February 25th, 2012 - Kathy Fish


It’s a bright, Colorado winter’s day. The Ponderosa pine trees that line my back fence are half the size they are now, their branches mittened with snow. I am at my desk, a blanket over my lap, going over edits on my second book, a collection of stories I no longer feel connected to. It’s as if they were written by someone else and in a sense, they were. The chronic, debilitating pain I’m experiencing will last nearly two years and no one outside my doctor and my immediate family will know about it. I am certain this will be the last book I publish.



~~~



My teenaged daughter asks if I feel well enough to take her shopping. I’m shocked by the question. Is this how she sees me? A mother too fragile to take her to the mall? Of course, I tell her, determined not to let her down. It hurts to put my shoes on. In every store, I claim the chair outside the dressing room like an old person or a husband.



~~~


The pain is constant, yet flickering. It travels through my body the way Christmas tree lights twinkle on and off. First my hands, then my elbows, a knee. Pain stabs my left temple, then it’s my shoulder, my toes. My doctor is nodding, writing HYPOCHONDRIAC in my chart. What a terrible description, I tell her. Haha! Some writer, I say, trying to appear sprightly and self-deprecating and not crazy.



~~~


I dream we’ve moved into a filthy, dilapidated house. The rooms are tiny and filled with old clothes. The floors slope. A lightning-shaped crack zig zags across the ceiling. Outsized rodents roam the halls. There’s no going back. This is a done deal. I’m already resigned to living here for the rest of my days.


~~~


I can fake it when I need to and I need to a lot. Fun things, events, outings are a distraction I can temporarily enjoy. We take a family trip to Spain, but I grow more exhausted each day. I’m wearing the same long sweater in every photo, the sleeves pulled down over my hands. I fall behind as we climb a cobblestone hill and my son runs back and takes my arm. I am a hundred years old. One night we go to a flamenco show in a cave bar in Granada. The singer’s voice wails, keens, like nothing I’d heard before. There I am in the front row, sobbing, as some grief I don’t understand and cannot name erupts inside me. It embarrasses the hell out of my kids.


~~~


I cry often and without warning. My doctor orders a a nerve conduction study. I’m told the electricity delivered through the electrodes to my nerves will only cause mild tingling, but for me, it’s excruciatingly painful. The neurologist says he’s never made anyone cry before and I apologize. All my life I’ve tried to be a good patient and good patients don’t complain and they don’t cry. The test comes back normal, like all the other ones. I feel embarrassed, guilty. There are people who are truly sick in the world. I’m wasting everyone’s time.



~~~


Jung believed that in dreams a house symbolizes the self and that the unconscious is always seeking outward manifestation. A broken down house is a sign of something broken within. My dream was a warning.



~~~



Finally, I take matters into my own hands. I begin meditating, become scrupulous about my diet, unfurl my dusty yoga mat. Gradually, I start to feel better. I no longer wake up stiff and sore. Gradually, I start to write again. I go for longer and longer stretches of clear headedness. Actual ideas form in my brain. The creative impulse returns. I come back to myself.



~~~


I wish I’d had a crystal ball then and could see my life as it would be ten years later. I didn’t know, didn’t dare allow myself to believe, that I would go on to write more stories and publish more books. Or that I would discover a passion for teaching and it would bring me so much joy. Whatever “it” was, I came out of it. I know not everyone does. If I gained anything from my two years of struggling with an invisible enemy, it’s empathy for those who live with chronic illness. If that’s you, you have my heart and my compassion. I hope you get answers and relief and brighter days ahead.



 

Kathy Fish’s stories have been widely published in journals, anthologies, and textbooks. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in Ploughshares, Copper Nickel, Best American Nonrequired Reading, Washington Square Review, the Norton Reader, and Norton’s Flash Fiction America (2023). Honors include the Copper Nickel Editor’s Prize and a Ragdale Foundation Fellowship. The author of five short fiction collections, Fish teaches a variety of creative writing workshops online. She also publishes a popular monthly craft newsletter. Subscribe here: The Art of Flash Fiction.





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