right around the corner. Then I tell myself it’s the over reporting that’s making me anxious. After all, it was pretty hairy in 1962, and we survived. Perhaps Kim Jong IL is just testing Obama’s resolve? Perhaps Iran and Israel will make peace? Perhaps it will be snow tomorrow.

In 2017, I want to say, “Look how worried we were in 1962 and in 2009. Things turned out just fine. See, we’ll be all right.”  Anyway, that’s what I tell my grandkids.

 

Seeing is Believing?

 

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I often find pennies when I walk. Twenty years ago, I found one next to a vacant lot in my neighborhood. My back was hurting so much at the time that I had trouble stooping to pick it up. I’d been suffering from back and neck pain for about a year. The anxiety crippling me came around the same time.

I was coming close to being agoraphobic. I was quiet about it—ashamed really. I could fake it pretty well so no one knew. I could manage the grocery store if I were alone. Driving, thank God, wasn’t an issue then.

When I saw a documentary about agoraphobia, I saw myself and knew I needed help. I got a referral and began seeing a therapist. I also took Paxil. Both the talk therapy and the medication helped me a lot. I also got into other types of therapy, like the emotional freedom technique and EMDR, which were beneficial on many levels. I read Jack Sarno’s book on emotionally triggered pain in the body. The panic attacks became less frequent and my physical pain almost disappeared.

The night before I found the penny in my neighborhood, my husband and I watched an Andrew Weill special on television. He told a story about finding four leaf clovers. “When I give a lecture, I’ll tell the audience, ‘If you believe you can find a four leaf clover, you will’,” he’d said. “Then during the break, people will go out onto the grounds and twelve will come back with a four leaf clover.”

This was unbelievable to me. I’d always been told four leaf clovers were extremely rare and you had to be extremely lucky to find one. Lucky pennies were a dime a dozen. Anyone could find one of those. You just had to look down.

That day, twenty years ago, I knew I wasn’t a lucky type, but since I’d bent down to get the penny, I decided to look in the grass, just in case. I leaned over, resting my hand on the grass. When I looked down, my thumb was on a four-leaf clover!

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I can’t tell you how I felt. My heart soared. I know that’s a cliché, but it’s the only way I can describe my feeling. I still remember that sensation.

That’s the moment I look back on that started me healing. I began to believe in myself. I began to believe in the limitless nature of the universe. I started on a path of healing: physical, mental and spiritual. My fears quieted.

Believe it or not, I’ve found more than a dozen four-leaf clovers since then. Some were in my back yard, some were in Europe. I don’t look often, but when I do, I usually find one. I tell this story to my grandchildren and two have already found four-leaf clovers with me.

Seeing is believing, or is it if you believe, you’ll be able to see it?

 

 

Just Saying

I’m a head case, always have been and unless I get dementia, always will be. My mind is continuously busy with thoughts and questions so it’s not unusual for me to walk into a room and not know why I’ve come there. People say that’s a sign of senility but I’ve been doing that since I was ten. I didn’t realize until this morning that my mind is also crowded with adages, song lyrics and literary allusions.

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As I did the breakfast dishes, I was thinking about George Washington. He cut down the cherry tree but he would not tell a lie. That story from first grade has had a lasting effect on me. I rarely tell even a white lie—I’d never lie about something big. And my word is my bond.

Thoughts about George led to a flood of others. Growing up, my brother, sister and I were taught to never judge anyone until we’d walked in his or her shoes. We drank in the concepts of compassion and respect for others with our Gerber formula. We knew that there but for the grace of God, we’d have gone into the ovens of Auschwitz.

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Taught to be responsible for each other and be grateful for what we had, we knew we needed to share our bounty. I took this to heart and have literally given people the shirt off my back.

My brother gave away the money for his birthday party to help a family in need.

My brother gave away the money for his birthday party to help a family in need.

The work ethic and saving for a rainy day were strong themes in my childhood. Our parents were children of immigrants fleeing religious persecution.

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They married during the Depression and had no money. But when the going got tough, the tough got going. They worked like dogs to become successful and to make sure we all went to college.

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We were admonished that the early bird gets the worm and that practice makes perfect.

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“Waste not, want not,” they said if we left the lights on. If we didn’t finish our vegetables, we were reminded about the starving children in China. Along with this, we were taught that a penny saved was a penny earned, but also that all that glitters is not gold. There was also a sneaky suspicion that money was the root of all evil.

My parents weren’t the speak when spoken to kind. We were encouraged to have our own opinions as long as we honored our mother and father, and thought before we spoke. However, we were cautioned about opening a Pandora’s box and that it’s better to be safe rather than sorry.

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Since the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, I taught these same values to my own children.

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They have taught them to theirs. Which makes me proud as punch, even though I know that pride goes before a fall. We all believe immigrants like our families have made this country strong.

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I think who we are is a combination of our nature and how we’ve been nurtured. I’ve been told many times not to be so nice because nice guys finish last, but it’s just the way I’m wired. Besides, I’m the tortoise to many others’ hare. Slow and steady wins my race.

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Which reminds me, I think there’s a place for everything and everything has a place. That’s why I go crazy when I need my scissors and they aren’t where I put them. The Borrowers have moved them.

Even though I’m an old dog, I’m trying to learn new tricks. An inveterate multi-tasker, I can rush around like a chicken with my head cut off, but I’m getting better. I don’t rob Peter so much to pay Paul. I’m more into the moment, into the Now. I’ve always been slow to anger, and believed you can catch more flies with honey rather than vinegar. I have a long fuse but when lit, watch out. Then I’d be happy to cut off my nose to spite my face. I’m willing to share all this because I’m an open book. The truth is, you can’t tell a book by its cover.

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Besides all these sayings, song lyrics play in my head. They come up from my subconscious, unbidden. Last fall while my husband was going through Proton radiation, the constant theme song playing was, “Put on a Happy Face.”

Lately, it’s “Wake Me Up When It’s All Over,” because I’m as frightened as a rabbit about the present political climate, as well as just climate in general. Hope springs eternal so I’m hoping the Emperor has someone around who tells him he has no clothes on. I’m hoping they don’t throw the baby out with the bath water when reforming affordable health care.

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I’ve given up watching television. I’m sick of the pundits earning fame and fortune while crying, “The sky is falling.” And I can’t handle the bloggers, who obviously never went to Journalism School where we learned to be clear, concise and accurate.

Right now the lyric in my head is Bob Marley’s, “every little thing’s gonna be all right.” I know there’s no fool like an old fool, but I still believe good triumphs over evil. I’m still looking for the silver lining.

 

 

 

We Are The World

This was my kind of protest march. No violence. No shouting of epithets. No hatred. Families and friends walked along the street, some holding signs, some holding hands, some pushing strollers and other pushing wheelchairs.

 

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img_0573Grandmas and grandpas, moms and dads, moms and moms, and dads and dads, toddlers and babies all strolled in the same direction, in no hurry to run another over or get in someone’s way. Friends greeted friends, said, “How do you?” Strangers met over a common cause and exchanged phone numbers.

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Actually, rather than protest, it was more a solidarity march for pro-thinkers. It wasn’t really political. Yes, women’s rights were the focus that brought us all out. But it was more than that. Groups of strangers united on the streets of our country to proclaim democracy and equality as the corner posts of our ideology. As the president said in his inaugural address: “It’s time to remember that old wisdom our soldiers will never forget, that whether we are black or brown or white, we all bleed the same red blood of patriots.”

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Walking with friends, new and old, I felt empowered and healed. People of good will surrounded me. People who want to help the common cause. People who want to do something for the greater good. And I knew this was happening from the north to the south, the east to the west.

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I’d thought I’d lost my sense of who Americans are. But, united with folks from the far corners of the states, I found my kinspeople again.

 

 

 

 

New Year, Not so New Resolutions

This is my new year’s resolution blog. You might think it’s too late for it but it’s only January 15. 2017 is just two weeks old. Still a baby!

Anyway, one of my resolutions is to stop rushing around like a chicken with my head cut off. (You might think this is a cliché but my husband actually got to see the phenomenon. In the old days of his Ancestors.com, a newly built home was blessed by cutting the head off a chicken. The vision of the chicken running around their yard featured in my husband’s nightmares for years.)

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As for my resolutions:

I have resolved to stop multi-tasking and to slow down. We had dinner with friends last night and she asked me what I’ve doing. “Since we’re in Hawaii, are you sitting around and relaxing?” she added.

I shook my head. “You know me. That just doesn’t happen. But, I’m trying. As soon as I get caught up with everything, I’m going to put relaxing into my day. It’s one of my new year’s resolutions.” It’s that I so rarely get caught up. Then something happens, either good or bad, and I’m behind again. I didn’t think I’d have this problem in my 70’s. Still.

I find that every year I resolve pretty much the same thing. Writing that, it reminded me that two years ago I printed out my 2015 resolutions and taped them to my computer. I was supposed to look at them every day but then I forgot they were there until just now. Oh well, one of my resolutions this year is to give up trying to do everything right. That leads to perfectionism, which means you’re polishing things at midnight, be it silver or words. It also means there’s constant judgment being aimed at my endeavors. Mother has been dead twenty years but she still is holding up the signs and there’s never been a 10. So time to get over it!

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Now, I’m looking at my list on the computer, and I like it. I haven’t accomplished any of the items, but they still seem like worthy goals. They aren’t global but more about me taking care of me. As a Grandiose Co-Dependent, I’m good at taking care of others, especially in the way I see fit. Taking care of me can go sideways.

No more procrastinating: here goes:

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  1. Be happy with myself at my age.
  2. Stretch after my walk.
  3. Eat Healthy.
  4. Do one thing at a time. Finish it.
  5. Think the thought that makes me feel good. Work on reducing anxiety.
  1. Write a blog every two weeks. Write every day.

 

All of this should keep me busy. I told myself just the other day, “You better learn to be happy with your age, or you’re going to be constantly depressed. Stop looking at your arm and wanting it to be firmly muscled. Ain’t happening. Be happy if it is has a muscle at all.”

Which reminds me—this getting older is not so much fun sometimes. Keeping healthy is more than a full time job. Cancer knocks on your door and comes in uninvited. Strokes and heart attacks and dementia are only a Plavix away. Friends and relatives are getting really sick or dying. I finally get it when people say, “This is not a dress rehearsal.”

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So, I guess my main resolution is that I’m going to do less and enjoy it more. (Okay, friends and relatives, stop snorting.)

 

 

 

 

United We Stand

I volunteered again this weekend. It’s what I can do. I can’t watch the talking heads anymore. I think it’s these hired guns who are dividing us. Who are they? They’re just giving us their opinions–I rather listen to yours. These people are paid to cause controversy so the networks’ ratings go up. A lot of what they say is drivel. A lot of what they say is completely on party lines and they don’t deviate. Most of it is negative. Some journalists don’t hesitate to promote their own career along with their political agenda. Why is there so little talk of policy and plans for the future? Why is there no discussion of what America stands for?

I rather spend my time with people who want to work together to create solutions.

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I volunteered again this weekend so I could be with people who care about the country. They care enough that they’re giving up their time to talk to strangers about the election. That’s no easy task. I listened in sometimes and I was struck by the sincerity I heard. It was Americans reaching out to other Americans. Don’t tell me people don’t care.

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People came early to work on more than one shift. That morning by 11:00, thirty people came to the door to volunteer. As the day went on, the numbers kept increasing. The ages ranged from 16 to 90.

“I wish I could vote,” the sixteen-year-old said. “But at least I can make calls.”

Harold, the ninety-year-old was one of the walk-ins.

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“I’ve got to do my part,” he said. And he got right to work.

The mood was somber. We felt the weight of our responsibility. We believe in our candidate. We feel Hillary Clinton will make an excellent President. We’re concerned that Donald Trump is not prepared.

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“I had to come,” one man said. “There are so many lies out there, I’ve got to do something or I’d feel guilty.”2016-11-05-10-19-21

 

I happened to be in a Democratic group but I bet there was a Republican group with the same kind of people. People of good will. People who care about our country and are willing to work for the common good. We’re not flashy nor dramatic. You don’t see us because we aren’t the kind to create headlines. We’re just ordinary normal Americans.

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Fer Klempt, For Good

There are sometimes my heart is so full that I get choked with emotion. Last Friday we walked to Mercerdale Park on Mercer Island, a suburb of Seattle, to watch the high school homecoming parade. Really we went to watch the high school band. Really we went to watch our grandson play the trumpet in the band.

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A combination of things came together to overfill my heart. First and foremost was seeing our grandson, 16, standing amongst his band mates. I felt so much love and pride mixed with awe that the baby I’d held (not so long ago, was it?) was now this accomplished young man. I was completely fer klempt.

The sound of the band and the nip in the air stirred something in me too. I had a subliminal instant flashback to the days of Garfield High and the UDub—going to the games with my friends and with my dad. In this troubled world, it was comforting to see untainted exuberance. There was a small town innocence without the feeling of xenophobia that we’ve been witnessing on the news. And I didn’t think too hard about injustice and prejudice for a moment. I just enjoyed.

The next day, the breaking news on television was the rally and  march in Charlotte, North Carolina. It was a peaceful protest against police shooting black men like Keith Scott and Terence Crutcher. Hundreds of Charlotte residents turned out—blacks, whites, Asians, Hispanics, gay, straight and in between. Parents pushed their kids in strollers, teenage kids with drums beat out a cadence—much like what had happened the afternoon before on Mercer Island.

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It was the white people wearing Black Lives Matter t-shirts that got me fer klempt the second time in two days. They get it, I thought as I choked back tears. They understand where the focus has to be—not right now on all lives mattering, but on the lives that haven’t been mattering.

America is a complex country with systemic problems. It’s no fairy tale and a lot of times there are no happy endings. It’s better to acknowledge that, instead of covering it up. Otherwise, we’re just ostriches and the status quo will rule. Call me sentimental, but I’d like to see Americans working together with mutual respect to solve our problems. In this country, we have the potential to do just that. I wouldn’t live anywhere else.

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Leaving Yad Va Shem

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Though in the background the shadow people linger,
six million and more of them,
Here we stand, three generations:
the present moving toward the future.

Evil did not triumph.
The Third Reich turned to dust.
Their empire in ashes,
As were their victims.

Goodness prevailed
Though the cost was beyond measure.
Who can comprehend the savage brutality?

Who can deny that it happened?
What is in a hand?
What is in a name?
The fingerprint of humanity.
The identity of a soul.

A Fine Line

My essay, A Fine Line, is published at http://rkvryquarterly.com/

 

“A Fine Line” by Cyndy Muscatel

If only I hadn’t decided to go out on deck that night.

Anchored in the middle of the Galapagos chain of islands, our boat floated on the Equatorial Line with the ease of a high-wire aerialist. The lure of the night sky called, and I slipped out of our cabin to stand by the rail. How could I not go out and see the Southern Cross high above me to my right—the Big Dipper and the North Star to my left? I was smack-dab on the middle of the earth.

Who could have guessed that one of the mosquitoes using me as target practice that night was illiterate? We were in a “No Malaria Zone,” dammit. I’d checked twice with the CDC before we left for South America. My luck—Ms. Quito Mosquito, an Anopheles by genus name, was an empty-headed beauty queen who didn’t care about the pronouncements of the World Health Organization. She was an indiscriminate vampire who’d gotten mixed up with some malaria folk. Filled with their plasmodium, she paid it forward, thrusting the microscopic parasites into my bloodstream. I really don’t blame her. She was a fact of Global Warming. I became one of its victims.

I almost died. That sounds so melodramatic I feel embarrassed to write it, but it’s true.

“Her fever is still spiking at 105. Now her kidneys are shutting down,” the doctor said to my husband. They stood on either side of my hospital bed talking as if I weren’t there. I was—I just didn’t have the energy to open my eyes. I was so weak by that point my body couldn’t even gain purchase on the bed. The nurse’s aide would pull me to the top, but I’d slip to the bottom within an hour.

“Well, what do we do?” my husband asked.

“I don’t know,” the doctor said. “But I’m thinking she has only twenty-four hours left to live.”

“What are you talking about? For Christ’s sake, she’s strong and healthy. She just did the Inca Trail two weeks ago. You better figure out something.” The aggressiveness in my husband’s tone was comforting. Although he knew nothing about taking care of someone who was ill, his Type A personality got things done.

They moved out of the room, but I could hear the murmur of their voices from the corridor. I tried calling out, “What are you talking about?” but my feeble attempt went unheard. What was the doctor saying out of earshot? I wondered. Could it be any worse than what he’d just said?

We’d been having problems with the doctor from the beginning of my illness five days before. My first symptom had been an aching in my legs, which spread to all my joints. That morning I was supposed to pick out granite for our house remodel. I told my husband I felt achy and exhausted—we both attributed it to our arduous trip in Peru and Ecuador. I drove myself to the warehouse, but by the time I got there I felt I couldn’t keep my head up. I managed to choose the granite and through force of will to make it home and to my bed. From then on, the world became murky.

I do remember calling my daughter in Los Angeles and telling her how sick I felt. She started keeping close tabs on my symptoms and began plugging them into the computer. On the second day, she called the doctor to tell him she’d been checking online and she thought I had malaria.

He freaked out. “Don’t you ever call me again with this kind of crap,” he told her. “I am the doctor—I make the diagnosis.”

Even though we’d just returned from a third-world country, he refused to consider the possibility that I had an infectious disease picked up on my travels. He was obdurate until he got scared that I would die. In desperation, he relented. Fortunately for me, it wasn’t too late, and fortunately the infectious disease specialist was from Pakistan. He’d seen malaria many times and put me on the malaria antibiotic doxycycline. Within eight hours I was able to sit up and dangle my feet over the side of the bed.

The next morning, the aide who had wiped my face and arms with such care for four days while I shook with fever was able to guide me into the bathroom. It was the sixth day since I had fallen ill.

“Oh my God. My face is so yellow,” I said when I looked into the mirror.

“Not as yellow as it has been. It’s much better,” the aide said.

I looked again and thought the color appalling. Then I saw how thin I was—beyond gaunt. I hadn’t eaten anything since the aching began. When they weighed me, I had lost fourteen pounds. I also lost my appetite. It took days until I learned to eat again. When they brought me a tray of food, a slab of something covered in gravy, I was so nauseous that I almost passed out. Finally I was able to nibble on soda crackers and sip some ginger ale.

For much of the acute stage of my illness, I was in Hallucination Land. Once I was hospitalized, I saw myself in the Chicago train station every afternoon at 4:00 p.m., waiting in line to buy a ticket to Syracuse. It was always my turn next. On the Sunday the neurologist administered the spinal tap, I hallucinated up a soothing mid-century décor for the procedure. The room was low-lit with futons in aqua and coral. That night I was forbidden to move for eight hours, but the bone-aching pain made me toss and turn. A handy-dandy hallucination had me imagining I was cradled in the arms of four strong women, although in reality it was my husband holding me tight.

I had other mental experiences that were not exactly of the “real world.” I saw a faraway light with a door sliding shut on it. I knew if I didn’t keep the door open, it would be the end for me. One afternoon I was overwhelmed with the effort. “I’m too tired,” I said in my head. “I’m going to let it go.”

But my father came to stop me. I think he was dressed in one of his satin smoking jackets. He’d been dead for two years. “Daughter, we don’t give up in this family,” he said.

“Okay, Dad. I’ll keep trying then.” Knowing he was close by, the task no longer seemed as difficult. Dad was as real to me as the nurse who came in to take my temperature. Maybe more real.

Then there were the children only I could see reflected in the blank television monitor. Dressed in white, they stood around my bed, which was now in a lush garden. I leaned forward and a cherubic baby popped up from behind my pillow.

“Maybe they were angels sent to guide you to heaven,” my friend Else said when I told her later.

I shook my head. “No, that wasn’t it. They were taking care of me. I am safe with them by my side.” It was as clear a statement as my slurred speech allowed.

The slurred speech thing got me into trouble. In my head, I heard myself talking normally. I had no idea that the thirteen words came out as four aloud, and garbled at that. My husband thought I’d had a stroke. My son and daughter, both hundreds of miles away, were frantic. Friends who came to visit me in the hospital told me later they cried at the elevator when they left. They all thought they had lost me. I, of course, was in oblivion.

Going back to the general topic of malaria for a moment, the parasite burrows into the liver. I know this because malaria has become a hot topic, and it was the cover story in National Geographic. That’s why I was jaundiced. But I can tell you from experience that those little buggers hit each body organ hard. Talk about the domino effect. As they circulated, the newest system they entered went wonky. I had MRIs, CAT scans, PET scans, a colonoscopy…you name it. But I felt it was my head, inside and out, which took the brunt of the barrage. I lost everything from memory to handfuls of hair. Parts of my memory, short and long term, were wiped clean. Even today it’s hard to figure out if I’m having a senior or a malaria moment. One strange aside is that my ability with numbers increased. I am better at math and can memorize numbers that I never could before. As for my hair, it seems to have highlighted memory. Lots of it still falls out every year in May—in memory, I guess, of my case of malaria.

Joking aside, the language issue was tough on me. If I am vain about anything, it is my facility with language. Words have always come trippingly to my tongue, but for months I had aphasia—I might have said fork when I meant foot. Some words were simply gone. Like Ottawa. I was reading Middlesex and I had no idea if Ottawa was a place, a car, or some kind of food. Not knowing made me feel as if I were surreal. I couldn’t write for a year—couldn’t put the proper mix of words together. It was so frustrating, I abandoned the effort. This from a person who thought the essential items to bring to the hospital besides clean underwear and lipstick were a pen and notebook. I wrote every day while I was there. I kept the notebook—none of the handwriting looks like mine.

When I went home from the hospital, I was still very sick. My recovery was no faster than the pace of the tortoises we’d watched in the Galapagos. I had a fever and a cough for months. I woke up sweating and parched every night. I could not get my energy back. I also used to have the shakes all day long. Those tapered off, but even now, six years later, if I get overtired, I’ll wake up in the middle of the night, shaking. And I could not get my energy back. I didn’t have that buffer between feeling tired and complete depletion. It’s only in the last year that I don’t have to nap each day.

As I reread what I have written, I am struck by how close I was to dying. I wonder when it is finally my time if Dad will be there again, this time to welcome me in. In? In to where? Heaven? But I don’t believe in Heaven, do I? Or life after death, for that matter. I believe that when we die our individual spark leaves our earthly bodies and soars back into the teeming, churning mass of the collective energetic field of the universe. But what if I am wrong? What if on that May afternoon when I looked into the television that wasn’t turned on and I saw a lush garden—what if I were seeing heaven?

When you almost die, it does change you forever. As my body started to shut down, I didn’t think about the novels I never got published or whether I’d been a good mother and grandmother. I accepted I was dying and I had few regrets. Except I remember distinctly asking myself, But what about the fun I was going to have? Where did the time for enjoyment go? It will be a shame to miss out on that.

I have never forgotten that. I have a worker-bee mentality, but I am getting better at plain enjoying life. I also lost my ambition. I had a novel half finished and completely outlined. I think it was good—I liked the characters and the plot was strong. At first I wasn’t strong enough to go back and finish it. By the time I got my concentration and language back, I’d lost interest. I eventually returned to magazine writing, doing feature interviews with entertainers, authors, politicians, and professional athletes. But when my editor quit, I left with her. I wasn’t willing to put up with the unsteady ego of a new broom. And I don’t miss it. I love the freedom to be able to travel whenever we want. I love the freedom to be able to write an essay, a blog, a poem, or a short story without feeling I have to have it published to prove myself. I want to experience life not to only write about it. I no longer think I have an endless stream of days, so each one is more precious than before.

If I could, would I change that moment and not go out on the deck? Part of me says yes—I have certain health problems that I know were brought on by the trauma of the disease and the fever, and I’d certainly like my full head of hair back! But the experience is part of the fabric of my life. I have learned so much from it. Besides, I got to balance for a while on the greatest equatorial line. I got a peek into eternity.