A Healthy Illness
Sunday Night Journal — January 18, 2004
As if to remind me of a fundamental contrariness in the nature of things, certain signs of illness began to make themselves known to me around 4pm on the Friday before this three-day weekend. Apart from a few chronic structural problems, such as a bad back, I’m quite healthy—rarely ill and even more rarely ill enough to miss work. I’m also fairly sedentary and don’t generally ask much beyond the minimum from my body, or pay very much attention to it. So I’m always a little surprised when it suddenly resists or refuses the more or less automatic functioning that comprises most of its duties.
What I’ve experienced over the past couple of days is nothing much: it’s what my mother has always called “a bug,” making its presence known by mild nausea, weakness, and headache. If survival depended on my walking ten miles I could do it, but I really would rather not move any more than necessary, and so have spent most of the weekend in the recliner in the living room. And I can’t say that it has been a totally unpleasant experience. I’ve had a little reading, a little music, a little television, and a lot of looking out the window.
It rained all day Saturday. I live on the Alabama Gulf coast where even in January there is still a lot of green in the woods across the way, including the dark gleam of a magnolia. Throughout the day I watched the curtain of rain grow now more dense, now more thin, constantly varying the mixture of silver, grey, and green presented to me until the picture faded to black.
Because it is such a rare experience, this sort of temporary incapacity always serves me as a useful reminder that the body is not only subject to temporary failure but will indeed fail entirely one day. At the age of fifty-five this fact is increasingly of interest to me. Once I had no particular uneasiness about death, but that was only a failure of imagination. Some Christians have, or say they have (I don’t know whether to believe them or not) perfect certainty that when death comes they will close their eyes and wake up in heaven. I have some faith and a great deal of hope, but I'm also a man of reason and I don’t consider it utterly impossible that Christian beliefs are false, or that if they are true there is any guarantee that I will find myself among the sheep and not the goats. The one thing of which I’m absolutely assured is that, barring the Second Coming or some other direct intervention by God, I am, as the old song says, going to walk that lonesome valley, and I’m going to walk it by myself.
As I watched the rain fall I thought about the two live oaks we’ve recently planted, one in the front yard and one in the back. A few weeks ago my wife and I drove spikes of fertilizer in the ground around them and have been waiting for just such a good soaking rain as this. I thought with satisfaction of the spikes getting wet, and wetter, slowly dissolving, the nutrients seeping into the soil and being picked up by the roots of our young trees. A full-grown live oak is one of the most heartening sights in the world to me. They grow slowly, and I won’t live to see these trees in their full glory. But with some care and some luck (including a settlement of a now-distant but inevitable territorial dispute between one of the trees and the power lines) they will be magnificent one day, and someone will get the joy of them. That is a fine thought.