Chronic Illness, Party of One by Shilo Niziolek
Updated: Jul 24
I am in the backyard examining the bright orange and yellow underbelly of the heart rot mushroom, chicken of the woods, growing at the center of the cherry blossom that, very shortly, will no longer watch over us outside the bedroom window as we sleep when it hits me that nearly everything I experience, I experience alone. This comes on the heels of a week spent rotating between my office, where I’m teaching an online class; the bathroom, where I spend more time than I would like; and the couch, cradling my stomach from the flare, and icing or heating my head from a 3-day migraine. It’s not that I haven’t realized we are all truly alone on this earth; unfortunately and fortunately, we are only one to a body. Blessedly, my body isn’t haunted, or to be more accurate, it is haunted, but it is not possessed, leaving only me alone inside here with my wonder and my grief and my awe and my illnesses.
My partner works a lot. He leaves before I wake; in the winter, he arrives home after dark. He sometimes works ten-to-twelve-hour days and sometimes does this six days a week. We have survived 2020 and most of 2021 together, but for most of it, I was alone. First, as a grad student whose part-time job at a movie theater closed so its employees could try to survive the brutal upticks in sickness and death, and then as an in-betweener—not student, not worker, floating—and now as an Adjunct English faculty and barely sometimes writer working from home. At night, our two pit bulls sleep in our bed, one roaming the edge of the bed all night long in old lady pain and the other wedged between our bodies. I do not like to be touched by human skin in my sleep, and sleeping is a solitary activity anyways. I am the only conscious figure in my dreams, everyone else a puppet of my own making with my own ideas and desires and implications placed upon them.
Every major event in the last year has happened to me when I was utterly alone. And all my fear, my anxiety, the migraines that make me want to take a spoon and scoop out my own eye, the diarrhea that sends me racing to the bathroom, the tear in the muscle in my right breast that occurred while I was digging a hole to plant mums, the pain in my lower back when my hips stick out of place, each one of these things is mine and mine only. I realize that when my older dog probably dies, it is likely my partner will be at work for this, and I will have to navigate the despair of our younger dog, the body of our older dog, and my own terror and grief on my own— at least until my partner gets home— and even then, it will be me home most of the days after, navigating the loss of her sounds, her snuffles, the chomping noise she makes when corn-cobbing the couch blankets as she nestles in, me and my younger dog with the loss of her scents, rancid as they may have become in her older age. It will be me watching my younger dog become listless without his best friend. Me crying with the loss of her sharp barks, her heavy breath when she sleeps.
The one night last year when my partner went out to a bar to drink, Ragnar, our younger dog, was outside at dusk, scrambling in every direction as multiple rats raced down from the bird feeder and made zigzags on the lawn. I watched in fascination, knowing there were too many moving too erratically, the chaos making him chase one only to catch another in his peripheral vision and dart after it instead. It wasn’t until my eldest dog, Roxy, who I was sure was getting cloudy spots on her eyes, stepped onto the back stoop with me and locked eyes on a rat that I got nervous. Without a second thought and completely ignoring the arthritis and disc compression in her spine, she darted out into the waning light, eyes latched on to her target, and snatched a rat up; its squeals ruptured as her teeth sank in. I slipped my feet into boots as she raced out there, but by the time I reached her, it was too late. The packrat dangled loosely from her mouth, its small white underbelly staring up at me, her pupils’ giant black saucers in her head. I pulled her mouth open, forcing her to drop the dead animal, and ushered the dogs inside before washing my hands, finding rubber gloves, and heading out into the night with a shovel to deal with the dead. Afterwards, resentful and disheartened, I called my partner and left him a voicemail about what had happened. Of course, I thought, on the one night you’re gone, our dog has to murder a rodent. Of fucking course.
In January, I had a LEEP procedure to burn off, with a metal wire, high grade cell lesions—precancerous bastards—invading my cervix. My partner took the day off, drove me to the hospital before the sun had risen. We waited in the lobby together, masks pulled snuggly over our faces, masked eyes of others all around the room. But when they called me back to surgery, it was I who walked the corridors, who put on the back-opened gown, who folded my underwear and socks and sweatpants and stacked them gently in the chair. And it was me, alone, who awoke on the operating bed, other bodies around me still lost in the blank stupor of anesthesia. Me, who said to the anesthesiologist hovering above me, “Does everyone else just lay silently after their surgery?” And when she answered yes, it was me, awake and yearning that said, “Well that’s not how I do.” Me, alone, who laughed at my own absurdity, drugged and awake and rambling.
Again, it was me, midday, who spotted the dying Pine Siskin under the bird feeder, unmoving, picking up fallen seeds only to have them tumble back out of his beak, his feathers ruffled, other lesser goldfinches surrounding him. Alone, I put on rubber gloves, ushered the dying bird into a cardboard box, and drove it to the Audubon Society, my hand placed over the box telling the bird that it was okay. The bird would die after getting to the medical facility, hopefully cupped in the warm hands of a bird-loving human, but likely, just like me, alone.
In April, I took a walk around my neighborhood while my partner worked on his vehicle in the driveway. It was sunny and warm. I wore shorts and listened to Emily Bronte on audiobook. When I arrived home, I discovered the outside of my right calf was swollen and red like a third-degree sunburn. My partner thought it was a sunburn, but my gut knew it was something else. I grabbed my headphones, purse, water, and a book and left the house alone. I did not ask for company. I did not beg or guilt or entreat my partner to go to the ER with me. At the ER, I told the check-in nurse that I was pretty sure I had a blood clot but hoped that I was instead just trippin’ and had a random one-legged sunburn instead. Alone, I lay in the ER hospital bed waiting for them to bring me the prescription for blood thinners after it turned out I was right, and at 1 am, I drove under streetlights and a slight moonglow, tired and anxious and afraid, all the way home where my partner had left the porch light on. In bed, he was already asleep; I woke him. When I told him I had a blood clot, he said, “No you don’t,” without even opening his eyes. Only when I told him to sit up, to look at me, did the message translate to truth. I crawled into bed with him and the dogs and lay there wide awake as he drifted off to sleep.
Later, my therapist would ask me why I went alone. Why not insist he go with me? “I needed him to stay home. I needed the few hours in the ER, before they brought me back for the ultrasound and placed me in a room, to be mine,” I told her. I needed to pretend, for a little while longer, that what I knew, intrinsically, by way of being an inward facing person, was not the truth. If he had been with me, if I had convinced him to come, it would have been because I wanted him there—because I was afraid. For a few more hours, I needed to unknow what I knew. I needed to stand atop my lonesome mountain, alone and unafraid. Had the blood clot been worse, had it traveled, I would have died that night without a loved one near. In some ways, here I am: still atop that mountain, a slight chill is in the air. We get into longtime partnerships for all sorts of reasons. Love is one of them, sure, but I’d say companionship is equally imperative. We need community; we need connection; we need someone to help lift us off the ground when we fall to our knees. My partner acts as all these things in numerous ways, but when the rats dangle from my dog’s mouth, or a small bird is beating violently against the darkness of a cardboard box, when my body folds and unfolds itself around its own sickness, when I need to hold off the hands of grief, it is I and I alone who must crouch, who must bend, who must lift, who must wake.
Shilo Niziolek’s creative nonfiction book, FEVER, is forthcoming from Querencia Press and her micro-chapbook, I Am Not An Erosion: Poems Against Decay, will be published online as part of Ghost City Press’s online summer series 2022. Her work has appeared in [PANK], Juked, Entropy, HerStry, among others, and is forthcoming in The Blood Pudding, Gingerbread House, Noctua Review, Literary Mama, Querencia Anthology, and Pork Belly Press’s zine: Love Me, Love My Belly. She is a writing instructor at Clackamas Community College.