Smoke Screen

September 5, 2006 at 9:25 am (Uncategorized)

Summers in Montana are usually beautiful. It is light until nearly ten o’clock at night, and, with the exception of a couple of scorching weeks, the days and nights are warm but not unpleasantly so. After months of cold weather and snow, people unfold into the sunshine and spend their time hiking, cycling, camping, horseback riding, and paddling the rivers and lakes. The air smells of pine needles; the sky is unreal in its blueness. I feel guilty for being inside.

Except when there are fires. We’re in the midst of a drought, and temperatures have been hotter than normal for the past few years. The forests that surround us have become kindling, and one dropped cigarette butt, one errant ember from a campfire, or one bolt of lightning, is all it takes to start a voracious fire that will consume thousands of acres of forest.

Our little town is surrounded by fires. Although there are none very close to us, the winds have brought the residue of distant conflagrations to us, darkening our skies, and making the air smell like a campfire. The sun is shining enough to make it hot, but it is obscured by the smoke and the ash. The skies look overcast and smoggy. For someone like me with a lung disease, it hurts to breathe. We have shut up our house, but nevertheless, the cold I caught last week has bloomed into bronchitis. I cough and cough. It feels as though my body is rejecting the air around me.

Fires bring with them a sense of foreboding. The thick air carries a sense of restlessness and waiting. I feel helpless – a pawn of forces impossible to control. I cannot bring rain; I cannot dampen the lightning. All I can do is cough and cough.

The weather and the hanging smoke perfectly match my interior landscape. My father had health issues this weekend. I drove up to be with him and my mother. Although he was hospitalized, it turned out there was little the doctors could do for him right now. They sent him home with a new medication. That’s all I’ll write about this because I don’t feel comfortable sharing other people’s medical dramas on my blog.

It is unpleasant, though, to be forced out of the role of patient and into a realm of helpless waiting and watching. As difficult as it is to be sick, I sometimes think it is better to be the one with the disease than the one who wrings her hands and shakes her fist at the sky and mutters prayers. It is horrible to witness someone you love being tossed about by disease.

I didn’t want to leave my mother and father and return home. But my friend, Amy, who was visiting from California, had to catch her return flight; Jay has work; and my parents insisted they were fine and needed to get back to their normal routines. They are fine. But rationally knowing they are fine doesn’t prevent me from thinking that somehow if I was there, I could do something or stave off catastrophe.

Sickness is all about the loss of control. When you become ill, you lose your authority over your own body. You tell your lungs to breathe, and instead they cough; your heart does things against your will. This weekend made me realize that it is not just patients who abdicate control. You can’t make the blood vessels inside your father’s heart behave; you can’t instill extra wisdom in his doctors; you can’t make medicine work a miracle. All you can do is watch and wait.

Sickness is like a forest fire. It feeds on the very stuff that usually makes life good – sun and storms. Once begun, there is little to control it. Of course, the state sends out the fire fighters with their special costumes, their high tech equipment, their chemical concoctions to pour on the flames. But the direction of the wind seems to determine the outcome of a fire – and how much land it will devour – more than the efforts of puny men and women. All the rest of us can do is wait inside, and hope the rain comes and soaks the ground.

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