The summer after sophomore year in high school, I developed a funny habit: when no one was around, I would try to make a face in the mirror. I’d jut out my jaw to go over my upper teeth but every time I tried it looked wrong.
A few weeks ago my parents had taken me to the doctor’s on a routine checkup.
My dad said something like, “her cold has been lingering a little longer than normal.” My mom said something like, "she’s been tired a little more than normal.” I told her that I was tired because I was sick all the time, and I was sick all the time because of my friend Jacob. Jacob would be patient 0 in the zombie apocalypse, he was sick so often, I said. Still, the doctor wrote it all down.
Then he started asking me some weird questions. He asked if I had been sleeping worse than normal and I had to stop and think about it. He asked me why I was confused. I told him I wasn’t sleeping worse, because by this point worse was normal. He raised an eyebrow and asked, do you think you could feel better than you do now? I had no clue how to answer that either, because wouldn’t feeling better right now require me to stop being me?
“I think she means, ‘yes’”, said my mother.
He took a blood sample to rule out a few diagnoses, but he seemed stumped. He said to wait it out – it was probably just a bad cold – and he’d get back to me if anything came up.
A few days later I told Jacob that I was going to die.
He asked why and I told him that when I was leaving the doctor’s office the doctor had given me this grim look that chilled me to the bone. Which wasn’t entirely true. The doctor’s look had actually been entirely inscrutable. (But that was a little worrying too.)
“Hm!” he said. “You’re not going to die. Not from some cold anyways.”
Jacob and I went way back. We were destined to be best friends since our last names – Morgan and Moore – meant that we always sat next to each other in classes.
“Oh I definitely am.”
“The biggest tragedy of your life is that you’re going to die in the most mundane possible way. You’re going to live until you’re 90, and then you’re going to die peacefully in your sleep, and all that research will have been totally useless.”
I grinned. “Nah, the biggest tragedy would be if became immortal. But that’s a close second.”
But it just wouldn’t go away. We thought it was a cold – I was shivery, my nose was running, I was tired – but a few weeks later we realized that colds don’t linger that long and that idea was tossed out. My mother suggested mono, and she made some vague allusions to me kissing Jacob (as mothers are wont to do), but I told her that ship had sailed years ago. Even if it was mono, I knew that it was like a puzzle piece half-fit. I was lacking the major symptoms. No sore throat, no fever.
The doctor called us back a week or two later to say that maybe it was my blood after all – it wasn’t passing the smoke screens. He’d send it off for a few more tests, and that could take up to a month.
A month. I wasn’t sure I could conceptualize of a month of feeling awful.
I could feel myself changing, day by day, minute by minute changing. I was being dragged down. I was tired – the doctor used the word fatigued – all the time. It felt like I was wearing heavy clothes – moving around was harder. I stopped running consistently; I constantly felt sore.
Thinking through things was starting to get harder too – or was it? The change was so slow that I couldn’t pin it down, I could never fully prove to myself that yesterday I could reason things through that today I couldn’t. There was this fear that it had nothing to do with being sick, and I just wasn’t very smart.
I told Jacob this.
“Why do you think that?”
“The way I think is like I have this stack of blocks right? The first block says ‘the sky is blue.’ The second one says ‘that guy is wearing sunglasses’ and the third one says ‘that guy’s sunglasses are blue’. You stack them all up and you get ‘the sky is probably reflecting off that guy’s sunglasses.’ But you need to have the first three stacked up, and it seems like every time I manage to stack up two or three some guy knocks the first one down while I’m focusing on the last one, and then suddenly I have no clue what’s going on.”
“Why don’t you just tell him to stop.”
“Have you ever heard of the Ship of Theseus?” I asked.
“It seems like bits and pieces of me are changing out from under me, slowly. I look different. I think differently. I feel different. I look at the diary I was keeping and I’m wondering who was the person writing all this stuff?”
“Anything in there about me?”
“No.” Yes. “I’m being serious here.”
“Sorry. I know what you mean though. I look through my old writing and I’m like, ’who’s the idiot who wrote this stuff?’”
I laughed. “The point is, though, that 3-month-younger-me is dead.”
“When you put it that way, everyone is dying.”
“That is so profound Jacob.”
“Thanks, I know,” he boasted. “I’m so insightful.”
I started taking an interest in death when I was 9 or 10 – when I learned how humans could wipe cities off the map with atomic bombs. And in fact how they had done so. I realized I could die at any time. I could stay in my house, but what if someone bombed my house? I could go to the park, but what if someone bombed the park? (At the time, home and park were pretty much the only places I knew of.) Somehow I could totally see some angry Russian with Jessica Morgan as his first target. (It possibly says something about my schooling that I saw Russians as the only possible aggressors, even though the US was the only person to ever use an atomic bomb.) Every overhead plane was probably going to kill me.
I told my dad about this concern, and although to his great credit he was usually very understanding, he admitted that a bomb shelter might be a little out of our price range. So I pretty much accepted my fate.
Later I read that you were more likely to die from a member of your family than a stranger. I wasn’t really able to pin my mother or father as the killing type, though, so I always imagined some shady figure on the street – always in a dark top hat – who would reveal himself to be a long lost uncle right before he offed me. I was unsure how he’d do it, so in my imagination he’d wave his hands vaguely before everything faded to black.
The elementary school librarian was a little put off by my interests. I didn’t really see what the big deal was at the time – Jacob was playing some game where he shot his friends to death like 20 times in a single round, and that didn’t really raise any eyebrows, but a little girl checking out some books on death threw up red flags? Regardless, he called the school nurse/psychologist, who called my parents to a parent-nurse-librarian conference, which went something like this:
“Mr. and Ms. Morgan – are you ah… aware that your daughter has checked out 8 separate books with ‘death’ in the ah… title?”
I was shocked by the distortion of facts. At least three just had ‘death’ in the tagline.
“Not the exact number, no,” said my mother. She was more talkative than my father, who would usually just hover in the background, ensuring that nothing caught fire.
“We just ah… wanted to ensure that nothing was ah… wrong in the family.” I remember even now that the psychologist had this incredibly annoying habit of taking long pauses in the middle of sentences.
“Nothing I am aware of,” my mother said. My dad shot me a questioning look. I shrugged.
The drive back was the first time that my parents tried to pin down exactly why I was so interested in death. But I couldn’t give them a good answer. I was confused by why everyone else wasn’t.
I never totally bought the idea of an afterlife. I always thought that it was just a little too convenient, a little too perfect to actually be true.
Later on I think that part of the reason I rejected it was that it lessened the power of death.
On IM, Jacob was taking the chess thing way too seriously again.
Him: so I know how the most interesting part of chess for you is the part when one piece is obliterated by another piece
Him: but hear me out here.
Me: But it really is.
Me: All these games you have have all these different abstractions for death, and it’s really cool.
Him: you know when you finish a game you can feed your moves into a computer and it’ll do analysis for you?
Him: It’ll say something like 1. f4?
Him: f4 is the move
Him: the question mark means I made a little mistake.
Him: or 5. f4?? which means I really messed up on the 5th move.
Him: if it’s feeling nice it might give out a ! which means ‘good job.’
Him: but I like it because there’s always a right choice, no matter what situation I get into, there’s always a best move I can make
Him: or maybe I made a mistake a while ago and I’m pretty much hosed, but that doesn’t happen so often.
Me: So what if I fed my life into the machine? Would it just say 1. Jessica born??
Him: but after 1… Raised into a loving family 2. Jessica lives normal life!!
Him: (the double exclamation marks are for especially good moves)
I had a week to go until the results of the test came back. The initial cold was gone, but it left behind a mental fog, a barrier that was slowing down my thoughts. I started having to keep to-do lists for even simple tasks, or else I’d forget and start doing something else instead.
The fatigue was growing too, a vague pain that seeped in from all sides. When I stood, an overwhelming weight would push down on me, soft, like hundreds of blankets. There was no physical pain. Just deep exhaustion, pressing in from all sides, coloring the world gray, filing away at emotion.
I told my mom this and she asked if I was depressed.
I thought about it and said no.
Somehow there was still this spark of hope. I couldn’t explain it. But it was there.
Some days were better than others.
“Do I seem more irritated than normal?” One of the symptoms from one of the many diseases I could have had was irritation.
“Does that make any sense? You’re always as irritated as normal.”
“See,” I said. “This is why we’re friends.”
“I told the doctor the same thing the other week ago. I think the way we define normal is different than everyone else.”
“A weird way to pick your friends.”
“And what if I do die?”
“You’re not going to die.”
There was a pause.
“Well the worst part is that you’d never get to hear the Smashing Treetrunk’s latest album. Seriously, it’s a masterpiece.”
“I suddenly forgot why we’re friends.”
“Short term memory loss is a common symptom.”
“You have the worst taste in music.”
“Says the girl who only listens to death metal.”
“I don’t only listen to death metal.” I looked down at my Opeth shirt. “Although I do like it a lot,” I conceded. (I had initially started listening to it as a joke, but it turned out to be really awesome, and it sort of spun out of control from there.)
The doctor called me back into the office to give me the results of my test. I said that sure and hung up, and then a wave of anxiety swept over me. Couldn’t he just tell me I was fine over the phone? Was I not fine? My mom freaked out too, but my dad told me that this was standard procedure.
Later my dad drove me to the office and dropped me off. He looked me over before I left. “Are you alright?” he asked in a low voice.
“Yeah.” No. Aside from feeling like a train had ran me over, I was jittery with anxiety. But I didn’t want to make him anxious too.
I realized later, judging by the lines under his eyes, that I hadn’t given him enough credit.
Inside the waiting room, the walls were this unsettling shade of green that possibly made everyone waiting even more sick.
To my left, a guy with long scraggly hair tapped on his iPhone. The girl to my right didn’t have the foresight of bringing a phone, so she was rapidly clicking a pen. The iPhone of the 90’s.
This was not helping to calm my nerves.
A door opened. “Jessica Morgan?”
“That’s me.” I followed her into a back room.
Inside the office, a woman was sitting behind a desk covered with papers. Light filtered in through a shaded window. For some reason, a giant beach ball sat beside the desk.
“Ah you must be Jessica.” Of course I was Jessica. She was the one who had called me. “How are you today?” She had this mole on her upper lip which I couldn’t take my eye off of.
“Fine.” I wasn’t, actually, fine, but I just wanted to cut through the small talk.
“Good, good, I’m fine too,” she said, answering a question I didn’t ask. “A little tired though. Kids kept me up all night.” She smiled disarmingly.
I didn’t say anything, just nodded. I continued to stare at the mole. I started to wonder if the she had gone her whole life assuming people just naturally started at upper lips.
“Let me just pull up your results then.” Thank God.
I got a feeling that all time had been leading up to this moment right now, that during those past weeks of waiting I had never really lost sight of this goal.
She clicked her mouse… and then she clicked it like ten more times, about once a second.
“Sorry,” she said, looking up at me. “The system locks up sometimes.” No wonder if she was mashing the mouse like that. “Just give it some time.” She leaned back in her chair. “Do you mind if I use this beach ball to rest my knee? I’ve a bad knee, you know… hurts to stand on it all the time.”
“Sure.” Idly, I wondered what she’d have done if I’d said no.
“Thanks so much.” She stretched out her legs, and then clicked the mouse like twenty more times.
“Got it!” Finally. “Wait, I have no idea what this says. Let me bring you to the doctor more experienced in this area.”
I barely resisted the urge to put my face in my hands. She led me into another office.
All rooms for patients look the same. They all have that weird half-bed half-seat with the extendable bottom tray, and they’ll always find some reason to get you to sit on it. There’s always a fluorescent light bulb overhead and there’s always the same speckled white flooring.
Whenever I had watched movies or TV shows about characters talking to doctors, there was always some scene where the doctor tells the character to sit down before he tells him the bad news. Which is why I was a bit surprised when my doctor eschewed formalities and, without even explaining exactly what I had, immediately launched into treatment options. He had this rich Indian accent which meant I could only understand only every second or third word. But I was still getting the basic picture.
I was going to live.
“Try to do this,” said the doctor. He jutted out his lower jaw and made a bizarre looking face, his teeth extending over his upper lip.
I did it. He shook his head. “More. Like this,” and he did it again.
“I am doing that,” I said, confused. He gestured to a mirror, where I very clearly wasn’t making the same face as him.
“Ah, you can’t do it,” he said. “It explains a lot. The way that your bones were configured at birth is a little different than everyone else. Enough to mess with your blood circulation here and here,” he gestured. “It’s not a perfect correlation, but people who can’t do this usually have higher blood pressure, they’re stressed out, and so on. In extreme cases, fatigue, loss of short term memory. Easy irritation.”
That was starting to sound familiar.
My mom came to pick me up. “What did they say?” she asked, a bit of a nervous edge to her voice.
I told him the doctor said the results of the study were good enough that there was a straightforward fix. They would attach a little machine to me. Metal. About the size of a fist, but heavy. I got to hold one, but it’d take a surgery to attach it. My body was producing bad blood cells, so its job was to filter them out. Meant I couldn’t play contact sports, or do anything that had a possibility of dislodging it. Told me that my production of blood cells was going to be slower than normal, meaning that I’d feel faint more often. But I would otherwise be fine.
I saw the relief in her eyes.
Seeing my mom be emotional after all this was a little too much. I teared up and had to look away.
One day when I was a freshman in high school this girl came up to me and asked when my whole obsession-with-death facade was going to be over. Which kind of took me aback because I barely even knew her.
“Facade? It’s no facade.” But I couldn’t think of anything else to say so I just walked off.
Later I called up Jacob to complain. “It’s everyone else that’s holding up a facade,” I said. “We are all going to die. Someday. Everyone else just ignores this! It’s like if everyone had a giant red X on their face and I said, ‘Look, a giant red X!’ and everyone else said ‘What X? There’s no X. How dare you imply there’s an X! How dare you put on the facade that I have an X!’”
“And then the X kills them, of course.”
“They act like this thing isn’t going to happen to anyone! That even though it happened to 100 billion people, it’s probably not going to happen to them.”
“I checked. 100 billion dead humans and counting, according to Wikipedia. Anyways. That’s what I was trying to say.”
“Well you sure showed her.”
“Oh shut up.”
“I have a phrase for you: l’esprit de l’escalier.”
“I didn’t know you spoke French.”
“Don’t, just memorized that one phrase.”
“Handy for picking up the ladies I’m sure.”
“You wouldn’t imagine.” He laughed. “Almost as good as my chess prowess.”
My mom and dad made arrangements for the surgery, which would be in a week. I still felt exhausted, but the spark of hope was there. It glimmered.
A day or two before the surgery, I talked with Jacob.
“I’m trying to figure out why it bothers me so much.”
"It’s because you’re changing. You’re dying, by your own definition.”
“I’m not going to be me anymore. I’m not going to just be Jessica. I’m going to be Jessica, attached to a machine. For the rest of my life. Once they do this, they can’t undo it.”
“That is weird. But I know something cool. Do you know chess?”
Jacob always found a way.
“What’s chess? I’ve never heard of chess before.”
He ignored me. “The best chess players? They train with machines all the time. They play a move, they let the computer analyze it to find a better continuation. They play against the machines, and sometimes they play with them too. The machines aren’t a crutch. They improve the player. Makes him better than he would have been otherwise.”
I slowly started to smile. “That is pretty cool."
I couldn’t eat for a day before the surgery, so I was starving by the time it was to begin. My parents drove me to the hospital. On the drive, a fear started to settle in. I was going to be made unconscious. I was going to have surgery. Death was like someone famous, someone I had heard about so much. I knew that I likely wasn’t going to die, but the irrational fear kept growing…
The last thing I remember before I went under was something totally unexpected. The doctor hooked me up on some gas and then, bizarrely, everything just seemed goofy. The whole situation was hilarious, I realized. The fear of losing consciousness – I had never lost consciousness before – totally dropped from my mind. And then I was out.
It felt like I came to days later. It was late at night. Saw my parents in a corner, my dad knocked out with glasses sliding down his face, my mom reading a magazine, illuminated by a nightlight. And there was Jacob too, a few seats away, sleeping quietly.
I instantly felt a residual ache from the operation. But I also felt something else. And I’ve been searching for a way to describe this feeling to someone, for a long time now. Perhaps I will never get it quite right.
When I was 6 or 7 my parents and I went out to play bowling, and a few frames in I slipped and knocked my head against the metal lane divider. I was on the ground – I never cried as a kid, but it hurt a lot – and my dad came over to see if I was OK. He did this joke where he splayed all his fingers out, one hand behind the other, and asked “how many fingers am I holding up?”
But I totally missed the joke. “Three,” I guessed. I couldn’t tell.
“Oh my God she has a concussion,” my mom said, coming over.
But in fact, I was just blind as a bat. My eyesight score turned out to be 20-400, which explained a lot, least of all my abysmal bowling score. A few weeks and a trip to the optometrist later, my dad was handing me my new pair of glasses.
I put them on with a little trepidation – and the world slid into sharp, unbelievable focus. At first, I was silent in awe – and then, inexplicably, I started to laugh. Everything was so detailed. So intricate. So much that I had been missing was now there for me.
Waking up with the condition gone was like putting glasses on my mind.
“Feeling back to normal?” asked the doctor, when he noticed I was up.
“Oh, no,” I said.
“I feel way better than normal.”
And just like before I started to laugh.