I gaze at Hong Kong bay
Analysis, Memories, Reflection

A Den for Assassins, Terrorists, & Thugs

I am still learning to be kind to myself, even when I am sick.

The assassin’s identity cannot be confirmed. We believe it was Dengue Fever, alias “Bone-Break Fever”. The body aches were more like sprains. Imagine the feeling of a sore-ankle occurring at random, anywhere in the body, at brief but variable intervals, at any time. “Bone-Break” is an exaggeration but far beyond my experiences with influenza. The fever and chills were on another scale, too. My room at the Canary Hotel in Amman had two beds: one to be sick in, another from which to start this blog. I bought gallon jugs and refilled from the bath-tub tap continuously to maintain the flow of sweat out of my body, staying cocooned against unexpected chills. I soaked that first bed. Only my insides were infected, not my sheets. Once the fever broke, I migrated to the drier bed and resumed my journey.

The embassy, the bridge, and my return to Bethlehem were ahead of me.

Contracting a mosquito-borne disease was uncannily solitary. Dengue was an assassin’s bullet aimed through its vector’s silencer. Such a singular, unpreventable dart might terrify someone else. It comforted me; I wore repellent and that momma-skeeter simply persisted. I hadn’t made any mistakes; I didn’t ‘make’ it happen so I couldn’t berate myself. I spoke with the Mission Nurse, told her where I had been, and as the fever deepened I braided Dengue Fever into my story. It’s not found in Jordan but I’d just returned from Southeast Asia; I spent two weeks in the Philippines and crashed with a colleague in Hong Kong between flights. The bite happened at an unknown moment in that region but, alone with my fever, I crafted its ‘canonical’ origin.

A ferry chugged me from urban Hong Kong to a sloping, rocky crescent of island with a fishing village on the near-side, the far-side full of cemeteries and sub-tropical forest. The partly cloudy weather and generous sea-breeze hinted of the ethereal. Beyond a Taoist cemetery, the path’s left-fork plunged into a tunnel of waxy boughs and flowering undergrowth. An old couple came over a hill and gestured to me. They spoke gentle Chinese with kind, enthusiastic facial expressions and pointed me to a ribbon of unofficial trail descending toward the drone of waves. I thanked them with a hand over my heart and a slight bow. The beaten earth ended at what appeared to be a passage beneath an outcrop. The wave-beaten stone arch narrowed and curved in its middle, occluding the other side. A few minutes later, I looked with delight into grey fissures for the small creatures waiting for high-tide. The mist in the air created pastel rainbows. I felt uplifted, like I was on the path I was supposed to be, like all my visa fiascoes were ‘intended’.

A sense of foreboding had enveloped me before I climbed through the gap in the rocks; between the rainbow and me had been a mysterious fear. Before I entered that passage, I speculated that it could be a premontition of immediate death or a taste of supernatural forces. In fevered hindsight, I preferred to believe I had sensed the mosquito’s bite. If the bite came before the dark passage, then on the other side could be the rainbow-tinted mists. My episode with ‘D’ was imbued with the problematic romance of a James Bond film, where the heroic international spy wrestles hand-to-hand with a penultimate foe before confronting the main villain. I was in my mid-twenties, strong, and on a mission to fight neo-colonialism in the West Bank. I would endure, procure my documents, and return. No hell was too hot and the blows to my body couldn’t break my resolve: ‘Brone-break Fever’ was no match for me.

The same man who dives bravely into body-aches, night-sweats, and a sweltering fever can feel terrified when his lungs are not working correctly. Long before the term “COVID19” was coined, pulmonary problems were the bane of my life. I was born not breathing. I nearly died of pneumonia six months later. I cannot recall a time before nebulizers and inhalers because of my asthma. As a small boy, I assumed I would not be athletic; as puberty dawned I understood that ‘types’ mattered. Exercise itself was never a problem. I can run for miles. I’ve done physical work in home renovation, lawn care, and now manufacturing. Yet I should not be in a moldy room without a mask of some kind. Pollens barely bother me but cat dander is a threat; its unfair but also strange how the type of irritation matters.

Tongue-in-cheek, players say the original Pokemon games were complicated matches of rock-paper-scissors (with fifteen types instead of three). Putting aside other modifiers, types mattered. A Ground-type character operated with advantage in the presence of Fire, Poison and Electricity, but eroded versus Water. A Water-character was vulnerable to Electricity, to which Ground is immune, and to Grass — which is vulnerable to Fire; etc. Resilience varies with the circumstances for characters of all types.

Sickness is worse than all allergens. I attended a summer camp when I was little; I was fine at age nine but felt very sick at ten. The breathing problems were usually at night and I desperately wanted my family to come pick me up. I was homesick and the breathing problems stemmed from anxiety. That was the beginning of a more sinister history where I’ve found it difficult to untangle the cause(s) of breathing difficulties— a history laced with shame and fear of losing relationships.

The winter of 2005-6 I had surgery; my immune system was weakened. Breathing problems ensued. At their crest, a friend took me to the emergency room and I was diagnosed with acute bronchitis. I missed classes and took an “Incomplete” on at least one course. The misery never seemed to end, so I brought myself to the emergency room again. Feeding a warm liquid into my veins, technicians scanned my abdomen. To this day, I don’t know (nor want to know) the costs. Finally, a doctor explained to me (in a heavy Korean accent) that he believed my breathing difficulties were psychosomatic. At ten, I accepted I could be anxious. At nineteen, I felt frustration and shame. A romance failed (in that tragic time rather than mundanely) and that rejection became an unnecessary focal-point. By June I was running, hiking, and kayaking but loathe to be vulnerable. I reconnected with the shame I felt at camp overnight— confusion, wanting to be held, and yet… damn it, bronchitis HAD combined with my asthma to land the first blows! Beating that tropical assassin meant much more to me than it otherwise could because I did it alone.

But type still matters! COVID19 is a respiratory disease; I’m asthmatic. An infected mosquito finds you, follows you, and can even take multiple passes at you. The assassin-pathogen there, inside the insect; no mosquitoes means no assassins. COVID19 is seemingly ubiquitous and yet impossible to locate: global terror.

I usually advocate against using the term “terrorist” but I can make an exception for the coronaviruses. Covid19’s terrorism is like flack and napalm, spraying and sticking everywhere, unguided. Having lived in a conflict zone, I see so-called “terrorist” organizations as either (A) cults filled with desperate young men mobilized by charismatic leadership (B) mislabeled political factions with militant wings and goals which particular governments refuse to respect. Contrary to what factions of our own governments say, extremists are not nearly as random or widespread as this virus. The coronavirus attacks without any motivation or discrimination; any trip or task could be a fateful mistake.

I continued working my factory job deep into Michigan’s quarantine. The preceding Thursday, I thought some dust at work, or mold, or even a heavily scented bar of soap were weighing on my chest. By Saturday, something worse was happening. I dedicated more and more effort to breathing deeply and tolerating aches. Using my inhaler didn’t fully mitigate my symptoms; I shifted from dismissive to distressed.

Yet the shame resurfaced. If the symptoms were psycho-somatic, then what kind of damage would my life sustain? I could miss work ‘for nothing’ or go to the hospital and expose myself to the real virus. The fact is, I did experience some symptoms of stress: my stomach went sour, my hands went cold, and it became increasingly hard to focus. “I could lose what little respect I have left for myself,” I thought, then laughed. I can’t account for where the laugh came from but it hurt and helped at the same time.

Nevertheless, I shared my concern on social media— not just the chest-pain and difficulty breathing but feeling ashamed that it might be a ‘glitch’ in my resolve. In the long thread of comments that followed I noticed that the majority of my concerned friends came into my life in the years since I returned from abroad. Just a few knew me during that terrible winter during college. A few offered their experiences with anxiety since the pandemic began. Almost all agreed I should call a healthcare provider, there was no shame in seeking help, and that procrastinating was unwise. For everyone’s sake, I needed to take care of myself. I would linger on this part of the story longer if the phone call had not evolved into a dramatic episode.

That Monday, I called my Dr’s office and spoke with a nurse. Her questions drifted away from my lungs and onto my family’s history of heart-disease. She wanted me to call 911. I said, “I’m composing myself because I didn’t expect to hear that.” The lack of fever and the presence of pain in my neck and shoulders were worrisome. I took those pains for granted, most weeks, but as we talked I became convinced: I needed to know. A cardiac episode seemed both impossible (my age, my physique) and inevitable (my maternal grandfather’s bypass surgery, my paternal grandmother’s heart-attack and death). I made the call.

Sitting on the carpet, waiting, I considered my heart for the first time. My heart labors steadily to support my brain and lungs, two organs which are contradictorily powerful and sensitive in me. I’ve spent a life time with asthma but I play the trumpet; my art comes from my breath. My mind is voraciously curious and capable of such deep reveries yet I’ve sometimes struggled to gain clarity and self-compassion. My heart continues beating, as I blow music and try to make sense of my narrative. I tried to stay still and bring the three of them together: just live, man. Be alive and aware.

I’m still new to this apartment; I’d never heard my door-buzzer before the paramedics arrived. I came downstairs in my pajamas, wrapped in a fuzzy green-and-blue bathrobe. They were friendly. We agreed that I could be examined before we went to the hospital. I laid down in an ambulance for the first time. I tried to surf the peculiar wave that crashes between feeling cared-for and fearing that I need care. Blood-pressure cuff. Stickers with wires. My temperature is taken for the first time: normal. My vital signs weren’t alarming. Though it’s not a doctor’s diagnosis, the consensus was that some other kind of respiratory infection was the likely culprit. A despicable, second-tier germ is making my asthma go haywire. Some opportunistic thug of a pathogen crept into my chest while I worked long hours, traveled in-and-out of the cold weather, and shared in my species’ distress during the corona-pandemic.

I invoked Pokemon instead of rock-paper-scissors because modifiers are not discounted. The battle is not instant. Each individual has a set of attributes to be cultivated. Particular weaknesses remain but general resilience increases. With experience comes higher levels and better skills. With strategy and teamwork, difficult foes become manageable. My Fire is not dead-in-the-water automatically. I can mount a counter-attack; it’s more than a match, it’s a cumulative endeavor.

Of course, I didn’t go to work the week paramedics came. I spoke with human resources and, without being asked, they changed my PTO days to match the ones I called-in sick. Honestly, I would have rather taken a hit to my paycheck. I continue(d) to drink plenty of fluids and dress for warmth (TBC). [Possibly an update?]

The other half of my story has to do with my mind. There isn’t much value in hiding or trying to seem more impressive. Yesterday I decided to text a large number of people at random. In the past, I always came up with a vague reason that I shouldn’t send someone a message ~ for instance, what would we talk about? I recognized my predisposition to rejection-sensitivity dysphoria and asked them all “How is your week going?” I took the focus off of myself and put it onto others. An hour later, I was nearly at the point of complaining:

“–there are too many people texting me at once!”

And I answered myself, saying aloud “what did you expect, dude? They’re your friends– they actually are your friends who care about you and like hearing from you.” That wasn’t less true at nineteen, just difficult to feel as I faced a level of malaise I hadn’t seen before. With all of these experiences comes a higher level of strength; someday, my strength could be the right ‘type’ to help someone else. Few people

“I love that so many people are texting me back…”

This week, my body is a den for ‘thugs’ but I will be well again. I will blow my horn again. I will run outdoors and meet friends for coffee again; insh’allah, we all will.

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