To keep myself from going completely insane, I’ve been keeping as physically active as I can, despite all the home/yard improvement projects and the heat we’ve had. I’ve been walking an average of 100 miles a month and bicycling over 150 miles, and to keep me focused while I’ve stripped wallpaper and walked mile after mile, I’ve been listening to an audiobook we got at the library: Stephen King’s “Under the Dome.” The book takes place in a very small town in Maine (shocking, I know, considering Stephen King NEVER writes about small towns in Maine), and within the first chapter of the book, every resident of the town is trapped underneath an invisible, impermeable dome, completely cut off from the outside world. I’m only about 3/4 of the way through the audiobook (the book itself is so long that the unabridged audiobook is something like 30 hours long), but the story is interesting enough and the characters are fleshed-out well enough that it keeps my brain occupied while I’m doing something mindless like hours and hours of walking in the heat under my sun hat.
Since we’ve been here, oh, about 8 months longer than we expected to be, we’ve on occasion tried to take advantage of some of the things going on here in town. We walked to the city’s fireworks display on the fourth of July, spreading our blanket out on the high school football field and feeling the rain of explosive detritus on our faces. We’ve ridden our bikes to the river park and gone swimming in a mostly-secluded swimming hole, which is both free and refreshing. We’ve even gone to the Friday Night Live a couple of times, which offers a farmer’s market, lots of booths set up by local restaurants selling food, a couple of local winery sponsors and free live music. One time Sara came, and that was nice. 🙂 But for the most part, because we’re at a point where we really can’t afford the gas to go anywhere other than Santa Rosa once a week for grocery shopping, our world has essentially shrunk. I’ve begun to feel trapped like a rat in a cage, my world condensed to the house, the yard, and the places I go walking and bike riding.
While I’m usually the more upbeat of the two of us, even I can’t maintain optimism forever. It wasn’t until I started listening to more and more of the audiobook, getting more and more agitated listening to all of the horrible things people trapped in a small town are capable of doing to one another, that I realized just how much of my mood and my despair were tied to listening to that book. The police in the story turn into a very bad man’s personal army. I see a police car driving by and I shrink away. Descriptions are given of various personal relationships, and I think of people fitting those descriptions who still live here in town (either they left and came back or they never left.) Granted, the town we’re in isn’t nearly as small as the one in the King story, but it’s still a small town, and I’m still feeling as though I have almost no control over my life, and the drawbacks to small-town living just keep rearing their heads in my brain. Some days, I feel like I’m going to explode.
Then, last week, something changed.
I’ve written before about my friend Heather – but to sum up, she’s a high school friend who chose to live here and raise her family here after getting married. She’s chronically ill with a variety of autoimmune disorders and has two young children, and has been off work on short-term disability leave for nearly a year now. Recently, she’s been back in full-blown disease state with her Crohn’s Disease and, despite an operation in February that she was hoping would help get things back on track, has yet to get any better. She basically got down to two options – either get involved with a clinical trial testing new medication, or take a medication that has proven helpful with patients similar to her in the past, yet has a nonzero chance of making the patient contract a noncurable virus that causes fatal encephalopathy. Heather is 33 years old, has a 7-year-old and a 3-year-old, and a husband and extended family who love her very much. She also has a promising career as a neonatal nurse, a blistering sense of humor, and an incredible spirit. Though she’s been sick for most of her adult life, she’s never let anything get her down.
A couple of weeks ago, Heather was in the hospital again, and was given a devastating choice. No clinical trial would take a patient who already had an ostomy, so she was faced with essentially permanent disability or try the new medication that had a chance of killing her. She chose to take the new medication, and two days later was released from the hospital with a low-grade fever. I brought some flowers from our yard to her house so she’d get to see them when she got home. 12 hours after release, her fever was up to 106.8F and she was rushed back to the hospital.
The first thing I thought of, of course, was that somehow that opportunistic virus had found her right away. Which is crazy, right? But what else could cause such a horrible reaction so quickly? Heather wrote on Facebook about how scared she was, and I could tell the gravity of the situation because there were no jokes – just frank, abject fear. I wrote on Facebook and twitter imploring people I knew to put good thoughts out into the universe for her, as did many of her other friends. And then it started to happen. People we’d known from high school posted on her Wall and posted status updates of their own. People sent me messages, asking if I’d heard any updates. An outpouring of support came from people all over the county, the state, and the country, many of whom hadn’t seen Heather since we graduated and knew almost nothing about Heather’s life now or what her illness might be, but offered prayers and good thoughts. One classmate, now in Nevada, even offered to sew clothes for her kids so she wouldn’t have to worry about back-to-school shopping!
After the doctors figured out what was causing Heather’s scary high temperature (neutropenia, which is not at all fun but treatable), she sent a message out on Facebook to everyone who had contacted her, mentioning how thankful she was for everyone’s good wishes and noting that there were benefits to growing up an a small town, where everyone knows everyone. Thanks to social media, we all know one another’s business just as much as we did when we took the same classes every day and passed each other in the same hallways, but even 15 years later many of us care when one of us is in trouble. It made me think about how even though I’ve loved (nearly) every minute of living in big cities and never regretted moving away from this place, if I’d gone to a big city high school I might never have seen such an outpouring of support for a friend who was really in need. There truly are good things about small towns even if, these days, they’re difficult to see. I may be trapped here right now, but I’m able-bodied and healthy, and if nothing else I can put good intentions out into the universe for my friends who aren’t so lucky.