In my mid-thirties I once got cruelly nauseous in the middle of the night. Kidney stones, it turned out, no bigger than bee stingers. This was a Sunday during the summer. I remember it was a summer Sunday because I was in a men’s summer baseball league that played its games only on Sundays, which is of course the Lord’s day. I had spent the day sucking the salt from sunflower seeds instead of seeking the face of God. Seeing as how I neglected church that Sunday to play baseball, it was no wonder God stricketh me with kidney stones after I chose to turn my back on Him. That’s how it seemed to me at the time, anyway: you play, you pay.
At first I was just sweating in our upstairs bedroom. That’s how it started off, with the sweating. This was in Fresno, California, where if you don’t sweat in the summer you will likely catch fire. Just recently, on a very hot day in Fresno, I saw a squirrel almost completely devoid of fur, right down to its rat-like tail. A friend of mine named Ron said its problem was mange, but I speculated that the squirrel lost its fur to spontaneous ignition. That’s because squirrels only sweat through their tiny feet, and at some point on very hot days, without the ability to thermoregulate and with fur like corn straw, they run the risk of igniting. Just, poof! Turns out, this is not true, but I wish it were, since I do not like squirrels and feel there must be some quick, chemical-free way to eliminate them. Spontaneous ignition would certainly do the trick. I have made my petition known to God, but given my historical recalcitrance and the current unpleasant state of His Grand Creation, I am sure He has bigger squirrels to fry.
My night sweats turned into something much more insidious in an area of my body the ER doctor later called “the hypogastric region,” which if you’re wondering is the spot right below the belly button, about the size of a baseball. There were sharp, traveling pains in this area, and the first thing I assumed was that my appendix had burst. Either that, or a screeching humanoid was about to emerge from within me, bringing my goopy intestines along with it, something I had at that point already seen twice in the delivery room on the day Karen birthed our twins. As a result, I kept my discomfort to myself, knowing I needed to set a good example for my wife, who would have no sympathy for her husband’s little tummy ache.
To her credit, Karen has never lorded her pregnancies over me. She has never said, “Oh, you broke both ankles when you fell off the roof? Try being pregnant!” We have never competed over who, historically, has been more miserable with illness or injury. (Were we to do so, I would win, hands-down, since my near fatal motorcycle accident trumps her ice-skating knee and the time she got hit in the face with a bumblebee while driving with her window down.) Instead, we lie in bed and audibly suffer the imminence of our dying while proclaiming our love for one another. Once, when we were on a vacation in Lake Tahoe, we were sick at the same time with the stomach flu. It was brief but dreadful, one of those illnesses that hollows out your insides and takes from you the will to live. It started with a flutter in our stomachs, like we’d each swallowed a fruit bat. Thirty minutes later we were in bed with fevers and chills saying our last goodbyes.
“I’m going to die,” I said.
“I’m going to die before you die,” Karen said.
“Let’s hold hands and die together,” I said.
“Like The Notebook,” Karen said.
What we couldn’t muddle through was which one of us would have the strength to get up and boil the water for macaroni and cheese, so we left that chore to our five-year-old daughters, figuring that we were going to die anyway and they would at least be able to escape with our infant son as soon as the condo we’d rented for the week started burning like a bottle rocket or a squirrel, spontaneously ignited.
As much as I wanted to be a good example, there came a point–about two a.m.–when I could keep my misery to myself no longer. I grew urgently queasy and ran to the bathroom with one hand cupped over my mouth. I braced myself over the toilet and hurled burning stomach acid into the bowl, some of which shot through my nose. This is as unpleasant as it sounds; it was like I’d stuck a lit match in each nostril. Worse than the burning though was the retching. I felt like that guy in every movie fight scene who, while on all fours, gets repeatedly kicked in the ribcage: “I told you! Harumph. I’m … working … alone!” I vomited until I was empty, then continued dry-heaving to near unconsciousness, having lost all oxygen flow to my head, woozy with certainty that I would be dead within the hour. Once I stopped dry-heaving, I curled into a ball on the cool tile floor. My nose was dripping. Things were really touch-and-go. It hurt to breathe. It hurt to blink.
“I’m going to die,” I moaned.
Karen woke up, sat on the edge of the bed, and rubbed her eyes.
“What’s wrong with you?” she asked.
“It’s my stomach,” I said. “I’m going to die.” I should mention as well that I was grunting like a weightlifter and my face hurt from grinding my teeth to dust. The pains were growing more frequent and intense, icepick stabs here and there, there and here. I felt like a voodoo doll must feel, if a voodoo doll could feel.
Karen yawned and stretched. “You are not going to die,” she said. She said this with a practiced nonchalance. This wasn’t something she seemed too concerned over, but this was my life we were talking about. I felt the need to say something childish in return.
“Oh yeah?” I moaned. “I’ll be dead by morning.” For emphasis, I screwed my face into an expression of agony.
It was a desperate and empty remark, one made in spite. Karen was right. I was not going to die. But God was reckoning with me, that was utterly clear. A violent, middle-of-the-night illness was a fitting reward for having played hooky from church that Sunday. This was my inevitable comeuppance, not just for skipping church but for every selfish, impertinent thing I’d ever done, for every dirty deed. That’s the way I’ve always thought of any illness when I’m in the midst of it: as divine retribution for shallow, ignoble behavior. As punishment for failing to be wondrous enough. As just desserts for writing essays built on digression. If this is wrongheaded of me, so be it. When I’m sick, I don’t think clearly. I can only see as far as the drippy nose on my face.
Karen came into the bathroom and knelt next to me. She moved a sweaty lock of hair off my forehead and replaced it with her flat hand. There was a sort of tender melancholy about her, which quickly turned to stress. “Oh my god,” she said. “You’re burning up.” I thought she was going to strip me naked and order me into an ice bath.
“See, I told you,” I said.
“Do you think it was something you ate?” she said. This is always the first thing Karen asks when I am in the throes of any stomach problem, mild or violent. That’s because I have been known to eat expired food that I am too cheap to throw away. I don’t believe in expiration dates, only in mold spores. That night, Karen was hoping that I had, in fact, eaten something raunchy that might help make sense of all of this. Fuzzy cheese, for example. If I could confirm that I had eaten fuzzy cheese in the last twenty-four hours, then that would explain away the problem and assure Karen that we were not in a mutually shared viral situation and that, in fact, I was simply stupid. I mean, you’d have to be an idiot to eat fuzzy cheese, right? I moaned some more, then I told Karen that I had not eaten anything fuzzy, at least not that I could remember. I said, “I ate everything you ate,” and she said, “Oh crap.” Karen removed her hand from my forehead and stood up. I could see her biting her lip; I could see questions moving behind her eyes.
“What are you doing?” I moaned.
“Shhh, I’m thinking,” she said.
“Is this really a good time for that?”
“Hush,” she said.
She walked into the bedroom, picked up the phone, and left me alone on the floor. A muffled conversation with her father ensued. Meanwhile, I stared at her white bathrobe hanging from a hook on the door. I clenched and recoiled. I moaned some more and wondered, out of nowhere, why we’d decided to paint the bathroom walls red. Then I cramped up and started howling. Karen covered the mouthpiece of the phone and shushed me again, telling me to keep quiet so as not wake the neighbors.
It was a twenty-minute drive from our house to the community hospital. Karen sped along vacant streets at two-thirty in the morning as I hung my head out the window, pretty much dry-heaving the whole time. It was not lost on me that the last time I was in this position–head hung out the passenger window, dry-heaving–I had done something much more fun to deserve it. This new situation seemed unfair, somehow. It was only the hour before that I was in bed on a hot night, minding my own business. Now, I was staring at asphalt whizzing by beneath me, howling at Karen to run the red lights, which she felt compelled to stop for, because she is–in all of her goodness–also a scrupulous rule follower. Red means stop, green means go. She could not, even with her husband minutes from death in the wee dark hours of a deserted city, bring herself to run a red light. “Lord, Jesus, GO!” I screamed. “I’m dying here!”
“It’s red!” she screamed back. “And you are NOT DYING!” She banged on the steering wheel for effect. Then she turned up the radio to drown me out. It was probably Christian radio, which is all we listened to at the time, so there was likely some song playing about God’s unfailing love or being in the eye of a storm or finding purpose in pain, I don’t know. Despite Karen’s better judgment, she wound up flooring it through the red light, not stopping again until we got to the hospital, which from the outside looked cold and empty. This was a great relief to me, since it meant, I was sure, that I would be seen right away. Karen dumped me without ceremony onto the sidewalk and parked the car as I blundered into the waiting room. There, a receptionist, bony-faced and vigilant, sat behind a stack of clipboards.
Of course, I told her I was dying.
All she wanted was my insurance card and photo ID, which Karen had in her purse. But rather than wait in a chair as instructed, and with an absolute lack of self-consciousness, I dropped to the grimy, viral floor and squirmed like a child having a conniption fit. My immediate goal was to get the receptionist to change her mind and rush me to a bed with a morphine lampshade I could settle under. I had no time for insurance cards; I could be dead by the time my photo ID arrived.
“Oh, come on,” I whined. “There’s nobody in here!”
“Sir, I’ll need you to get off the floor,” she said. She was as austere as a statue. A security guard took a step toward me, which is when Karen came running through the pneumatic doors.
“Oh my god,” she said. I looked up to her for support, but she growled and nudged me in the ribcage with her toe. “Get up,” she said. “Now.” She said this through pursed lips. I got to my knees, one arm on the floor, the other wrapped around my guts–which I was sure were going to spill from me any moment–and crawled to a plastic chair to wait in profound public agony.
“But honey,” I pleaded.
“I don’t want to hear it,” she said.
In recent years, I have tried to emulate Karen’s somber approach to illness. I’ve always admired this about my wife, this ability of hers to suffer without imposition or noise. After her hernia surgery recently, you wouldn’t have even known she was in the house! She sat quietly on the sofa sipping ginger ale and watching a Below Deck marathon on Bravo. She had this pump attached to her body, which administered painkillers at measured intervals. That sounds like a little bit of heaven, if you ask me. We should all have a pump that administers drugs at measured intervals. But only happy drugs. Not the ones that mess you up and make you see dragons, unless dragons make you happy.
I waited on Karen dutifully, of course, and she rested silently through the whole recovery, not even a whimper. This comes, I believe, from her having been a middle child. She has always said that middle children are the sensible ones who seek peace, read books, and avoid attention. This is true for my wife. It is not in her DNA to be the center of the universe. There is no part of her that seeks to be the top dog.
As a result, ever since my Battle with The Stones, I have started working to become less annoying when sick or injured. I have stopped moaning, for example, except for the time I cracked my ribs after I tripped and landed on an exposed tree root. I moaned then, for six to eight weeks. But once, a few years ago, I sneezed and pulled a muscle in my lower back and Karen didn’t even know about it! It was several days later that I confessed to the horrific pain I was in. “Aren’t you proud of me?” I said. “I didn’t moan, not even once!”
Karen said, “I’m your wife. You can tell me when you’re hurt or sick.”
She seemed disappointed that I did not share my pain with her, as though my not sharing were a form of lying, as though not sharing a strained back muscle were on par with not sharing another, much worse, infidelity, like how–in my current weight gain journey–my fingers have gotten so plump that I will sometimes take off my wedding ring just to let the crimped, sweaty skin beneath my knuckle breathe for a few minutes. Karen believes, in other words, that if I will not share with her when I am sick or hurt, what else will I not share with her? So now, fully transparent, I share all of my pain with Karen; I just try not to moan about it.
The idea of sharing pain got me thinking about my mother, who was a virtuoso in this regard. She was like the Three Tenors of pain sharing. It was from her that I learned the craft of broadcasting my misery, like needlepoint or wizardry or roasting the perfect turkey. My mother, God bless her, was not one to suffer in silence. Instead, she was gravely forthright in her sharing, not to mention calculated in her timing.
She had this crooked toe, for instance, which she broke in the eighties when she tripped on a parking block. It was her second toe on her right foot, next to the big toe, a toe you could get along without if you had to. She never went to the doctor about the toe. Instead, she just moaned and limped around on it until it healed at a right angle, crossing over her middle toe. There were times it caused her a fair bit of pain, but because she didn’t walk too much later in her life, this crooked toe wasn’t that big a deal until she needed it to be, usually on a day Karen and I were taking the kids to the beach. We would be loading up the minivan with our boogie boards and straw hats and my phone would ring. “I know this is not what you want to hear right now,” my mother would say. “But I have to get this toe taken off. It’s killing me.” She wanted it off so badly once that she asked if I’d come do the dirty work with a little bypass pruner. I’m not making this up. My mother was that desperate to have her crooked toe removed. “Mom,” I said. “It is not like popping a blister. There has to be a doctor involved.” But she insisted. “Maybe on your way to the beach? Just swing by and snip-snip and off you go!” It was a dead toe, she said, no different than a bunion or a big wart. She said she would not feel a thing. I said she would. I said I could not imagine anything more painful and despicable than a son cutting off his mother’s toe. But to get her off my back, I said I would do it another time, you know, since we were literally minutes away from leaving and the kids were anxious, at which point my mother choked up and said, “I’m sorry. Don’t let my toe ruin your trip to the beach.” And then, for good measure: “I wish I could go to the beach.”
My mother is gone now, and I am getting older, faster. I think a lot about how I want to age quietly, about how I want to be like Karen and take a no-muss, no-fuss approach to my growing catalog of aches and pains: the biopsies and bone density scans, the decreasing elasticity in the brain and bladder, the thinning skin and slowing metabolism. We are middle-age, after all, too young to be too old. But I think about it, nonetheless. We still have a lifetime to do things, Karen says. We better grow old together, she says, just like The Notebook. You better be around to do fun stuff with me.
I will. God willing, I will. But I know that before I do anything, or go anywhere, for fun–before any vacation or beach day or round of recreational tennis at the local high school–the little pre-fun party pooper in me will think of my mother’s crooked toe. There will be a glimpse, is all, then it will vanish, and I will get on with the fun stuff. I will stow my carry-on in the overhead compartment and settle into my window seat; I will buckle in and take Karen’s hand in mine; we will gaze lovingly into one another’s eyes and say, Aloha or Bon Jour! Then a flight attendant with an exotic accent will tap me on the shoulder and say, “Mr. Radke, I know this is not what you want to hear right now.” And then, after takeoff, I will order a round of gin and tonics for Karen and me. We will bring our plastic cocktail cups together in salute to the time ahead of us, then I will drink and look out my window, from Heaven to the ground, hoping against hope–but knowing better–that I will see an answer to an absurd but ardent prayer: God’s glory in a million tiny fires.