After a weekend when Karen didn’t post any fun photos on Facebook, a few friends sent messages wondering what she was up to.
“No hike this weekend?” one friend asked.
“Thought you were going to the concert Saturday night? What happened?” another wondered.
“Where you been?” from yet a third inquisitor.
Where Karen had been, instead of our having fun, was mostly in bed. Sometimes she moved to the couch when she worked up the energy to make her way there. For a full week, she had been vomiting, sweating, shaking, coughing, and sleeping as much as she could. The vomiting had all but subsided by now, but mucus was a constant companion. The drip from her nasal cavity had been disturbingly sour at first, but then it had gained an unexpected sweetness. Had the taste really changed or had she simply gotten used to it? She chugged some over-the-counter cold medicine that was left over from a previous minor illness. This stuff seemed sticky enough to be a mucus by-product, flavored with something resembling a childhood version of grape Kool-Aid made with half the water and twice the sugar.
Along with that grape flavor and a fleece blanket she dragged with her from bed to couch to bathroom, her main comfort were long showers where the streaming pinpricks of hot water over stimulated her sensitive nerves and overwhelmed every other symptom. She learned quickly not to notice the scent of her own body when she hadn’t showered for a few hours. Sickness smelled like a cornered animal. The chemical lavender scent of her shower soap couldn’t be found in nature, but she preferred it to smelling feral.
After four days, her mother, who lived in the next town, drove her to see the aging doctor that her mother had been going to for years. Karen felt a little pathetic about being thirty-seven years old and having her mother take her to the doctor. No husband, no boyfriend, not even a “bestie.” Those Facebook friends were all busy living their interesting lives, so she didn’t ask them for help. She thanked her mother and promised to take care of her in her old age. Her mother laughed, but Karen meant it.
The doctor listened to her lungs, shined a flashlight down her throat, and then shuffled around her to peer into both ears. His diagnosis was H1N1, the flu epidemic that had been ripping through the country that fall. Strangely, she didn’t know anyone else suffering during this epidemic. She felt like an epidemic of one, her own private plague.
The old doctor gave her a prescription and told her to wait it out. “You’re young,” he said, barely looking at her above his reading glasses. Karen wondered which southern state he planned to move to for his impending retirement. “You’ll get better. Almost everyone does,” he said, shrugging his bony shoulders. “Don’t rush it.”
So Karen didn’t rush it. She surrendered to being sick and limiting her immediate future to bed, couch, and bathroom.
The television was helpful as a forty-inch, pixilated window into the world. She could barely follow the string of Netflix movies blending together as background noise to her illness. She was almost as entertained by the way the screen faded silently out and clicked back on as she turned the television off and on and off and on, almost hypnotically. The third day, when she heard children playing outside, fifteen minutes of whoops and screams, she realized that these same kids played at three o’clock each day. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d been home at three on a weekday. She made a point of being awake at three to hear them, whooping on, screaming off, just like the TV.
The only time she cracked open her laptop was to make arrangements for coworkers to cover her shifts at work. When the medication kicked in at last on the seventh day of being sick and helped her feel almost human for an hour or so, she finally worked up the strength to open her laptop and call up Facebook again.
In response to the questions about her social media inactivity, Karen typed a short update from her pillow-fortified perch on the couch: “Sorry I’ve been offline for a while. I somehow picked up H1N1, and it’s kicking my ass.” She didn’t want to sound like a Debbie-Downer, so she added a final line that she really didn’t believe: “Hope to be back in the world and having fun soon!”
Then she fell asleep with the computer open on her lap. When she awoke in a coughing fit, she saw that more than an hour had passed. She still hadn’t gotten used to the “lost time” of sudden sickness-induced sleep whisking her from consciousness without warning. For all she knew, she could have been beamed to a UFO for probes and experiments multiple times a day. Too bad the aliens didn’t have a cure for H1N1.
Karen saw the Facebook notification number “27” in its little red bubble on the right-hand corner of her computer screen. She felt a surge of comfort at the thought that her friends would offer cyber-love and support. Unfortunately, that wasn’t happening.
Although the technical name was “H1N1,” Karen’s friends seemed fixated on calling it, “Swine Flu.”
“Piggy, piggy, piggy!” a high school classmate she hadn’t seen in a decade wrote. “Have you been hanging out in the pig pen again?”
“Holy germ pool, girl!” a casual acquaintance quipped. “Stay away from me! I can’t afford to get that shit in my system. Too much to do!” Karen couldn’t remember the last time she’d been in this woman’s presence.
“I guess our date is off for tonight!” a guy she met at a dance lesson wrote. If she had ever considered a date with him, she certainly didn’t now.
A coworker couldn’t even muster a “miss you” but instead wrote, “That’s why you’ve been out? I’m calling maintenance right now to get them to scrub your office top to bottom!” Karen had organized a group from the office to alternate visits and bring meals to this coworker when she broke her ankle wind-surfing on vacation two years ago. She had contributed twenty dollars and delivered the fruit basket herself.
While she did get a few “likes” and “sads,” a few true bastards actually clicked the “haha” icon at the news of her illness. How could they find this funny? Somehow, that stupid laughing face hurt most of all.
“Screw them!” Karen muttered as she deleted her update, sending all the negative comments to cyber hell. The effort led to another coughing fit, the worst one of the week. She spit a gob of greenish flem big enough to overflow a shot glass into her couch-side waste basket and was alarmed by the sudden rasp in her chest with each breath.
Karen closed the laptop and grabbed her phone. Her mother left work and was there in half an hour. Karen was on an examination table less than an hour after that. After listening to just three raspy inhales, a different doctor (this one a young, energetic woman) ordered a chest x-ray. Karen did her best to be still, but the technician, an efficient, bespectacled young man in pressed scrubs, had to repeat the x-ray three times before Karen was able to still her shivers.
She sat on a cold, plastic chair while the technician checked the third set of x-rays on a display panel that reminded her of an enormous version of the nightlight she had in her bedroom as a child. Karen focused on the lighted display just long enough to see the film, her ribs glowing white against the dark background.
Then she saw something that made her sit up despite her aching back. There, near the center of her chest x-ray, was a large, white mass, impossible to miss. The mass seemed almost to pulse as she focused her vision on it. “What the …” she mumbled, trying to grasp what could be growing inside her chest.
“Okay!” the technician called out, quickly snapping the x-ray from the light panel. “The doctor will look at these and be right in!” he said as he hustled out of the room. Karen wondered if he was being overly cheerful to hide the obvious bad news coming her way.
Alone in the dim room, Karen tried to breathe deeply, but the rasp felt deeper now, cutting off her air flow, constricting her chest. In her mind, she could feel the mass reaching its tentacles into every passage of her lungs, choking her. She heard the hum of machinery with its own slight rasp. Was it the medical equipment? Or was it the HVAC, breathing for the building and everyone inside?
Tumor. The word surfaced in Karen’s brain like a whale breaching the ocean’s surface and hovering in the air. Tumor. Tumor. Tumor, she thought, and then she forced the whale beneath the water again.
“It can’t be a tumor,” she whispered aloud. She had been to another doctor just a few days ago. If there had been any indication of a tumor then, that doctor would have ordered x-rays. She knew that tumors can’t grow in a matter of days. She had a bad flu. H1N1. Everyone knew it was going around. It was in the news, in the paper, all over the internet. She was just another case, wasn’t she? Even her mother’s elderly doctor could diagnose something that had become a pandemic.
But what if the doctor was wrong? What if the doctor had missed the tumor? Doctors miss things all the time. They’re not perfect. She had read about misdiagnoses many times, seen the clickbait headlines on Facebook many times. And this doctor was so old. The more she tried to remember his wrinkled face, the older he got.
She made a conscious effort to push the word tumor out of her thoughts. But it was quickly followed by an even worse word: cancer. Was she about to learn that she had cancer? Would they call her mother in from the next room and tell them together? Or would she have to hear the news alone and then break it to her mother?
I don’t want to die. The thought came to her simultaneously as concrete words, abstract concept, and emotional response. I. Don’t. Want. To. Die. She felt a strong need for her mother just then.
She was about to get up to find her mother when the door swung open and the doctor breezed in. “Hi, Karen!” she called out, barely looking at her as he popped the x-ray onto the light panel. “I’m Dr. Stephanie. Let’s take a look at your film!”
This doctor was cheerful, attractive, barely even older than Karen herself. Was “Stephanie” her first name? Karen wondered if Dr. Stephanie specialized in giving bad news with a great attitude. She would prefer a death sentence from an old, serious man to this better version of herself.
Karen noticed Dr. Stephanie’s wedding ring, and her dying chest tightened another notch. She hadn’t had a steady boyfriend for six months. She had recently flirted with a couple of guys at work, but they didn’t even notice. She finally stopped hooking up with a harmless ex from high school when he got engaged last summer. Would she ever get married? How would she even start the process? Did she have the time? Who would marry someone with a clear expiration date?
Before Karen could say a word, Dr. Stephanie tapped the x-ray. “Yep,” she said. “That’s what I thought. Looks like your H1N1 has turned into a nasty case of pneumonia.”
“Pneumonia?” Karen blurted.
“It happens, maybe about ten percent of cases,” Dr. Stephanie said, making notes on a chart. “This is a pretty bad flu strain that grabs the lungs sometimes.”
“But,” Karen said, “did you look at the x-ray?”
“Sure did,” Dr. Stephanie said with a chuckle. “That’s how we diagnose pneumonia.”
“But, did you see the mass?” Karen asked.
“On my lungs.”
Dr. Stephanie looked up for the first time and met Karen’s gaze. She turned on her heel, put the x-ray back up on the panel, and studied it closely for a full ten seconds. “There’s no mass,” she said.
Karen struggled to lift her arm and pointed. “Right there. Right there in the middle. That big white mass. Isn’t that a tumor?”
Dr. Stephanie looked back and forth from Karen to the x-ray several times. Then she put her index finger dead center on the x-ray. “Do you mean this?”
“Of course!” Karen replied.
Dr. Stephanie laughed, but then stopped abruptly. “That’s not a tumor,” she said, now sympathetic. She strode over to Karen and put a hand on her shoulder. “Sweetie, that’s your heart.”
“Your heart. It shows up as white on the x-ray,” Dr. Stephanie said. “Even a big tumor wouldn’t look anything like that. And it would be in a different place. That’s not even in your lungs.”
Karen started to half sob, half laugh, but it quickly turned into yet another coughing fit. For the first time in a week, Karen was actually grateful for a simple coughing fit.
Between coughs, Karen managed to say, “Can you … get … my mom, please?” When she caught her breath, she began to plan the rest of her life.
John Sheirer lives in Northampton, Massachusetts, with his wonderful wife Betsy and happy dog Libby. He has taught writing and communications for 26 years at Asnuntuck Community College in Enfield, Connecticut, where he also serves as editor and faculty advisor for Freshwater Literary Journal (submissions welcome). He writes a monthly column on current events for his hometown newspaper, the Daily Hampshire Gazette, and his books include memoir, fiction, poetry, essays, political satire, and photography. Find him at JohnSheirer.com.