by Ploi Pirapokin
I woke up on my thirty-third birthday, shaken by my surgeon at 4 a.m.
“Congratulations on surviving your appendectomy! You’ll be discharged in the morning with two weeks of antibiotics.”
Later, nurses came by with my breakfast order: a clear diet.
I asked if vodka counted. This was my first break from quarantine, after all.
The night before, I had dropped by Urgent Care. Convinced that gremlins were stabbing my lower abdomen with ice picks, the doctors sent me to the E.R. As a visa-holder, I’ve learned to avoid American hospitals unless you burped out thousand-dollar bills. The post-holiday surge of infections exacerbated that worry. Am I burdening our essential workers? Are there beds for non-COVID patients? Will I be exposed? The nurses promised my visit would be quick.
“I hope so, because classes begin on Monday.”
Within a few hours, a resident physician barreled through the curtains.
“We can’t find your appendix in the CT scan,” he placed a hand on my knee. “We have to operate now. Don’t worry, this is a routine procedure.”
Evidently, appendixes were all tightly wound circus clowns ready to leap from our colons.
I shot off selfies of my wrinkled hospital gown as proof to my bosses on why I couldn’t teach. Warned my parents in Thailand to call my best friend, Natasha, who swung by with my glasses. Snapped a photo of my wristband for editors whom I owed story revisions. When the anesthesiologist asked if I was allergic to any medication, I said no, but I wasn’t sure—I’d never been under before. I bawled while being wheeled into the hallways, afraid of being put to sleep with what seemed like a chance of never waking up.
A few years ago, this would have been my preferred way to go. Blameless, quiet, and pain-free. No amount of stress, however, would force my body to betray me. My legs have climbed hills to catch buses; my arms have carried countless Costco boxes up three flights of stairs from my garage to my kitchen; and I’ve been beaten, bruised, and concussed in back-to-back rugby games. I’ve also counted to ten while standing at the ledge of a tall building, but my body would always crumple backwards, leaving me to face yet another day.
On that freezing, metal operating bed, I struggled to suck in the gases through the plastic mask that replaced my cloth one. Closing my eyes, I remembered Natasha rolling through those double-doors. She had pulled me into my first hug in a year, and I promised her that I would make it, at least to repay her for bringing over my belongings.
After leaving the hospital, she baked me a cake. My parents appeared onscreen, jaundiced and shaky, yelling: “We only have one daughter!” My bosses prescribed rest until I weaned off painkillers, and editors extended their deadlines. Overnight, friends shipped bouquets of fruit skewered on sticks, Ubered me take-out, and offered to help me vacuum since standing straight meant I wheezed every time I inhaled.
I could handle the physical slowdown—reheating soup in the microwave, folding clothes on my bed, bracing the walls while sliding down my toilet seat—alone, but I wasn’t prepared for a mental one. My body was cut open, not my mind. Watching BTS performing made me dizzy. Sentences blurred into one black blob. Laughing stung. Determined to stave off blood clots, I walked the first hour I arrived home. For three days, I shuffled to the nearest post office and back with sweat dripping down my neck, jutting one foot in front of the other while dictating to my body: I’ve starved you, called you ugly, placed you in precarious situations, and still, you didn’t give up. Don’t let go now. Dogwalkers, grandparents, and UPS employees whizzed by me, and I plopped into bed each night, spiraling. What if I lose my jobs? What if I can’t finish my book? What if I missed other birthdays? The next day, I begged one of my directors to let me return to the classroom.
“We’re all working from home anyway,” I typed, “and logging-on from my couch wouldn’t be strenuous.”
A few days after I’d logged online into my classes, students emailed me with: “When are you going to give feedback?”; “Is that all?”; “More examples, please!” Many dropped my classes, unsure of when I’d return at full capacity. My parents, though well-intentioned, searched for explanations. Is it because you’re overweight? Chew too quickly? Walk too fast? Since I’m adopted, they started poking at my genetics, wondering what other diseases percolated in my veins. Letters and bills accumulated in my mailbox, and recycling overflowed from my bin. I answered emails late, denied speaking engagements, and paid hospital fees with matted, stringy hair. I wept in random spurts. At night, I crawled under my covers and prayed it would be my last. I couldn’t do anything right; someone else in month thirteen of 2020 deserved my breath.
In less than two weeks, I returned to the E.R., again. Gremlins were pounding on my belly button from the inside out. Under bright fluorescent lights where no one could hide, I felt relieved at the sight of beds reeling in slow-rising bodies and nurses speed-walking to answer beeps. I knew where to go and what to do. I knew how to direct the nurse who pushed me back to my bed, hold my breath during my X-rays, and even unhook my own IV after no one came to help me use the bathroom, biting into the corner of the fluid bag as I sat down.
The ultrasound revealed an enormous fibroid that had been shoved to the side and left there, possibly during my first operation. Instead of forming a smile above my uterus, it was now a frown. “Fibroids are benign,” the doctor said. “Since you aren’t internally bleeding, you should follow up with your gynecologist.”
“Is it normal for doctors to split open their patients and sew them up unchecked?” I sputtered.
Back home, I recoiled like a rubber band released from a slingshot. I was never going to die the way I had hoped all those restless nights buried under the covers, ignoring calls from my concerned friends. And since I wasn’t going to die the way I had hoped, I was forced to take care of what I had in order to reach a blameless, quiet, and pain-free death in the future.
You’d think that we’d ask for a pause from that dangerously impossible expectation of oneself to heal instantly and endure silently, and that we’d come together as humans sooner by asking for continual support and care. By showing our vulnerabilities. We don’t. Not because we’re unkind, cruel, or manipulative, but because we’re drowning in our own whirlpool of ugly thoughts.
I was drowning in my whirlpool of ugly thoughts.
I believed being strong meant that my body must contain all of my ugly thoughts inside. Containing it all proved that I wasn’t a burden—to my parents for choosing to raise me, to my students who paid for my services, to my friends who spent time with me, to my bosses and editors who needed me to meet deadlines—and that made me useful. I had a purpose and would be loved and admired for what I could physically offer.
But my body had a different idea. Purging these ugly thoughts from inside of it, from one kind of inflammation to the next, it showed me how connected I was to others by incapacitating itself before repairing those wounds: growing scabs in my bellybutton, scarring in strips across my stomach, and steadying itself slowly to let me sit upright without cramps. By recovering slowly, my body showed me what and whom I was bonded to. That I was loved not for what I could do, but for simply existing, zipped up in this sutured skin-sack. My body didn’t have anything to prove. Perhaps that was what my body was trying to tell me all along—You don’t have to survive quarantine alone! State your needs. They are neither a hindrance nor an extravagance. They will change whether they are unmet or met. Reach out or I’ll shut down, and you’ll never know what others in this one life you have can offer you.
I followed up with my primary care physician, then my gynecologist, settling for a corrective surgery in the summer. Led every interaction with my predicament and physical limitations, sending emails titled: SECOND E.R. VISIT IN TWO WEEKS. Told my bosses I’d take more time to rest. Posted on all of my classes’ announcement pages saying, “I will not meet your feedback on time. Here are my accommodations,” and provided those editors another date. Gulped down hot lemon tea to un-rasp my voice and called my parents to lay off. We fought. They accused me of being harsh, and I asked them to be nurturing. I didn’t care if I was fired, ignored, or lost students; or if they considered me gnat-like, difficult, and burdensome. Weren’t health emergencies the norm now? Aren’t we still connected offline? Can’t we hold each other while unplugged?
My students flooded my inbox with stories of their own surgeries, tips, and well-wishes. My parents apologized—which almost flung me back into the E.R.—confessing that not being able to visit devastated them. Customer service reps and account coordinators laid out payment plans. New speaking engagements were scheduled, and my bosses sent thoughtful Get Well cards. I filled my evenings with Natasha, and friends like Natasha over Zoom, who couldn’t hug me even if they wanted to. Friends who can’t read my mind until I spread my arms and palms wide open, giving them a chance to listen, a chance to hold all of me, including the parts that needed to lean on something, and the parts that had fallen. My purpose was not to know where I should go and what I needed to do. All I have to do is face another day, and I don’t have to do it alone.
Ploi Pirapokin is the Nonfiction Editor at Newfound Journal, and the Co-Editor of The Greenest Gecko: An Anthology of New Asian Fantasy forthcoming from Wesleyan University Press. Her work is featured in Tor.com, Pleiades, Ninth Letter, Gulf Stream Magazine, The Offing and more. She has received grants and fellowships from the San Francisco Arts Commission, the Creative Capacity Fund, Headlands Center for the Arts, Djerassi, Kundiman and others. A graduate of the Clarion Writers Workshop, she also holds an MFA in Creative Writing from San Francisco State University. She currently teaches at the Writers Program at UCLA Extension, the Creative Nonfiction Foundation, Catapult, and the University of Hong Kong. She can be found on www.ppirapokin.com.
Art by Dids