|Photos by Wilton Barnhardt|
Along with everyone in Santa Fe, I hacked and stumbled my way to the Urgent Care before I realized it was serious.
As a result, my view of everything changed, and that includes writing.
As I languished there with my fever, chills, endless hours where I was too sick to even read, all I could think was, Wow, Jo-Ann. You really blew it. People die from the flu (so far 5 in New Mexico). You might be one of them. And thanks to all your time-wasting, you won’t get to finish this book, or write the next one, and your endless memoir will never see the light of day (which might be a good thing). Sure, there’d be nationwide grieving (JK), but only for a microsecond and then everyone would be going about their lives.
Nobody’s going to miss your writing.
And this is all your fault.
I turn 61 in March. Years ago, a former UAA MFA student, Joan Gatzke, warned me, “That 60th birthday, it’s a kick in the pants.” I was smugly sure I wasn’t going to experience that. I run my life at Mach one, write like a crazy person once I settle down to it, still have the energy to lunch with friends, shop for vintage Western clothes on eBay, email, post Facebook stuff that makes me laugh, do laundry, walk dogs, make jam, and dinner, so that means I’ll be too busy to think about getting old. Well, newsflash, it doesn’t work that way. You can make light of it all you want. Nobody escapes the Time Guy, however. And the flu is the perfect time to have all of that come to the surface because there is nothing else to distract you.
Nothing except coughing, chills, aching, fever, and shortness of breath.
Upgrade to Flu-pocalypse.
I always get a flu shot. When I get sick, I go to the doctor. On Day 3, I got antibiotics for the secondary infection in my lungs. They seemed to work. The day I felt well enough to get up, I went straight back to the Mach one, making a giant pan of chile egg puff, putting a stew into the Crockpot, food to freeze, so we’d never be caught without meals again. I tried to write an insightful letter to one of my private students. Every 10 minutes I had to stop and rest. I did tons of laundry. After two days of this kind of pace, not only did I feel sick again, my cough got a little worse.
I ignored it.
Until I had to admit, I was not drawing breath normally. However bad it was that morning, later that afternoon, I realized it was much worse. There were no doctor appointments available. I bit the bullet and called Stewart at work. “I need to go to the Urgent Care,” I said. “I don’t think I’m in good enough shape to drive myself.”
At Urgent Care, in a room full of people hacking just like me, I donned a surgical mask and waited for it to be my turn.
The RNP who saw me said, “Take a deep breath.”
“No, I mean a deep breath, mouth open.”
“I…gasp…am,” I said.
This did not bode well. I had a breathing treatment, got an Rx for an asthma inhaler and cough syrup strong enough to knock down Mt. Rushmore. I went home, slept for hours and hours, and woke up wheezing. Things were slightly better, but not enough better that I had any faith in the inhaler. Went for a chest X-ray. It came back negative for pneumonia. But I was still getting worse. Yesterday I saw my regular doctor’s partner, and had another breathing treatment.
“You have walking pneumonia,” she said, and this is the kind of person I am, I heard the Aussie song, “Waltzing Matilda” in my brain and tried to make a joke. She did not laugh. “This will take 4-6 weeks to recover from,” she said. “If you get the tiniest bit worse, I will put you on oxygen. In fact, that might be a good idea for nights.”
Mach one Jo-Ann has left the building. Even when I am (please, God) well again, this sobering experience will stay with me. No more endless hours on eBay, Facebook, playing Jewel Quest on the iPad, farting around.
Writing will be priority.
I will make plans for the books I must write before my life ends.
I acknowledge that my life will end, and behave accordingly.
I will read more, even if it means I am not up to date on Downton Abbey.
Reading isn’t a guilty pleasure.
Reading is how this whole writer thing began, and I am not missing anymore great books ever.
Hardest of all to admit was this: When writing becomes too hard for this old lady, I plan to stop. Whether that will be once this book is finished or ten more down the line, after it isn’t fun anymore, like Lois Gilbert, the filmmaker, I’ll find something else to do that refills my cup. I remember seeing The World According to Garp, when Garp says he’s stopping writing. His wife is concerned. He says, “If I miss it, I’ll start again.” I hope I can be brave enough to say and mean that. My body will surely alert me by doing something dramatic. Life isn’t writing first and living second. Any second you can get a stubborn flu, or food poisoning, or find yourself in the wrong place at the wrong time. My dad died of a heart attack at 47. Not one day goes by I don’t wonder if he had taken care of himself, how different my life would have been. I have a few health issues already. Once a doctor, with marvelous bedside manner, told me, “Your disease will eventually progress and you will die from it.” I wasn’t even fifty when she said that.
Aging in this business isn’t as dreadful as in acting, I don’t think. But as an avid reader, I see new writers coming on the scene who have great things to say, who press the boundaries of the known, and one day in the past I might’ve been jealous and irked, and wanted to quick write something better. Post-flu, I take my cowboy hat off to them. I buy their books full price. I recommend them to my students. I write about them on Crackbook, I mean, Facebook. What flu teaches you is that at some point, you’ve done what you set out to do. You don’t have to prove yourself anymore. I will venture to say that even if you don’t ever publish, having written ought to be enough. Think of those manuscripts discovered in people’s attics that go on to be published, lauded, enjoyed. Most people never write beyond a shopping list. The effort matters. The getting published part is a crapshoot.
And then life throws rusty wrenches, but occasionally,roses.
That’s what I woke up to this morning. My advice? Wake up every day, and take whatever comes with as much good humor as you can.
Jo-Ann Mapson is the author of eleven novels and a book of short stories. Her work is widely anthologized and her literary papers are being collected by Boston University’s Twentieth Century Author’s Collection. Finding Casey, featuring some of the characters from Solomon’s Oak, was published October 2012. Core faculty and co-creator of The University of Alaska Anchorage’s low-residency MFA Program in Writing, she lives with her husband and their three Italian greyhounds in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where she is at work on a new novel. Owen’s Daughter will be published in 2014 by Bloomsbury Publishers. Meet her on YouTube or at her website.