Breathing Room

The diagnosis: pneumonia. I receive it the day before my grandmother dies in 1987. I am in South Texas. She is in Omaha. I have inherited three things from her; a love of gambling, a shaking case of alcoholism and a stellar work ethic that I use to rub the risks and alcoholism off of me. She is not good with children. Now that I have become some sort of adult, she is doubly unsure of what to make of me, especially since I have begun to claw my way up and out of the realm of the blue-collar work that makes sense to her.   

I feel crummy. No energy. The owner of the satellite radio station where I work convinces the osteopath to give me an appointment. I head over to the office. This is back in the days when everyone smokes. There are ashtrays in the waiting room. I know I am sick because I do not want to smoke. 

The doctor calls me into the examining room, listens to my back, my sides and my chest. He thumps and thumps and thumps again, listening for something only he can hear. He then says simply, “You have pneumonia.” 

I explain I need to work, and I do not have sick leave. I explain I am in the cast of “The Crucible” at the local theater and they need me to show up. 

He says, while scribbling on his prescription pad, “You have a choice. Take these prescriptions, have them filled, go home and stay there for two weeks, or go back to work tomorrow and I will drive over to the radio station and take you to the hospital.” He hands me the prescriptions. “It’s up to you.”

I do not like the choices, but decide if I am going to die, I would rather die at home.  I take the prescriptions, have them filled, stop by Secondhand Books and stock up on Doonesbury cartoon books, get a lot of club soda and orange juice and head home with a fist full of drugs. 

I make it home just in time. The fatigue is so heavy I literally cannot move. 

The next day, I am so sick I can no longer read the comic books, nor watch TV, and make sense of it. Day blurs into night and night into day. I cannot walk through the tiny apartment anymore and instead crawl from the futon sofa to the bathroom and back again. The kitchen, midway between couch and toilet, becomes the rest stop where I kneel in front of the fridge, chugging liquids. Hours elapse in fits and starts of sleep and wakefulness. It is precisely at this point that my mother calls.

“Say,” she begins, as she always does when something matters to her. “Ed just called to tell me that your Grandma died yesterday. I need you to come to Omaha with me for the funeral.”

“I have pneumonia.” I say.

“The funeral is the day after tomorrow. You can fly. Get a plane out of Corpus through Dallas to Omaha. I mean,” she continues, “you wouldn’t have to drive.”

I am aware of the weight of the receiver in my hand, curious about the sound of this woman’s voice coming out of the hand by my ear. I cough and reach for the inhaler, close one eye to see if I can decipher the directions.  They just swim. I feel like Bill the Cat. GAK! 

“I’ve got pneumonia, Ma” I repeat. “I don’t think I can go.”

“How do you know you have pneumonia?” she asks.

I begin to shiver and sweat. “Well, I can’t breathe, I have no energy and the Hensler’s sent me to a doctor who said I have pneumonia. I was going to tell you Sunday when I called.”

Lost in the shuffle of days, I am fairly sure it is still Thursday. My mother and I speak weekly. Back in the days of landlines and long-distance charges she never, ever calls me, unless someone dies. That is her job. Otherwise, forever and always, it is my job to call her weekly to check in and listen to what is happening to her. I do not yet tell her much about my life, because well, some things are on a need to know basis, and I figure most of my life consists of situations about which she just does not need to know.

“Well, you can fly, right? I mean, that’s not like driving to Omaha is it?”

“I gotta go, Ma.” I say. “I need to sleep on it. I’ll let you know tomorrow.” 

The call saps all my strength and I am asleep again as soon as I hang up. I need to call my sponsor and ask her what to do but I cannot will myself back to wakefulness. And then, miraculously, the phone rings. It is my sponsor, Linda.

“My grandmother died, and my mother wants me to meet her in Omaha for the funeral day after tomorrow,” I say. The TV whispers in the background and I realize I am watching a continuation of a story that I watched in my teens, with one of the same actresses. The world feels slanted as if I am beginning to slip toward the edge. I lay back on the sofa. 

“If I recall correctly, you are sick,” Linda says. “And I don’t mean you have some sniffles. You are good and sick.” As if to punctuate the end of the sentence, a wet, “HOOS-hoos-hoos” of a cough flies out of me. The effort of coughing makes the ceiling above me spin, even while I am lying on the couch. 

“Yes,” I say. “I am sick.” 

“And if one of the girls you look after came to you and asked you what they should do, if they were in this situation, what would you tell them.”

“Too sick.” I croak.

“That’s right.” She says this patiently and not unkindly. “You are too sick to be traveling to Omaha for a funeral. You do that and the rest of us will be going to your funeral. We do not want that.”

The orange cat delighting in the fact that I am home, wedges himself between me and the back of the futon and purrs furiously. When I cough, he eyes me suspiciously and jumps down.

Once again, I am aware of the weight of the phone in my hand and the sound of this woman’s voice in my ear and once again, before the phone hits the cradle, I crash into sleep again. 

The sleep, crawl, drink, sleep routine continues for what feels like forever. I am flabbergasted by how thirsty I am even as I drown in my own fluids. 

My mother takes the news of my staying home poorly, but there is nothing I can do about it. Literally.

After five days I turn a corner. I can walk to the toilet. I can watch TV for 20 minutes before I lose the plot. I can read a few pages of Doonesbury again and smile. 

In another five days I am comfortable getting up and cooking food for myself. I walk to the street to pick up my mail from the box and Linda brings a meeting to the house. It is good to have these four women in the house and to have something besides the TV and comic books to think about. I have been home for 12 days.

On day 13 I decide I can go back to work just to run the control board for the high school football game. This is part of my job. During football season I sit in the control room of the radio station, while Chuck, the newsman, does the play by play of the Rockport High School home football games. I know I am getting better because I am looking forward to being out of the house. 

It is a 55-minute drive out of Corpus to Rockport. I get in the champagne beige Honda Civic hatchback, my first real car, and drive over the bridge to Portland, around the curve to the right past the sandwich shop my friend Sally’s family owns, on through Aransas Pass and then turn down the shell and dirt road to the radio station. Although all the ads say that KPLAY is in Rockport it is squarely in the middle of nowhere. Scorpions live in the crawl space above the building and in the wet season king snakes come out of the brush to warm up on the parking lot. I arrive, check around the car, and head into the station. 

“You shouldn’t be here,” Chuck scolds. “You should be at home.”

“It’s okay.” I say. “I’m alright to run the board. How much energy can it take?”

I realize the drive cost me more energy than I anticipated it would. I pull up a stool, sit in front of the control board and say, “Get outta here. You have a game to call.” 

Chuck rolls his eyes. “I’m locking the door when I leave. There should not be anyone else around tonight. I’ll come back and check on you. You are not to go home until I am back.”

“Yes, sir,” I say and give him a backhanded salute. I settle in for a long and boring game. 

I am drinking tea and not smoking. Not much anyway. I have smoked three cigarettes all day, which is about 17 fewer than usual, but who’s counting. When the game is over and Chuck returns, flush with the excitement of a win, I realize there is no way that I am going to be able to drive home. 

“So?” he says. “How did it go?”

I am so exhausted I can hardly hold my eyes open. It is as if he suddenly sees what I feel.

“Nope, you are not driving home.” He goes to the phone and calls his wife, Brenda. “Casey can sleep on the couch. She can’t drive home,” he tells her. He pauses for a minute, I think I see his neck stiffen, and then he is saying,” I’m hanging up.”

He turns to me and says, “C’mon.”

I follow him obediently to the old Toyota Corolla. There is no AC in the car, and we drive through the night with the windows rolled down, in silence. I can smell the salt of the bay and the moon shines brightly overhead now. The breeze is warm and soft. 

Brenda is not waiting for us. She is off to bed. Casey is on the couch, peeking out from under a sheet, giggling because something different is happening. 

“Right this way,” Chuck says to me and “Thanks for taking the couch, buddy,” to Casey. 

Voices from the kitchen wake me in the morning. When I make my way there, Chuck is reading the paper and drinking coffee. Brenda does the kids breakfast dishes, and everything seems fine. 

“Thanks for letting me stay,” I say to them both. “There was no way to know how much the drive was going to take out of me.”

“You better go home and get ready for the week,” Chuck says. “The Hensler’s are expecting you on Monday. Brenda went with me earlier and we brought your car back here.”

“Oh, wow. Thanks,” I say. “This coming week is dress rehearsal for the play as well. I hope I can manage it all.”

“Good luck with that,” he says. Brenda leaves the room.

“Okay, then,” I say. “I better get going.”

“Just go rest,” he says.

I nod and head for the door.

Monday, I find that I can manage the full day at work and the drive there and back, but I lay down at home before going to the tech week rehearsals. Tech week is boring and hard. Hours of boredom punctuated by moments of panic and indecision on the part of the actors, director and tech team. I lay on the floor backstage in between my speaking parts. I figure if I just rest, I will be able to manage this, but I have the sense that someone has pulled a plug out of my heel and my energy is draining out, sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly. 

Friday is opening night and Chuck usually brings his kids. As I peek out of the wings before we begin, I notice he is on his own tonight. I am a little sad. I enjoy having the kids there. I am anxious, jittery, glad the part of Elizabeth Proctor is a small one. I am in the first and last acts and have the whole second act to lay down. As I wait for my cue to enter, I wonder what is wrong with me. What is it that requires me to go to such great lengths to get this attention? Is that the issue? That I need too much attention, like all my exes claim? I decide not to listen to the voice of my lower self and step out on stage. The lights are pink and yellow and bright. The cast moves well through the script. I can feel the audience craning forward in their seats. It is dark and quiet, and the intimacy of this shared moment grabs me. It is an intimacy between actor and audience in the dark, where we all agree to be something, someone, for each other, to challenge and delight and push and pull each other, between action and reaction. It is at that moment that I realize the man who is playing my husband, John Proctor, has just blown a line. I look at him and see terror in his eyes. He is lost. I begin to say his lines in a fashion that I hope will allow him to pick up and begin again. It feels like a motor that won’t quite take. I yank the cord, and yank again, waiting for the whir of the engine. Yank (more lines) and wait, yank (another couple of lines, refashioned grammatically to come out of my mouth, thinking on my feet with the energy draining out of my heel) and wait for it, there it is. He’s up and running again and we are all right. 

The actor playing Reverend Parris joins us on stage when he is supposed to. He is, however, reciting the lines for Act 3 during Act 1 and, once again I am on stage with an actor who cannot act his way out of a paper bag. My pneumonia-soaked brain spins in search of a set of words or clues that will steer him back into Act One. My stage husband realizes what is happening and we regard each other as the Reverend expounds. Together, we work to redirect the good Rev back to Act One. He stops and sputters and, in another minute, we are all in the right scene of the right act, working our way toward lunacy and witch trials. 

Chuck waits around after the performance is over to congratulate me. We guffaw in a private corner of the dressing room regarding the mess the two guys I’m working with nearly made of the play. He tells me he is glad I am on the mend and that he worries about me. When I ask where the kids are, he shrugs and says that Brenda had chores for them to do, so he left them home tonight, but he’s coming back next week and will make sure they come then, too. 

By the end of the two-week run I am pretty much fine, although it takes nearly three months for me to get my energy fully back. The cat is back to being irritated with me for being out too much. My grandmother leaves a small bit of money to me in her will and her treasured pair of diamond earrings. These mean the world to me as I know just how hard she worked to get them. Chuck backs up from his knight in shining armor role, to Brenda’s great relief and Mother sort of forgives me, even though she continues having a heck of a time giving me any breathing room.     

Diane Finlayson, the department chair for the MS Yoga Therapy program at Maryland University of Integrative Health (MUIH) holds a masters degree from Johns Hopkins University for her thesis on the practice of Ayurveda in American, is an MFA Candidate from Mississippi University for Women, and is also a graduate of One Spirit Interfaith Seminary in New York. Diane served as the afternoon drive newscaster for nearly two decades at Baltimore’s NPR affiliate, WYPR-FM. She has been clean and sober for over 30 years.