Saturday is a big day for my man, and hence for me. Don’t want to go into details, but it involves a rocket and a private island in the middle of nowhere. (Now if only he had a maniacal laugh and a pet cat to stroke…)
He’s been on Kwaj — the island — since Tuesday or so: There is periodic heavy rain throughout the day and the wind is so strong that it blows the rain sideways. However, it passes within a few minutes and the sun returns to dry you out. His younger brother, K., a chef who lives in Boulder and co-owns a thriving restaurant called The Kitchen, is on the island with him and has been running an online commentary of his own.
Took my lovely mother and the twins to a friend’s house in the hills for Thanksgiving dinner. Great company, great meal. One friend, Jason, stuck a video camera in my face and asked me what I was thankful for. I’d been contemplating this a little earlier. “I’m thankful that my man didn’t die of malaria several years ago,” I said, because he came damn close, and Jason lowered the camera a little and looked at me wide-eyed. I said, “You don’t know this story?”
There have been two serious illnesses in my life, and neither has happened to me. When we were kids, my younger sister came down with spinal meningitis. She was semi-comatose for three days and I didn’t know what the hell was going on. People tried to explain it to me, but I couldn’t grasp, or refused to grasp, how serious it was. My mother woke early one morning to find my sister vomiting and sensed that something was very, very wrong, rushed her to the hospital. If she had hesitated, waited even an hour before taking action, the story would not have this happy ending. My sister survived and escaped brain damage.
Five years ago my husband E and I went to South Africa. He grew up there, had family there. We spent time in Pretoria, Cape Town, and in the bush near the Mozambique border. We took malaria pills, although we didn’t take them all that seriously: we were in a supposedly low-risk area and possessed that cocky mix of youth and health and strength, didn’t know anything different. Disease didn’t seem like it could touch us. (It’s amazing to me now that I could have honestly thought this, but I was still a couple of years away from the tragedy that would truly and finally set me right about my own vulnerability to fate, chance, bad luck, bad nature. I’ll never be that cavalier again, and the fact that I was that way at all, and for so long, is a sign of how fortunate my life has been.)
What we didn’t know: there had been recent flooding in Mozambique that had turned a low-risk malarial area into a high-risk area. E — who had pointed out many times that he spent 17 years in South Africa, never took a malarial pill, never came down with anything — came down with disturbing symptoms shortly after our return to California (at that point we were in the northern rather than the southern part of it). He went to the hospital. Tests for malaria came up negative. He was diagnosed with viral meningitis, which makes you feel terrible but isn’t fatal. He couldn’t keep anything down, however, including the malarial pills.
What we didn’t know: he not only had malaria, he had the worst and killing strain of it, and the pills don’t prevent the disease but suppress it. The pills which he was no longer taking. The disease danced into his bloodstream and started to party.
When the malaria first presented itself, we thought it was still the viral meningitis. Which makes you feel terrible but isn’t fatal.
Because I was young, cavalier, and stupid, I did not force him back to the hospital as quickly as I should have. I was not the way my mother was with my sister all those years ago — who realized immediately how sick her little girl was, grabbed her, and ran. By the time E was in the hospital again and being treated for the correct kind of malaria*, he was less than two days away from being ‘irrecoverable’, when the disease would have caused so much damage in his body that all the doctors could have done was make him comfortable as he died.
But E lived, of course, and now we have two little sons.
So I’m thankful for that.
*His malaria was initially misdiagnosed in the lab as a much more benign strain. If the doctors had proceeded with that diagnosis — instead of giving him the treatment he actually needed, which was so aggressive he had to be kept in the ICU and constantly monitored in case the treatment itself threatened to kill him — he also would have died. The good news, however, is that this strain of malaria is also the one strain that gets completely and thoroughly killed off — E is truly cured of it and will never have a relapse.