WebMD, You Are Killing Me

heart-665186_1280I was in my early thirties when I first realized I was dying.  I couldn’t believe it.  I was so young!  I had so much left to do!  But it turned out that congestive heart failure had other plans for me.  It was so sad I could hardly stand it.

Why in God’s name would you think you have congestive heart failure?”  This was my doctor at the time, who I no longer see due to a certain lack of bedside manner.  Obviously.

“I looked up my symptoms,” I told him.  “On WebMD.”

He sighed, and I know it had nothing to do with me.  He was just a frequent sigher, but it was still sort of hard not to take personally.  “Do me a favor,” he said.  “Stay off the internet.  And learn some deep-breathing techniques.  You have generalized anxiety disorder.”

“Well no, that can’t be.  I don’t have anything to be anxious about, aside from the congestive heart failure.”

“You don’t have congestive heart failure.  And we all have things to be anxious about.”

“Not me.”

Another sigh.  See?  “Just quit diagnosing your own illnesses.  That’s what I’m here for.”

“So you’re sure I’m not dying?”

“We’re all dying.”

“But I mean, soon.”

“I don’t know that.  I do know that if you die of congestive heart failure, it will not be this year.”

My outfit when I sit down at the computer
My outfit when I sit down at the computer

So that was a relief, albeit short-lived, because who really stays off the internet?  In the 15 or so years between then and now, I have used WebMD to diagnose my own:

  • Kidney failure
  • Spinal meningitis
  • Throat cancer
  • Heart attack
  • Skin cancer
  • Bone cancer
  • Brain tumor
  • Unspecified critical nervous system malfunction

It’s been a difficult run, it really has, and not because I actually had any of those things.  I did not.  And while I acknowledge that the reality of any of those issues would be exponentially worse than the imaginary versions, I would argue that the not knowing is still kind of a bitch.  One wonders if one’s affairs are in order.  One wonders what exactly it means to have one’s affairs in order.  One spends agonizing hours dwelling on how one’s children will possibly survive without, er, one.  One might occasionally be moved to tears, at the painful futility of it all.

And then one finds out that one is not sick at all, and feels overwhelmingly relieved, as well as vaguely guilty at appropriating the despair that one was never entitled to in the first place.  Because my God, there are real people out there suffering from whatever it is you thought you had.  It seems so disrespectful, I mean –  me and my frivolous little tragedies, when people out there have real ones every day.  So melodramatic.  So self-centered.

But then, wait.  I didn’t know I wasn’t suffering from kidney failure/brain tumor/unspecified critical nervous system malfunction.  My fears were not entirely unfounded, or at least, I didn’t think they were at the time.  I mean, WebMD said, and what’s so melodramatic and self-centered about that?  I had symptoms, I looked them up, I became terrified.  Happens all the time.

“Wow,” said my current doctor, who has only recently replaced my last doctor due to chronic lateness.  The doctor’s, not mine.  Actually I’d have been smart to show up late to my appointments with him and thus avoid his standard 90-minute wait.  Incidentally, Dr. Late replaced Dr. Sighs-A-Lot many years prior to this, though come to think of it, Dr. Late was prone to sigh from time to time, too.  Now my current doctor, who is perfect if a bit on the fresh-faced side, has replaced Dr. Late.  It’s exhausting, it really is.  No wonder I have anxiety.

God only knows what mine says.
God only knows what mine says.

Anyway.  “Wow,” Dr. Perfect said to me recently, when I finally decided to get my knee checked out.  “That’s . . . no.  You do not have knee cancer.”

“Good,” said I.  “But tell me how you know that.”

“Well first of all, you’d probably be losing a lot of weight.”

Rude!  Really.  Perhaps he’s not so perfect after all!

“Also, you’d be in a lot of pain.  All the time.  You wouldn’t be able to just hop down off that table like you just did.”

“Well I mean, it did hurt, you know.  When I allegedly ‘hopped down’ off this table.”

“You don’t have knee cancer.  And after your MRI, we’ll be able to know more.”

“But if I did have cancer, you can see it on an MRI?”

“Yes.  But you don’t.”

“I’m just saying.”

“Are you still taking your anxiety meds?”

“Yes!  I’m not even anxious about this.  Honestly.  I just want to make sure we can definitely rule it out.”

“Don’t worry,” he said.  “We’ll get to the bottom of it.”

And call me paranoid, but right then, I am pretty sure I detected a sigh.  Subtle, because this guy really knows what he’s doing, but still.

You want to know who never sighs?  I’ll tell you.  WebMD, that’s who.

A Brother Thing

DSC03706Sometime in the late 1980’s, somewhere along the shoulder of Route 376 East in Pittsburgh, four people stand around a wrecked car.  I am one of them.  My friend Heather, my dad, and his brother Albert are the others.  We have just been to a Pittsburgh Pirates game.  None of us are hurt, the car is entirely drivable, and Heather and I have concert tickets for later and are anxious to be on our way.  The police have come and logged their report.  It seems we are about to be set free.  Until:

Police Officer:  So, you’re sure you’re all right?  No injuries?  No pain?

Dad:  Huh . . . now that you mention it.  Does my neck hurt?  [he feels his neck with his hand, as if this makes any sense whatsoever.]

Uncle Albert:  Who are you asking, Ej?  We don’t know about your neck.  Does it hurt, or what?

Dad:  [twisting his head all around quite freely] I don’t know!  It might hurt.  Or what if it hurts later?  I can’t tell.

Me:  DAD.  It either hurts or it doesn’t.

Dad:  Well, then it does, I guess.  Wait, does it?


Heather: [remains polite.]

Uncle Albert:  Jesus Christ, Ej . . . you’re the only person I know who can’t tell if his own goddamn neck hurts him or not.

Dad:  [chuckles.]


Dad:  [to police officer] Well, can I call you later if I decide it hurts?

Police Officer:  Me, personally?

And so on.

The remarkable thing about this day to me, other than Heather and my rather stunning lack of concern for anything except our future musical entertainment, is that it perfectly represented a typical scene between my dad and his brother. Dad was the uncertain, impressionable little brother, Uncle Albert the one telling him how things needed to be.  Not that my dad ever seemed to mind.  “Sure, Al,” he’d say, upon being told to “put the goddamned saw down and let me do it.”

“Albert says we need to,” he’d tell my mother, while sledgehammering the shit out of their bathroom.  Or, “Albert wants it this way,” he’d say, while trying real hard to learn the proper plastering technique for our basement walls.

“My deepest sympathy,” he said to Uncle Albert, when their brother Ben died.

“Ej,” said Uncle Albert.  “He was your brother too.”

As for me, I always liked being around the two of them, primarily because you almost never had to talk if you didn’t want to.  Which is not to say that we enjoyed frequent stretches of companionable silence.  On the contrary, what I mean is that in the company of my dad and Uncle Albert, all speaking parts were accounted for.  This was how they got along.  Noise.

I mostly knew this thanks to the seven thousand or so Pirates games I’d attended with them, prior to the day of The Wreck.  Pirate games were a big thing for us, the two of them Jesus Christ- and goddammit-ing through nine innings while I sat between them, reading and re-reading my program.

“Christ, Ej, look at that guy.  He’s pretty goddamn short for a first baseman.”

“Who, him?  He’s taller than me, what do you mean?”

“I hope he’s taller than you!  What are you, five foot two?  Three?  Mis, how tall is your dad, huh?”

“I don’t – ”

“I’m five foot eight, you asshole.”

“And still too goddamn short to play first base.  Am I right, Mis?”

And so on.

Of course, that was all a long time ago.  Uncle Al is now 84, my dad is nearly 80.  Uncle Al is easily as healthy as me.  My dad is too, aside from the Alzheimer’s disease.

One true fact about Alzheimer’s Disease – it kind of changes the dynamic.

And so now here we were, Uncle Albert and I, going to visit my dad/his little brother at the nursing home.  On the way there Uncle Al has asked me, “Do you think this place is good for him, Mis?”  And I have told him, “I don’t know.”  Because I don’t.  Because, does anyone, ever?

The good news is that my dad is awake when we get there, or at least, sitting upright in the TV room and not laying in his bed.  “Oh, hey,” he says, when he sees his brother and me.  “What are you doing here?”

“We came to see you,” says Uncle Albert.  “How are they treating you, huh?  How do you like this place?”

“Yeah . . . it’s good,” says my dad.  “Good.  I was just . . . you know.  I don’t know what I was doing.”

Here, with another visitor, a moment of awkward silence might ensue; not so Uncle Al.  He is happy to jump right into the realm of the impossible Alzheimer conversation.  God love him.

“You look good, Ej,” he says now, very kindly, because the truth is my dad is kind of a mess on this particular day.  His hair is way too long, his glasses are lost, and he hasn’t shaved in days.  Plus, he’s missing two teeth, which has been true for quite a while but still doesn’t do much to improve the overall effect.

“Yeah, thanks,” says my dad, adjusting the baseball cap which he rarely takes off.  “I was just, you know.  Sitting here.”

Uncle Al looks pained, but keeps going, keeps talking and engaging my dad in a way that I never do.  I don’t think I can.  It’s just something between them, I guess, and it’s clear to me that though he may be somewhat nervous and almost entirely clueless, my dad is happy to be the object of someone’s attention.  To be a central part of a conversation, even if he has no idea how it’s supposed to go.  To be talking with his brother.

My own kids, brothers at the current ages of six and eight, are friends only at my most optimistic moments.  They get along, about half the time.  They also fight, argue, brawl, and use the term “arch nemesis” correctly, in reference to each other.  I really kind of desperately hope that they will grow up to be real friends, drinking buddies, each the other’s best man.  I hope they will take their children to Pirates games together.  I rarely consider the “nursing home pals” scenario.

“Yeah, you remember that, Ej?” says Uncle Albert now.  “You remember playing the trumpet?”

“Trumpet?” says my dad, and then stares into the distance for a moment.  Or more.

“You were good,” Uncle Al tells him.  “You were in a band.”

“Yeah,” says my dad, vaguely.  Then, “Your hair – “ he points at his brother’s head – “It looks nice.  You got a lot of hair.  More than me, haha.”

He’s been saying this forever.  It’s kind of amazing, the random things he holds on to.  And I know a time will come where he will no longer say it, when he will forgot his brother altogether, but for now, it’s still there. Whatever it is. Maybe it’s a brother thing.  I hope it’s a brother thing.

I can’t imagine, nor do I have any reason to imagine, my own kids at these advanced ages.

Still, I really, really hope it’s a brother thing.