The Twenty-Third Chart — A Somewhat Fictional Tale


By Ekta R. Garg

December 9, 2011

I lay in bed and stared into the dark.  The sun had yet to rise, and yet I already knew I would feel miserable today.

Summoning every ounce of strength I could muster, I slowly pushed myself into a sitting position.  That action nearly sapped the measly amount of force within me, but I made myself keep going.  I stood up and turned around, making sure to steady myself by catching a hold of the corner of my nightstand.

I looked at my wife still in bed and envied her ability to sleep.  She didn’t have a serious illness encroaching on her immune system, demanding space where good health previously resided.  And now my wife would have to bear the responsibility of the only healthy adult in the home.  I could feel my body slowly, painfully, resentfully giving up all claims on wellness.

Even with my failing health, however, I had responsibilities.  Somehow I managed to cross the distance between the bed and the bathroom door.  How many times had I travelled these steps with nonchalance, taking for granted my robust health?  And now I had to force myself to put one foot in front of the other.

I heard my wife behind me waking up, and my heart thumped in relief.  She would help me, nurse me back to good health.  If my destiny allowed me to return to that state.

My wife yawned, stretched, and rubbed her eyes as she walked around the bed and easily crossed the steps between me and the bathroom door.  I had yet to complete the journey, and, oh, how I envied her!

She turned on the light, blinding me for a moment and making me wonder whether blindness would become another part of my downward spiral.

Finally I made it from my side of the bed to the bathroom.  My wife glanced at me as she applied toothpaste to both of our toothbrushes.

“What’s wrong?” she asked mildly.

Oh, her innocence!  If only I could keep her so and not shatter her world with my news.  But as realists, both of us, I had to offer her the truth and not try to hide it.  The world’s problems could not be solved by hiding information.

“I’m not feeling well.”

“Really?  What’s wrong?”

I sighed deeply.  I didn’t want to shock her with my symptoms, but as the only healthy adult in the home she would be responsible for any trips to the grocery store to buy items that might possibly turn back my ailment.  If such antidotes even existed.

“I have a headache.”

She waited for a moment, obviously steeling herself for the litany of symptoms so she could prepare herself for the worst.

“And my body aches.  And my throat is scratchy.”

She nodded expertly.  “Anything else?”

Anything else?  Wasn’t that enough?  Didn’t she understand the implication of what I told her?

“Well, no, but I don’t feel good.”

“Okay,” she replied casually.  “I’ll make you some soup later today.  Would you like to take some Tylenol?  Or maybe some vitamins?”

I hung my head.  “Tylenol won’t do me any good.  And vitamins were just created to generate money.  They’re useless.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes, I’m sure.”

“Well, it’s up to you.  After all, you’re…” the rest of the sentence got lost behind the buzz of her electric toothbrush and a buildup of toothpaste foam.  The sentence that came out of her mouth sounded like, “you’re ah o-er, oh oo o oh,” but I knew what she’d said.  Our many years of marriage ensured that, and I managed to glare at her weakly.

“What?” she asked after stopping to spit.  “I’m just saying u’e ah e-pur.  I a-e-on u oh, i u e ou.”

I could only hold my glare for so long, and then fatigue washed over me.  I considered asking my wife if she would hold me up so I could brush my own teeth, but because her response bordered on lackadaisical I didn’t bother.

Somehow I managed to stand up long enough to brush my teeth, and then I couldn’t stand up any longer.  I almost dropped to all fours and managed to stop myself in time as I stumbled the four steps back to the bed, where I placed my hands on the newly-smoothed sheets (my wife, it seemed, had more concern for an unmade bed than for a husband who might be suffering a semi-fatal condition.)  Bracing myself for just a minute, I heard my wife go to the children’s rooms and wake them up for another school day.  As she led them through their morning routine and went downstairs with them to serve them breakfast, I considered my own breakfast options.  What does one with a semi-fatal condition eat?

After shuffling through a shower (I had never realized one could shuffle through the shower until this plight,) I took the steps one at a time and paused halfway down the staircase.

“Good morning, Daddy!” my younger daughter greeted me brightly, her beautiful smile lighting up her whole face.

Ah, the virtuousness of youth!  They’re untouched by the world and its ways, by the cruelty of adulthood that requires a person to get out of bed in the morning even as one wonders whether this might be the last morning he will greet.

“Good morning,” I responded somewhat faintly.  Then my older daughter made a joke—at five, she’s become quite the humorist—and I couldn’t help laughing.  Ten minutes later all three of us were having a hard time controlling our laughter as my wife berated the children for wasting their breakfast time, urging them to finish fast so she could take them to school.  At the end of her admonishment, she Looked at me.

I’d seen that Look before, but on a day like today when I felt so deathly ill the Look was unwarranted.  Didn’t she understand that I was trying to fill my last moments with happiness so I could leave this world with a smile on my face?  Why couldn’t she feel my pain?  After all we’d been through, so many years of marriage and life?  Was this how it would end for us in my final hours?

I managed to put on my coat and shoes and pecked my wife and kids on their respective cheeks before I sat in the car.  As I waited for it to warm up, I thought fondly of all the times I’d driven to work, listened to NPR, argued with the host of “All Things Considered.”  When I thought about it, I realized I’d really miss NPR.

The 20-minute drive to work seemed to last an hour this morning.  After parking the car I reached in the back seat for my stethoscope, my white lab coat, and my hospital credentials, and I hoped my face didn’t match the coat as I draped it over my arm.

“Good morning, Doctor,” many people greeted me as I made my way to the physicians’ area where I could stuff my coat and other warm things into a locker.  Despite the ailment I couldn’t helping standing up a little straighter as everyone smiled and said hello.  I’ve worked many years—too many, my wife says sometimes—to be able to drape the steth around my neck and treat other people’s illnesses, and I still feel a jolt of excitement at being addressed as “doctor.”

The positive energy did much to improve my morale, and I managed to see most of my patients while ignoring my own symptoms.  I’m sure helping others helped me, but as I left that evening my aches and pains engulfed me.  I dragged myself and my belongings to the car and somehow managed to inch my way home.

My five-year-old was almost done with her homework by the time I walked in, and my younger daughter sat, transfixed, by her latest PBS favorite.

“How are you feeling?” my wife asked as she took my coat and my lunchbox from me.

I heaved a huge sigh and thought about how to answer her question for a minute.

“I don’t know.  Maybe okay; maybe not,” I managed to muster.

“Well, I made you your favorite soup for dinner, and we’ll have some garlic bread to go with it.  You should feel much better after that.”

I spent the rest of the evening enjoying my children as much as I could, knowing the agony they would feel the next day when I could no longer play and laugh with them.  At some point my wife gave me the Look again; maybe this was when the girls and I were making their stuffed animals fly across the room like torpedoes.  I still couldn’t understand why my wife insisted to poke holes into my brain with her eyes.  She acted as though I had done something wrong.

My temporary energy drained quickly from me as I sat at the dinner table, barely managing to pass the bread.  My wife’s a wonderful cook, but I couldn’t drum up any excitement for my favorite sausage and veggie soup I knew she’d spent most of the day making.  Oh, the cruelty of this illness!  It restored for a few minutes my former self and then yanked that self away in a punishing moment.

After dinner I found a last energy surge, enough to put the kids to bed.  We only sang three songs loudly, at the tops of our lungs.  The other four were in much more subdued tones, especially after my wife came upstairs after cleaning up the kitchen and gave me the Look again.  Would this woman never understand me?

She carried in one hand a glass of water and a pill bottle in the other, and once she bade the girls a good night she followed me into our bedroom and closed the door.  Taking a pill from the bottle, she screwed the cap back on and handed the round medicine to me with the glass of water.

“Take this,” she commanded.

“What?  What is this?  I don’t need anything.”

“Yes, you do,” she stated emphatically.  “Since you’ve decided you’re going to follow the ‘sit around and do nothing’ treatment plan, I’ve made an executive decision: from here on out, you’re going to do and eat and drink exactly as I say.”

“But what is this?”

“It’s vitamin C.  I always take it when I’m starting to get a cold too.”

“Hon, this is more than just a cold, it’s—”

“I know, I know,” she interrupted, a hint of an eye-roll crossing the upper portion of her face.  “Just take it.  And you’ll take it every night after dinner for the next couple of nights.”

My energy had escaped me once again, leaving me helpless to her whims.  I had no choice but to accept the tablet meekly and down it with a glass of water.

She took the glass from me, set it in the bathroom, and then went to the closet to get out my favorite blanket so I could cover just my feet and stay warm on this cold wintry night.  In that instant my negative thoughts towards her dissipated.

“Thank you.  I appreciate you taking such good care of me.”

She grabbed the remote and spared me a smile as she settled into her side of the bed.

“I know you do.  But, really?  You’re an awful patient.”

“No, I’m not.”

“Yes, you are.  You’re an awful patient and a baby.  It’s just a cold for heaven’s sakes.  Honestly, doctors make the worst patients.”

“Easy for you to say.”

“I went through 16 hours of labor in my first pregnancy.”

“But you had an epidural, didn’t you?”

I got another Look, this one more threatening, and I knew better than to say anything further.  But, oh, if only she understood the seriousness of my condition!

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