January, 1997 -- A New Year

It's worth mentioning, I suppose, that another year has passed. Just in case you didn't notice.

As I write these words, I suspect I'm coming down with the flu. Suddenly, each off-hand gurgle from my digestive tract has caught my full attention. Like, are you just mumbling down there, or do you have something to say?

I've been relatively healthy for quite a while. By that I mean I haven't had a near-death experience for over two years. And in that span of two years, I've only had one cold that could have been considered a real loop-knocker. The memories of those times when I was really sick, though, are still very much with me. They make for lively dinner conversation, those stories of the times when I was really sick.

Take, for instance, what I came to think of as my first "near-death" experience. Before I go on, let me make it clear that I've never really been near death, in the sense that people who sustain massive brain-traumas in automobile accidents are near death. In actuality, I wasn't that much nearer to death than any of us are, which is to say one breath or heart-beat away, providing they're our last. But I was near-death in the sense that I became acutely more aware of my mortality than most of us normally are. The thread of life, holding me suspended over the bottomless pit of nothingness, became something I could visualize and even cling to. All the time knowing that I wasn't actually going to die... at least, I didn't think so. But I was miserable, let me tell you.

It started in a locker room. Actually, it started a day or two before that, when I looked up to see a disheveled kid in unwashed clothes enter my classroom, sporting dirty thick black hair sticking straight up in a kind of affro-less affro, sporting also a number of faint red spots which explained his absence of the past few days. The kid's name was Jeremy, and he had had the chicken pox. I didn't think anything of it, partly because I figured everyone in the room had already experienced chicken pox, and partly because I figured the principal and the nurse must've cleared him to come back to school. But back to the locker room.

It was after basketball practice, and a particularly spirited practice it had been. I was there as a kind of assistant to Frank, who was my room-mate, fellow-teacher, former college player, and the coach of both the boys' and girls' teams. Frank wasn't in the locker room, as he had to remain on the floor and run the girls' practice.

The reason the practice had been spirited was that several of the boys on the team hadn't been showing the kind of cooperation and work ethic Frank required from his athletes. He'd done a lot of yelling, and they'd done a lot of running. Frank had some punishing conditioning drills. They were the kind of drills that demanded dramatic names like "suicides," or "screamers," or "death by over-fibrillation." In my capacity as a kind of assistant, I ran with the kids, urging them to beat the flabby out-of-shape English teacher, which it turned out most of them could do without much encouragement anyway.

Now we were in the locker room, and Bradley, one of the players whose name had been attached to most of Frank's exclamatories that day, was telling everyone in the locker room what a lousy coach Frank was. I spoke up, and Bradley told me to shut up, and before long we were both yelling at the top of our lungs in this tiny locker room. Somehow, I came to my senses and realized what I was doing and got my stuff and got out of there. First of all, I had never raised my voice at a student before. Second, Bradley was one of our students who suffered from fetal alcohol effect, which among other things meant he had little control over his emotions. On top of that, he had been diagnosed as a special education student, AND he had been classified emotional disturbed. Here I was, screaming at him, trading obscenities and everything, our voices booming and amplifying off the metal lockers.

The weird thing was that somewhere during the argument, something "popped" in my head. I mean, it was like I literally heard a "pop." It was painful too. Like an instant migraine headache. By the time I got home, I was feeling very sleepy, even though I was still enraged at Bradley and mortified at what I had done. I was feeling rage, embarrassment, and the heaviest kind of fatigue, all at the same time. I fell into my bed and began what was to be my first near-death odyssey.

Three days later, I was clinging to that shiny cord, suspended over the pit of nothingness, half wishing I could let go and escape my physical condition. My body was covered with excruciating pox. My sinuses were packed, my head feeling like it was on the receiving end of a bicycle tire pump. Both ears had massive infections going, the kind where it feels like an ICBM is trying to force its way out through a crack in the eardrum, and it doesn't matter how you position your head because it just means a different angle of pain.

I hadn't showered for three days, and my body was caked with layers of flaking calamine lotion. The worst part was my head. Not the sinuses and ears, which were pure, constant, invigorating pain. It was the way the top of my head itched. I couldn't get any calamine lotion directly on my scalp, due to all the hair. So the lotion mingled with the hair to make a kind of helmet that cracked and powdered as I shifted on my pillow. All the while my scalp was itching so much that I wanted to rip it off. It was late in the afternoon, and Frank was still at basketball practice. I couldn't take it anymore. I had to do something!

Using the trimmer blade on the back of my Norelco, I gingerly trimmed off all the hair on my head. Naturally, I couldn't do a very complete job, as my pulpy red sores didn't react well when I brushed them with the trimmer. The result was truly frightening. As luck would have it, I came out of the bathroom just as Frank came in the door from practice. "Aah!" he yelled. When he recovered from the initial shock, he made me stand there, wavering slightly from the dizziness of standing upright so long after three days in bed with no food, and after having fought to shave the hair off my head with a little beard trimmer when I could barely hold myself upright from the pain in my ears, while all along the little trimmer in my unsteady hand was biting into the occasional pox and making me silently scream out in even more pain. So I stood there, barely aware of what was going on, until Frank was able to snap a picture.

When I returned to school four days later, I looked a lot like one of the people you see in pictures of prison camps. The picture Frank took of me in my underwear, body covered with red pox and pinkish-white calamine lotion, irregular tufts of close-cropped hair on an otherwise bald head, dazed expression on my face, is… come to think of it, I don't know where the hell that picture is. But I have a copy of it ingrained in the back of my mind, to remind me what it's like to be really sick, so I'll better appreciate the health I have.

I sincerely hope this flu I'm flirting with right now doesn't have any aspirations of topping that story.

Tom Dooley
Eclectica Magazine
January, 1996
Tucson, Arizona


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