I didn’t get the H1N1 (aka “Swine Flu”) shot. In fact, I mocked the whole thing and, secretly, all my peers (those my age) who got one. I feel like everyone who does this sort of thing on a yearly basis for any flu is a hypochondriac. Unless, of course, you have some pre-existing condition where your immune system may be weak or compromised. For people like me–young, healthy, athletic–it seems ludicrous to feed into such hype. I rarely get sick as it is. Once a year, maybe twice. I’m not exposed to much, having no children who bring various “bugs” into my home from school or other “bug-infested” children.
Now I know there’s been different talk about H1N1 and how it has affected people younger than me. It seems most of these women were pregnant. Some of them may have had other issues. Either way, I didn’t feel the need to alter my convictions for a so-called epidemic. (How many such scares have we had in the last year?) I feel like I have a hearty immune system. My only on-going health complaint is asthma… and despite the fact that H1N1 seems to attack people with respiratory weaknesses, I still refused to go out of my way to get the shot.
So fast-forward to this week as I find myself with a cold. My mom has stated in the past that sometimes what I think is a cold is actually a flu. I pretty much thought a flu was something I haven’t had since my childhood where you are dizzy, alternately wracked with chills and fever heat, and throwing up a few times an hour. But I looked up flu symptoms online and found that they actually represent in much the same way as a cold. In fact, “cold and flu” are both listed as the same entry on wikipedia. Not that wikipedia is the source of all knowledge. I’m just saying.
Anyway, yesterday I suffered from muscle aching that wasn’t associated with my stupid decision to exercise that morning. My face felt like it was exploding with pressure. I don’t think I was running a fever; I never had a chance to check. I thought my face felt hot, but I’ve thought that before only to find no abnormal temperature when I checked later. I had the alternately stuffy and runny nose.
This morning I woke up feeling as thought a gorilla was sitting on my chest. (No, it wasn’t my cat.) But that might have just been the NyQuil I took before bed. I was worried that this might develop into issues with my breathing and lungs later during the day, but it–thankfully–never did. I have just a slight cough right now. I’m sure that will get worse as the week goes on. All my colds end in at least one day of endless coughing. Yuck.
Throughout the day at work today, I could barely keep my eyes open. A few times I caught myself starting to drift off–you know, that feeling where the room starts to disappear for just a second and the sound in the room becomes a soothing, unintelligible mumble. It almost happened once during a meeting, too. Ugh. I was struggling to stay awake all day. I decided when I got home, I would just sit around and veg. Which I did. After doing the much-needed grocery shopping and stopping at a pet store to pick up equally much-needed cat litter.
So I sat on the couch, watched a movie, let my cats comfort me. But I couldn’t completely concentrate on the movie. I was having visions of going to bed tonight and not waking up. My mom, who works as a respiratory therapist at a local hospital, filled my head with images of young girls on ventilators due to H1N1. I started to worry that perhaps I have H1N1. I thought about the last communication I’d had with my various friends today, through Facebook and email, assuring Joanna and Diane that I’d be all right for a trip to Columbus on Friday, making jokes with various people about their Facebook statuses, talking to people at work so casually during the meeting about the cold. What would they all think if I didn’t wake up from my sleep because I’d chosen to not take some stupid vaccination based on the stupid principle of not wanting to be labeled a hypochondriac like all the people I silently mocked for their fear of an upcoming epidemic?
I am a person with a faith that turns on and off. Most of the time, I’m pretty convinced that there’s no life after death. I imagine dying being like the time I fell off my bike at upwards of 20 m.p.h when I hit a dog… only I wouldn’t wake up in the ambulance a half-hour later. No, this time, I’d never wake up. I’d be lost in that enveloping darkness in which consciousness does not exist. I had no dreams in my unconsciousness. No thoughts. Nothing. One minute, I was swerving on my bike to avoid an inevitable collision with a dog and in my next conscious moment, I was waking up very confused in an ambulance with paramedics all around me saying my name. I didn’t remember immediately, then, what had happened. I didn’t know why I was in that ambulance until one of the paramedics informed me I’d hit a dog. Then I remembered it all. Well, all of it until the point where I actually hit the dog. That part’s still a blank. And all the part in between is blank.
I think the reason I talk about that accident so much is because it was an eye-opener for me. It happened while I was living in Colorado. I had no family or friends around and I had to completely rely on myself to get through the whole situation post-accident. I had recently broken up with my boyfriend, who had moved out there to be with me, and he was out-of-town for work. I was totally alone. And I could have died.
The blankness of unconsciousness, that moment of waking up very confused in an ambulance and not knowing how I got there–both these moments made me realize how easy it is to die without even knowing what’s coming. Had I not been wearing a helmet that day, there is a very real possibility, judging by the fist sized dent in the helmet–it could have been my head–that I could have died. How long would it have been before someone would have found my parents’ number to call them? Would anyone know to call them? What would work have done if I never showed up the next day? With no one to check up on me, I could have been missing for a long, long time. I think this experience confirmed for me that deciding to move back to Ohio (which I already had in motion) was the best choice. Even in death, I wouldn’t want to be a forgotten person, a body no one would know what to do with.
I can’t help but wonder if that’s exactly what death is like. Just disappearing. Forever. Gone. Like petals on the wind. Like fireworks fading in the sky, leaving behind darkness. I wouldn’t even know it happened. But all my friends and family would. And they’d just go on like they always do. No, I’m not vying for pity or assurance here. I’m just saying, they would go on as my life has gone on since Mike died. My memory would linger for a while. They would feel a lot of pain–especially my mom–but eventually the pain would lessen and they’d go on living. It would be a very sad thing all around, but just another event in the series of events that make up one’s life and shape a person.
And me. I’d be nowhere. That’s absolutely frightening. Looking into the engulfing blackness my mind has filled in as the space I experienced as I was unconscious, I fear death. I fear ending. It’s so much easier to just take on any faith–or make one up–than deal with the idea that you might be blindsided by death without any of the preparation–no chance to say goodbye or let go peacefully. I am Fox Moulder with a poster in my office that proclaims, “I want to believe.”
I want to, I want to, I want to. But at the end of the day, I mostly don’t. Rather than gain spiritual insight from what was for me a near-death experience (though it was only being knocked unconscious and having a concussion), I lost some spirituality that day. No, no, I wasn’t expecting a near-death experience; I’m sure I was nowhere near death. The experience of that day just put me in touch with something I’d never experienced before, even after Mike died: I was shown the fragility of my mortality. It shook the foundations of everything I was. In a way, I’ve been running from that experience since it happened.
So today I got panicky because I always liken dying to that bike accident. I started to think about no waking up in the morning due to some respiratory failure caused by a H1N1 virus I mistakenly called a cold. I could see my mom crying and shouting at me the way I shouted at Mike’s dead body in the hospital room, “Why didn’t you just take that vaccination??”
This is not a “come to Jesus” moment. I probably don’t have H1N1 and I still don’t feel compelled to take the vaccination. I think H1N1 is just another thing in a long list of things I find to fear on a daily basis. I don’t let my fear destroy me. It doesn’t stop me from doing the things I love to do; I continued to ride my bike after the Dog Incident, though I’m a bit more careful than I used to be. I go the places I want to go even though every once in a while on an airplane, I think too much about it going down (and I love flying). Or I find myself wondering if a headache I have is cancer. I’m probably a bit more of a closet hypochondriac than I used to be. I guess the world sometimes to me feels full of danger I never saw before. And I’m ay too aware of it.
In pleasanter moments, I try to imagine that I continue to exist when I die. It doesn’t make much sense–I’ve never seen anyone dead walking around as a ghost–so my imagination of it is ridiculous. I try to picture myself relieved when the act of dying is over and I no longer have to fear it. I try to picture myself haunting the heck out of my family and friends just to let them know that they were right, that there is something beyond this life.
And then I try to think about seeing Mike in that light they say is there. I wonder if he would look like himself or something astral. I would know him right away, I am sure. We would fly through the Universe, exploring stars and watching other civilizations. I try to stay in this place whenever I think of accidentally dying too soon rather than think about that scary place where I cease to exist. It’s hard to imagine anyone–myself especially–just not existing.
It’s really hard to picture all that because it doesn’t seem to make sense. Yet it’s just as hard to conceive of all these thoughts and talents and ideas and goals and dreams and questions–everything that is me–just ceasing to exist. I try to use this realization of self and intelligence as my proof that there is more to life than what we can see, smell, hear, taste. But really, all that comprises my personality is just a bunch of neurons firing in my head. They aren’t any more real or consequential as those alien landscapes I imagine in my head for the stories I’ve never written. Or Santa Claus. So I guess I’m just looking at the importance of existence through the centric lens of my human arrogance. We may be just a happy accident of evolution and when we’re gone, we cease to be.
I hope that’s not the case. But I fear it is. And I don’t want to die. Nor do I want any more important people in my life to die.