Sickness is going around. The big sick. One we’ll always remember, because a lot of us have gotten it, and a lot of us didn’t get better. A sick I’ve been scared of, because I’ve been the kind of sick that gets you. And now, it feels very much like it’s gotten me again, and there’s a strong likelihood this could be that big sick, and there’s no telling just how bad it might get. I only hope that if this is the big sick, it’ll let me go without getting much worse than it is right now. But we’ll just have to wait and see.
I don’t like being sick.l’ve a lot of memories of being bedridden I’d rather not remember. Would you like a tale, friends? I’m feverish and unwell and I’ll give you one. But it won’t be pleasant.
Oh? You’re still here? All right. I’ll tell you, then.
Some of us know we shouldn’t have made it out. Like we were the wrong twin, the wrong egg, something that came out less than we should be, and we feel it. We know it. Something unmade or undone, left behind.
For me, it was my heart. Leaky thing. Holes. Busted valves. A vessel that stayed open like a drafty attic door. All that blood, going nowhere. And you know what happens with busted pipes. Holes. If you don’t patch them up and replace them, the kind of damage you get can be enough to render a thing unto uselessness. Nothing but damage. The heart is the engine of our bodies. And me with my busted pipes and busted valves and blood going nowhere, well, I had maybe forty years if they didn’t fix me. If they didn’t, that engine would seize and I’d die quick. One big shudder before the whole thing gave up.
You know these things when it’s your own body. You can feel it. A strange sense that something is not quite right with you. And as a kid, I was small, underweight, and I reeked of weakness in ways the wrong kind of kids couldn’t resist. Like they could smell the blood leaking inside me and knew I was prey.
It didn’t help that I cried easy, messily, the kind of angry, frustrated tears that smell and taste almost like blood. A lot of things made me a sad kid, but the bullying was a big one. So the friends I did have? They were those special folk who smelled weakness and felt called to protect it. Kind adults who’d let me garden with them and give me bandaids for my scrapes and give me a place to feel safe. Try to nurture the kindness in me, so I wouldn’t forget it and turn hard and warped and broken like I could. Like I might.
The kindest of these folks was a lady across the street with two cats and a garden full of brussel sprouts. I can’t remember her face anymore, but I knew she had green eyes and black hair and she dressed plain, but she was so pretty. The kind of person whose nature just shines out of them, makes them pretty from the inside out. Warm like a fire in a hearth. Warm like the sun.
She died. Real sudden. And seeing her in a box with all her light and warmth leached from her, it was like the sun went out.
You know how they say some folks die of heartbreak?
I was born with a broken heart but what I saw in that box busted the true part of it clean in two. Broke me, cause her time was up three years before the expiration date nature and God had given me. Thirty-seven, so young she looked like all she had to do was wake up, but even at seven, I knew she wouldn’t.
She’d never sit up again, laugh again, smile again. She was dead and I knew in that moment what dead was. What was waiting for me. For all of us. We’d all end up in those boxes eventually. My brother, my father, my mother and sister. And me, engine seized up too early, gone waxy and cold in a box. And the box would disintegrate, and our bones turn to dust, and we’d lay in the dark earth waiting, like every generation before us has, to go back to what we were before.
It’s too big a knowing for a seven-year-old. Too dark a thing to comprehend. But I was broken and it got its hooks in me. Invaded me like a pathogen, like a sickness, deep down into the cells of my body and the neurons in my brain, even into that place that houses the holy part we call a soul. And the knowing was so strong it felt like it’d rip it clean out of me, and sometimes, I think it almost did.
You can die of heartbreak. And me, with my leaky, busted heart and a compromised immune system, well, I was ready earlier than most. So when that sickness got in, it got in deep, and it came on me fast. Wrenched every drop of tear and sweat till my skin turned yellow and pinched, and there was nothing left to void itself from me. Three days in, I couldn’t keep anything in or down and I was tired, I was so tired I closed my eyes and knew it was done.
There was a box in the ground I’d wanted to climb into weeks ago. It was a little late, now, but I was ready.
My mama wasn’t.
I woke up in the hospital. The memory is fuzzy. They pumped water back into me, kept pumping till I came back. Till I was back in my skin, enough to see my mother and my aunt take turns watching over me. And after a couple days, they brought me home, and another close friend came and held me, and I can hear clear as day the way her voice shook when she said “I thought we’d lose you, too.”
It’s a dark thing, knowing you almost died when you know what dead is.
It’s a darker thing to know it trapped in a bed with your body too weak to get up.
November stole over us as I laid in that bed, knowing. And knowing. And knowing. I’d been so close but I came back and it hurt to come back alone.
I came back, but the lady who died had not.
And I laid in that small bed until one night, she did.
I heard her.
I crawled out of my bed as though compelled. Some things, it doesn’t matter how weak you are. You drag yourself through it because you have to know. You have to see. I got to my window, and I looked out into that dark, midnight world, and there, in the garden across the street, I saw her. That plain white dress. Barefoot, like I remembered. Walking through the garden, singing.
My strength came back. It surged through me. I scrambled to my feet and down the stairs and out the door, like if I could just move fast enough I’d be able to reach her.
But by the time I got outside, she was gone.
And it was just me, alone on a cold November night, searching in the dark for something I knew in my bones I would never find again.
Was it real?
These days, I don’t know, but I still look anyway. If we can come back somehow, escape that box, remake ourselves from air and memory in the minds of those who knew us, that’s a bit of life after death after all. We stay alive in that way, as long as one person still remembers us. And we go on, and on, even when they can’t remember our faces or our voice or the way we laughed. Until that memory disappears entirely, we are still here.
That’s enough to go on.
I’ve many more ghost stories in me to tell, and as far as I know, they fixed that engine of mine years ago. It’s always ticked a little faster, maybe ‘cause of the knowing that stayed with me.
Yeah, we all go into that box one day. Bone or ash, we can’t stay here as we are. But there’s a little something more of us that stays because it’s always been here and always will be, even when the breath and thought escapes our mortal forms. Not left behind. Not forgotten. It can go on forever, if you find a way.
I don’t know how long the ink will last, but that’s how I will always be right here.