July 11, 2009

Sickness, Pain, & Cartoon Dharma

It was a Saturday morning like any other, though uncommonly cool for July, and I rode down to the farmer’s market. I stopped on the way for coffee and a cinnamon roll. Sitting on the terrace, I watched the families arriving and walking down into the bricked streets of the Haymarket. I read a book chronicling the lives of real American cowgirls, research for something I myself was writing. I noticed the ache in my back while reading about a ‘locoed’ heifer, then I noticed that, in fact, everything between my sternum and pelvis ached and cramped.

I pushed aside the delightful cinnamon roll with regret and fished through my bag, but all I had with me besides the book was a deck of playing cards, a few pencils, and some loose change. By this time, I had begun to sweat and felt the first creeping twists of nausea. My small bottle of assorted pills must be elsewhere. I sat quietly and attempted to judge my state, which only seemed to be growing worse by the moment. I mentally cursed the tide of sickness, more for its inexplicable arrival than anything else.

With reluctance I left my not even half finished roll and coffee and carefully slung myself back onto my bicycle. But where to go? Home was much too far. I angled instead for the rising brick block of Architecture Hall, just visible from the terrace. I had to ride a block down to pass beneath the viaduct ending the interstate in the heart of Downtown, then back up.

I put my bicycle in first gear, peddled slowly and steadily and tried to breath as my body began to shake, while cold sweat pooled on my skin, and the nausea crept up my throat like a living thing trying to escaped. I passed the small office in the Stadium Parking Garage which serves as a staging point for the University Police. I thought if I needed to pull over and puke, that would be an ironically appropriate place to do it, though it seemed unoccupied and as deserted as the rest of the campus. Of course, in my condition I felt more likely to fall over than pull over, but I pushed myself on.

I made it to the bicycle rack at Arch Hall and did manage to dismount of my own design, but knelt there in the mulch, bowed over face down. The wood chips dug into the tops of my feet folded beneath me and I lowered my head, letting my cap fall away, as I pressed my forehead into the bar of the bicycle rack. The cool metal felt good. When I felt reasonably sure I wouldn’t puke, though not certain by any means, I rose and wove my way unsteadily towards the doors. Fishing in my back pocket for my wallet, I passed it before the black box, which opened the doors with an obedient beep and pop.

Stairs, I wondered to myself, why does this building has so many damned stairs? In the bathroom, I dropped my bag, still empty grocery sack, hat, jacket, and helmet, scattered on the tile. Oh, it hurt, my head, back, stomach. I shook and fevered and sweated and chilled. I tried to move my mind elsewhere, searching for a mantra, though I had never been much of one for such practices. I wracked my mind to remember one, just one, but it skipped like a record or a stone thrown across dark water. Finally I settled on Om Mani Padme Hum, the simplest of phrases. It seemed like it had taken hours to puzzle it out, though it had been but minutes. I don’t believe there are power in such mantras, but I believe there can be vast relief from suffering when physical pain is not dwelled upon too deeply. I could curse my pain and wallow in it, or accept it and concentrate on something else.

After a short time I emerged, my belongs gripped unsteadily in one hand. Stairs, I thought, why so many stairs? I climbed to the second level and lowered myself onto the only slightly tilted surface of the Barcelona chairs on the second floor balcony. The building is dotted with famous chairs designed by famous architects. They are, each and every one, uncomfortable, but it felt wonderful just to be horizontal and still. I drew my light jacket around my now cold body and rested my head on the bag with my book.

I closed my eyes and listened to the building breathe. I tried not to linger on the sick feelings that still plagued me and instead contemplated the building, something I had done many times before and will likely do many times hence. One can judge the health of a building by the way it breathes. That is, how well the air systems work, how well they were designed and have been maintained. When once listens, it is easy to pick out the sounds of the building from the sounds of people.

Walking in, upon cursory inspection, one might believe the building empty, but upon listening, I found it was not. One can single out the sounds of air and water moving throughout the systems, wind as it pushes against the walls, the creak of materials expanding and contracting due to humidity, and the groan as the building settles into its foundations. Architecture Hall, being an old building is more silent than most, having settled into its stately bearing long ago. I could just make out the very fainted sounds of an occasional footstep and music from somewhere within the old College of Law, which Architecture took over and joined with the old hall almost thirty years ago now. The two old buildings sit side by side, and I rested between on the second floor balcony of The Link, an open atrium which captures and reflects the sounds of both.

I lay with the unnatural stillness of the ill or the dead, my limbs very loose and heavy. After a time, I pushed at the bag beneath my head, rearranging the deck of cards I had finally felt digging into my jaw, but otherwise I was motionless. I entertained myself with these thoughts while the sickness ebbed leaving me feeling only drained but for a splitting headache. Though the sound of the metal door opening in the link was loud, I did not startle and it took some time to rearrange my thoughts enough to connect the sounds I heard with the presence of someone either entering or leaving.

I finally pushed myself up and called out, then gathered more strength and called again. Bret stopped on the stair behind me and took his ear buds out.

“What are you doing here?” he asked, an amused frown on his narrow face. It was not unknown for students to sleep in the chairs or even spend the entire night passed out in some part of the building after having one too many at some Downtown bar. But I had never been one of those.

“Being sick,” I admitted, as I fished for the strap of the bag and tried to decide if standing was really such a good idea.

“Have you been here since last night?”

“No, I was going to the farmer’s market and I just felt sick, but home was too far.” Apparently standing was acceptable. Though I still felt shaky and tired, and the headache continued to pound, I was not longer feverish or nauseous.

Bret chuckled in sympathy. “Doesn’t look like you got your shopping done,” he said, noting my still empty sack.

“No. Did you drive here?” He nodded. “Can you take me home?”

“Sure.” Bret is such an asshole, but he’s a good asshole and there when you need him without complaint. I was passing fond of him and more so in that moment. He reminds me of my father’s side of the family, especially the uncles. “Can you make it to the parking garage?” He asked as we walked slowly out of Arch Hall.

“Yeah, I don’t think I’m gonna throw up any more. I’m just tired and my head hurts. For a while there, I wasn’t sure I’d make it here, I was so dizzy and sick.”

“Did you have too much fun last night?” he asked.

“No. I wish I had. Then at least I would feel like I’d earned it.”

“Well, builds character, they say,” he commented, clearly a fellow fan of Calvin and Hobbes.

“Yeah, suffering allows you to feel compassion for others who suffer,” I agreed.

“Or feel superior to them,” Bret commented, just to be contrary, but I suppose in a sad way he’s right.

We do get caught up in the stories of our own suffering, don’t we? We like to scoff at others and think that we’ve had it worse so they shouldn’t complain, which always struck me as entirely unreasonable despite that fact that I know I’ve done it myself from time to time. Those of us who live in Architecture Hall (not just visit it like students of other colleges visit their halls but live in their dorms) tend to do it more than most, making us, by and large, an insufferable lot.

We paused to lock up my bike, which I hadn’t bothered with earlier.

“Wonder what people thought seeing you weave around on that bike,” he commented.

“Well, no one was here, but I suppose I probably was weaving,” I agreed, trudging slowly along. He shortened his brisk, long stride for me without commenting on my snail’s pace. Bret must be at least half a foot taller than I and thinner than even my scarecrow-like brother if that’s possible.

We chatted idly on that slow walk, which I felt was for the best and he didn’t seem to mind. I told him where I lived as we pulled out of the garage. I examined the scene out the window as we passed the hulking gray mass of Memorial Stadium and then around the recreation fields and parking garages on the north edge of campus. Cook Pavilion, one of the two indoor practice fields build for the football team, had the doors rolled open and I could see a geometric formation of people within.

“Oh, cheerleaders,” I commented, keeping up the meaningless flow of words.

“Cheerleaders? Okay, that’s it, you’ll have to find your own way from here,” Bret told me. “I’m going in.”

“You’re gonna have a hard time explaining to the cops why you drove your car into Cook Pavilion.”

“Yeah, let alone how I got convinced two cheerleaders to get in the trunk.”

“The trunk?”

“Well, cheerleaders aren’t exactly good for talking to, are they? They’re good for other things.”

I smiled. It was sexist and crude and entirely stereotypical, but I smiled anyway. “Sorry to ruin your Saturday,” I said instead.

“Yeah, well, I was just going in to do some work for Gordon, but now I can go home and have the breakfast I missed by rolling out of bed at the crack of ten.”

“Is it that late? Is your clock wrong or are you lying to me?” I asked, staring at the clock on his dash which now read four minutes to ten, which meant it was four minutes to eleven by his reckoning.

He chuckled again, “Lost a little time, did we?”

“I guess,” I murmured. I don't know how long I had listened to the building breathe, amusing myself with the fanciful notion that buildings breathe at all.

Bret dropped me at home with a rueful smile and I thanked him again and wished him a good breakfast before forcing myself up the two flights of stairs. I don’t really remember unlocking the doors. I do remember glancing at the clock, which read exactly eleven, as I took of my pants and fell back into bed. My head pounded as the blood flow changed in response to the horizontal position. I pushed myself up again with a groan and went to the bathroom to find some naproxen. My cat regarded me curiously and entirely unsympathetically as I lay in bed once more. I was sweating again, the fever having roused itself a bit after my exertions, and I could feel my heart beating entirely too fast. After a time, I dozed off.

What a strange day, I thought, good and bad, suffering and pain, ego and compassion, breathing buildings and cartoon dharma – yes, a strange day.


john said...

Get well soon. : )

wolfie185 said...

Wow sorry you were sick but your writing about the whole experience was great!!