One of my favorite passages in all of Jane Austen’s work (besides the fruit pyramids in P&P) is the part in Persuasion where Admiral Croft describes Sir Walter Elliott’s dressing room. Background: Sir Walter is a handsome man who is extremely vain and rather silly. He is old enough to have three adult daughters. Sadly, his wife died a long time ago, and any sense of economy died with her. As a result of his financial ineptness, Sir Walter is forced to “retrench” and so relocates to Bath and rents out his estate to hopefully get out of debt. Admiral Croft becomes his tenant.
Admiral Croft visits with Anne Elliott, the second daughter of Sir Walter, and the heroine of the story, and the Admiral tells her one of the first things he did upon taking possession of the house was to move all of the looking-glasses out of Sir Walter’s dressing room. Your father must be a rather dressy man, he tells Anne, There was really no getting away from oneself!
I love that line. It speaks to how silly/vain Sir Walter is and how different the Admiral’s lifestyle is. I often feel like I’m in Sir Walter’s dressing room when I’m at therapy because at every hospital, the gym is lined with mirrors. When the mirror on the wall is too far away, they have full-length mirrors on wheels that they can roll right up to you so you can see yourself up close.
I used to look in the mirror in my room or in the gym at RIO (3rd Hospital) and ponder the scar on my neck and how my hair was sticking out in funny places. There was a large shaved patch in the back where they operated, and a small pokey thing in the front where a drainage tube once resided. I would look at these things and think, Okay, maybe I did get sick after all.
I wasn’t sure since I had been asleep for the worst of it (thankfully). I still don’t have the feeling of being “present” at the events I’m told happened. Instead of viewing my own timeline as if I’m looking at my reflection in the mirror, I see pictures/videos, or read updates written by Tanpo or Ai Ai.
Tanpo has been helping me edit my “Memoirs” recently and he commented on how short the OHSU and Vibra (1st and 2nd Hospitals) chapters are. Well, I was kind of asleep, I explained. He suggested that I read up on what happened so I’m more aware of just how much the staff at those facilities did for me and can write about it. I recently read through Ai Ai’s Facebook updates and I was like, Oooh – what happens next?! And when I came to the part where she had to go home to her family after visiting me in Vibra I was sad. I felt the same sadness I felt but couldn’t express when we were living that moment and I told her, “Quick – eat some cookies – chew fast!” I was still pretty loopy and was concerned the poor girl was too skinny. So I wanted her to eat some cookies in my presence before she got on the plane.
Last week I commandeered Tanpo’s phone in the car and scrolled through his picture gallery. There were lots of pictures of my hospitalization I had never seen before. One of them caught my attention because there was a skeletal face with one eye open and my hair on its head, body propped up weirdly in a chair. “That can’t be me,” I thought. And when I scrolled to the next picture the skeletal face looked even worse (there was a strange grimace), but the face was undeniably mine. “Okay, that’s me after all,” I thought. I will not be sharing either of those pictures with you – you can thank me later.
A few weeks ago I had lunch with some friends and I made a cavalier-sounding joke about the onset of my illness. “You don’t know what it was like,” J told me in a jokey chastising sort of voice. Her statement was funny at the time, but it’s also terribly true. I really don’t know what it was like even though it happened to me. I’m dependent on what other people tell me or what they recorded at the time. Tanpo was the primary documenter, but I’ve read Ai Ai’s updates more recently. All you need to know about that time period is summarized in three words: e-coli and spinal tap. ‘Nuff said.
I showed those pictures to Mommy later that day, and I totally cried over that first one that I didn’t think was me initially. I cried because it looked sort of gruesome (even though there was no blood or even swelling), and also because I didn’t think it was me. I have no recollection of any such scenario, and in the pictures I’ve seen thus far I’ve either been more awake or fully asleep – not this strange in-between state. But then Mommy scrolled to the next picture (the one that I thought got worse) and told me, Look – you’re really happy here. And sure enough, once we zoomed in I could see that the scary grimace was actually a facial contortion meant to convey happiness. I can understand why. The bandage on my neck indicates that my trach had been removed, and Mommy is standing next to me with a paper cup presumably full of ice chips. My mouth is probably half open so it can receive the spoonful she is about to offer me. According to my sister’s account, I had been asking for ice chips for at least 5 days. The relief I felt when Mommy was finally able to let me suck on some ice was wonderful – I remember that part clearly. So even though that picture is painful to look at I’m glad that moment was captured. It’s characteristic of this whole experience – hard to look at, but joyful.