Excerpt from Tally: An Intuitive Life, All Things That Matter Press, 2013
A month of deep winter, near zero weather, and PJ in his cold Village garret was sick. I brought him a foot warmer. The nurse heaped blankets on his bed and set up a space heater.
“What are you doing here?” PJ looked up from his bed. “It’s four degrees outside.”
One evening I became ill, and by morning was struggling to breathe, painfully, as the congestion deepened into my lungs. For three days, I was in bed, getting up to change sweat-soaked clothes and to attempt to eat. By the third day, I was hallucinating. I seemed to be two people, one sick and the other well: the sick body and the rebellious mind?
I had a muddled sense of this and the split was not exactly clear, but one part of me was holding a conversation with another part. I dreamed of fire, then of a building on fire. I was on the top floor with my brother. My paternal grandparents, both actually now dead, were on the sidewalk below waiting for me. I had promised to go to the zoo with them, but first asked them to wait a minute because I had to go to the store, vaguely like Jake’s bookstore, and take something upstairs. So I did and when I was up there, I heard fire engines and people shouting. My brother and I looked out to see people pointing up at us and smoke pouring from one of the floors below.
I went to the door and started to step out, but the stairs had been burnt away, all the way down. Someone on a floor below opened their door and I shouted to them not to go out, the stairs were gone. No one came out and I began to devise schemes for our escape, when the phone rang.
I picked it up and someone said, “Hi, it’s me.”
“Who is this?” I asked.
“I’m the one who never calls anybody.”
“Jake. It’s me, Jake,” said Jake.
“Oh my God,” he said, “I can’t believe this. Jake who. My store just burned down and I call my best friend for sympathy and she doesn’t know me.”
Jake told me that there had been a fire on the second floor of the building his store is in. It started in the apartment above his store and there had been some smoke and water damage, ruining most of his books.
I passed away from life again into a delirious state, becoming more dissociated from myself. I thought I was three people, each one belonging to a different part of my face. One part belonged to one nostril and one to the other nostril and another to my mouth. Only the mouth was working. I kept asking, why have they abandoned me? Why don’t they work?
I felt myself floating down a river, and this went on for a long time, inexorably to its end, which I became slowly and in some pinpoint sense keenly aware of, but still I let myself go with the gentle but insistent flow. At last I felt myself buoying up, resisting the flow, and coming to a greater awareness.
Rising, I recovered enough to go to the hospital and be given medicine my mother later told me was used to treat Legionnaire’s disease.
Jake and I shared a laugh about my delirium when I was sick. “I knew you, but not exactly,” I said. “One part of me was telling me who you were and would have been able to talk to you, but I was almost unconscious. Everything was jumbled up. I also thought you were my Uncle Jake calling to tell me my parents’ plane had crashed.”
“They were fine.”
“But my store did burn down.”
Together we moved through the water-soaked remains of his books and magazines. “I’ll get it going again,” Jake said.
During my illness, I experienced the hysteria and helplessness that PJ must live through daily. It was more than physical suffering and damage to the body. I realized that the mental aberrations and changes in consciousness caused by physical illness could become permanent. That would explain PJ’s “disintegration” and intensified “multiphrenia” and paranoia.
“You cannot experience my descriptions of my sickness with immunity,” PJ said. “You fell sick in a paroxysm of empathy.”
I had fallen beneath the weight of his narrative of despair, pain and helplessness. After this, I knew I could not witness his constant talk of pain and illness. I resolved to distance myself more from PJ. Suddenly, I wanted to find a way to be independent of everyone.