What to Read When You’re Ill: Novels with Memorable Scenes of Illness

My husband caught a cold at the office.  I blame it on paper clips, post-its, and office supplies.

And now everyone has it. The city is stricken with the common cold.  And I’m surprised there’s not a quarantine.

And so I am coughing and drinking Cold-Eeze and wondering if there’s a yoga pose that will banish the cold.  Meanwhile, I’m making a list of novels with memorable scenes of illness.  Alas, I cannot remember many scenes with the common cold.

1.  In Pride and Prejudice, Jane Bennet catches a violent cold while visiting Miss Bingley and Mrs. Hurst at Netherfield Park, the home of her future fiance, Mr. Bingley.  She becomes so ill that they refuse to let her go home and she sends a letter to her sister Elizabeth.


“I find myself very unwell this morning, which, I suppose, is to be imputed to my getting wet through yesterday. My kind friends will not hear of my returning till I am better. They insist also on my seeing Mr. Jones—therefore do not be alarmed if you should hear of his having been to me—and, excepting a sore throat and headache, there is not much the matter with me.—Yours, etc.”

2.  In Turgenev’s On the Eve, the  heroine, Elena, an intense young woman who wants a purpose, falls in love with Insarov, a Bulgarian revolutionary, and educates herself about the cause.  Alas, he catches pneumonia, and though he recovers for a time, he does not live long.  Elena is heartbroken but she lives to fight another day.

‘Elena!’ sounded distinctly in her ears. She raised her head quickly, turned round, and was stupefied: Insarov, white as snow, the snow of her dream, had half risen from the sofa, and was staring at her with large, bright, dreadful eyes. His hair hung in disorder on his forehead and his lips parted strangely. Horror, mingled with an anguish of tenderness, was expressed on his suddenly transfigured face.

‘Elena!’ he articulated, ‘I am dying.’

She fell with a scream on her knees, and clung to his breast.

‘It’s all over,’ repeated Insarov: ‘I’m dying… Good-bye, my poor girl! good-bye, my country!’ and he fell backwards on to the sofa.

3.  In Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, the hero, Hans Castorp, visits his tubercular cousin at a sanatorium in the Swiss Alps, and laughs at the easy life-style there before he, too, is diagnosed with TB.

It would not have taken much for Hans Castorp to be seized by another fit of laughter.  “What?  You lie out on your balcony rain or shine, night or day?” he asked, his voice wavering on the edge.

4.   In The Painted Veil, one of my favorite novels by W. Somerset Maugham, Kitty’s husband Walter is furious when he learns she has had an affair.  He takes her with him to mainland China, where he must deal with a cholera epidemic.  Needless to say no one is safe from the cholera, but Walter and a group of nuns put up a good fight. Kitty wants to help the nuns.

“There is no need to scrub the floors.  That is done by after a fashion by the orphans.”  She paused and looked kindly at Kittty.  “My dear child, do you not think that you have done enough in coming with your husband here?  That is more than many wives would have had the courage to do, and for the rest how can you be better occupied than by giving him peace and comfort when he comes home to you after the day’s work?  Believe me, he needs tthen all your love and consideration.”

5. I’ve run out of respiratory illnesses and cholera and am on to a zombie novel.  There is some beautiful writing at the beginning of Carrie Ryan’s  The Forest of Hands and Teeth:

My mother used to tell me about the ocean.  She said there was a place where there was nothing but water as far as you could see and that it was always moving, rushing toward you and then away.


The narrator, Mary, has grown up in a village behind a fence, to secure the villagers from zombies, known as the Unconsecrated, who infect human beings with  their bites.  After her mother becomes a zombie, Mary becomes an outcast.  The Sisters, a group of secret-loving nuns who know the true history of the world, shelter her for a while after her mother “turns”–her mother chooses to become a zombie rather than to die.  Although Mary is badly treated by the Sisters, she learns that the nuns have contact with the outside and that a young woman named Gabrielle has come in with news.  Is there any hope?  Not much.

6.  Graham Greene’s A BURNT-OUT CASE deals with leprosy, but I’m too tired to write about it!


What to Read When You’re Ill: Mary Wesley, Muriel Spark, Dodie Smith, Jacqueline Susann, Mary McCarthy, & Pushkin

Many years ago, on an idyllic vacation in the northern woods, a spider bit me My swollen ankle turned black with necrosis, I developed clonus (involuntary muscle spasms, symptomatic of neurological disease),  became delirious, and spent three weeks in the infectious disease ward of a hospital.  I was given every test:  MRIs, EMGs, EKGs, etc., etc.   Was it encephalitis?  I did not respond to the medications at first.

Slowly, I recovered.  Very slowly.  One afternoon, encouraged by a kind nurse, I ventured down to the  cafeteria, forgetting to change out of my pajamas.  When I scooped the money out of my pink bathrobe pocket, I was embarrassed to realized I wasn’t dressed. In pajamas, not fully cognizant.   I consoled myself : Who cares?  I’m a sick person in pajamas at a hospital.  And I ate my sandwich in front of a fountain, marveling at the rush and flow of water.

Since I could not yet go home, I found refuge in books. One afternoon,  as I sat in a chair by the window with its gloomy view of the hospital complex, I became lost in Muriel Spark’s A Far Cry from Kensington, one of my favorite books.   A doctor  came in, asked me what I was reading, and was obviously relieved to see me becoming human again.  He said I was well enough to go home.

“But what was the disease?” I asked.

He said that it is not always necessary to identify the disease.  Not all diseases follow a typical course. They had tried different medications until I responded.  They did not think I’d had encephalitis.  I’d had a serious infection.  I did not have brain damage.  I should not worry.

Many years later, I try not to think of this illness.   Everything was much harder for me for a month or two than it had ever been.  At first I could barely walk to the corner and back. nd, paradoxically, I was hesitant about lying down, because I had trouble getting up again.  I was in my thirties.  I regained my health, little by little.

Books help with pain.   One day after coming home, I lost myself in Mary Wesley’s novel, An Imaginative Experience The novel opens with a stopped train: a sheep is lying on its back in a field, and a young woman, Julia Piper,  who is returning from the funeral of her young child and estranged husband,  pulls the emergency cord on the  train so she can help the sheep. Two men watch her from the window:  Sylvester Sykes, a charming editor whose wife is divorcing him, and  Maurice, a  sinister birdwatcher/stalker (yes, really) who reeks of tobacco and alcohol.

Although the novel is a love story, the prospective lovers, Julia and Sylvester, do not meet till near the end of the novel.  Sylvester wonders who the plucky sheep rescuer is, but Julia is not thinking of men.  Her young son Christy was the love of her life;  her irresponsible husband, Giles, whom she had veen in the process of divorcing, had had his license revoked and should not have been driving.  Her mother had lent Giles the car.

Sylvester’s pain is less intense, but it is still pain. His  wife  has left him to return to her first husband, who has grown very rich.  Sylvester once loved her, but has a slightly comedic attitude toward their five-year marriage:  sex had been their only connection, and she had dreadful taste. He  especially hated a plaster cupid in the garden.   When he comes home from the train, he smiles to see a taxi in front of the house, and his wife heaving the TV  into the trunk, cursing  the driver for not helping.    Although she has taken almost everything he owns, he is glad to start over again, with his own things.

Sylvester and Julia come together accidentally:  Sylvester needs a cleaner for her house, and Julia responds to his  ad at the grocery store they frequent.  Julia has a key and cleans when he is at work: they communicate by note, and never meet.  And when he writes that he would like his garden tidied up, she creates a kind of secret garden.  Each had assumed the other was old:  when they meet, they are startled.

The now underrated Mary Wesely, who published her first novel when she was 71, had a reputation for perspicuity, a graceful style, and sharply drawn characters.  Her witty novels are short and well-plotted. As a writer, her work falls somewhere between the very literary short novels of Penelope Lively and the buoyant popular fiction of Elizabeth Jane Howard.  Second Fiddle is my favorite Wesley novel:  I wrote about it here.


1  Muriel Spark’s The Ballad of Peckham Rye (which I posted about here.)

Muriel Spark’s mordant comedies are the flip side of P. G. Wodehouse’s featherlight farces.  Ballad, published in 1960, makes you wonder who exactly the angels and the devils are in Spark’s light satire. The hero, Dougal Douglas, a Scottish trickster, moves to Peckham and, without a twinge of conscience, accepts two jobs from rival textile companies.  The company directors, Mr. Druce at Meadows, Meade & Grindley, and Mr. Willis at Drover Willis, say they want him to bridge the gap between art and industry in his new position as assistant personnel manager.

Dougal is so outrageous that the reader cannot feel sympathy for him.  Although he has a deformed shoulder–I kept thinking of Richard III– he uses it to get sympathy from women.   He has no compassion:  he refuses to visit his fiancee, Ginny, when she is ill, especially when she is in the hospital, because his “fatal flaw” is an intolerance of illness. Ginny doesn’t think much of his fatal flaw, and drops him. But Dougal uses this breakup with Ginny to get to know women at work:  he has a crying breakdown in the canteen, and the women pity him, comb his hair,  and tell him their stories.

I love everything Spark wrote, and this satire is perfect light reading.

2.  Dodie Smith’s The New Moon with the OldFans of Smith’s charming novel, I Capture the Castle, will love  The New Moon With the Old, a kind of fairy tale of work.   It begins when  Jane Minton, the new secretary of busineesman Rupert Carrington, arrives at Dome House to take up her duties. His four children are charming:  Richard, a composer; Claire, 21, whose only ambition, she light-heartedly insists, is to  be “a king’s mistress,” a la the women in Dumas books; Drew, 19, who is writing an Edwardian novel; and Merry, 14, an aspiring and very talented actress.

But a few days after Jane arrives,  Rupert flees the country because he is guilty of fraud, and Jane is left to cope with the household.  The novel is a fairy tale of work:  all  the Carringtons must cope with their work, and the story is fascinating.

You can read the rest of my post here.

3.  Jacqueline Susann’s The Valley of the Dolls.  Believe it or not, this is available in a Virago edition, but the cover of the 50th Anniversary Grove Press edition is more fun!  Susann’s pop classic proceeds along the lines of Nancy Hale’s The Prodigal Women and Mary McCarthy’s The Group: it is the story of three young women who move to New York, become friends at the beginning of their careers, and climb the ladder of the entertainment industry, not without much popping of pills.  Anne, the emotionally stable one from New England, works as a secretary and then becomes a model.  She doesn’t need pills (well, only very briefly).    But you can imagine what the pills do to Neely, the Broadway star who becomes a screaming home-wrecking harridan, and Jennifer, the lovely, sweet,  pill-dependent woman who decides to act in French art films because no one values her for anything except her body.

4.  Mary McCarthy’s A Charmed Life, a satiric novel, published in 1955,  centered on several residents of an artists’ colony in a New England village. Is this a comedy or a tragedy?  I loved every minute of it, and it is time to rediscover Mary McCarthy:  her complete works are now available in Library of America editions.  You can read my post here.

5.  Pushkin’s Eugene OneginIn this brilliant novel in verse, Pushkin tells the story of Eugene Onegin, a rakish Byronic hero who, bored by carousing, wine, women, song, writing, and even books, moves from St. Petersburg to the country after inheriting an estate.  He befriends a young poet, Lensky, to whom he is very devoted, but thoughtlessly wrecks their friendship by flirting  at a dance with Olga, Lensky’s fiancée.  The fiasco results in a duel with Lensky.  (Eugene doesn’t want it, and yet somehow he doesn’t say no.)  And the whole thing is complicated by Eugene”s rejection of Olga’s sister, Tataina, who writes a love letter to him.

You can read the rest of my post here.


Holly Jolly Voicemail

feliznavidadAll across America, we are psyched for the Jolly Holiday Competition  of Who Has the Worst Family!   Ever played it?  It’s so much fun. There’s drinking and “Truth or Dare.” We were going to skip it this year, but we just recovered the dysfunctional spirit!

A message from an elderly relative arrived in voicemail:  “I’m in the hospital, Kat, and call me if you feel like it.”

Oh, good. It’s been a few years since we spoke.

There were some very bad scenes with this relative when I was growing up.  He/she once beat me up for going on a  25-mile Hike for Hunger with hundreds of others on a Sunday. The brilliant theory was that I had been out with a boy. Very brilliant, since I walked all 25 miles and had blisters on my feet and was hanging out with my usual group of giggling girlfriends.  I was so upset by my relative’s violence that I never collected the money for the charity from my sponsors.

Torn between duty and a 10 on the Richter Scale of dysfunction, I maturely decide to do my duty.  He/she is old now.  You have to assess his/her health.  He/she has alienated a lot of people.  You care because…he/she has no one else.

The problem is we have no idea where he is.  He/she didn’t leave much information.   We don’t know the name of the hospital. We don’t know if it’s here or in “Snowbird country,” i.e., Florida, where he/she sometimes winters.   We don’t have his/her cell phone number and he/she doesn’t have  a landline.

So we begin the comedy of errors. We call an area hospital.  No, there is no patient of that name. The switchboard volunteer kindly gives me the number of the other hospital.   No, he/she is not there either.

Then we call a relative who might know his/her number, but her voicemail is full!

Okay, he/she is probably in Florida.  There are a lot of hospitals in  Florida.  We call three.  And it’s complicated getting the no’s.  Once I reached some huge complex of hospitals and they wanted to know what building he/she was in.  “Pneumonia?”  I said.  “Pulmonary?”  Was this a game show?  I sounded like a crazy person.  Once I start saying, He left a message and we don’t know what state he’s in, I might just as well have hung up.

Finally my husband found a number on his cell phone with the right area code.  Thank God he never deletes anything!

And it was the right phone number!

And so we chat on the phone.

He/she didn’t go a-snowbirdin’ this year.  He/she got sick when my aunt died, when the cousin who was driving them to the funeral got lost on gravel roads and drove into a ditch.  They  waited an hour and a half for a tow truck.  He/she was coughing and tried to get the hospital to admit him but they would not.

And now I’m hearing for the first time that my aunt died late in November.  The last of the aunts died and I wasn’t notified.  You see, this is true dysfunction.  So I’m damned if I will cry.  (I cry after I get off the phone.)

He/she found a hospital that would take him for a few days.  And so he here’s my over-the-phone diagnosis (with a few tears in my eyes):

  1. bad cold, bronchitis, or walking pneumonia – but possibly doesn’t need hospitalization.
  2. loneliness
  3. depression

Well, let’s hope we can straighten everything out.

Anyway, Merry Christmas!  It is, in fact, just like Christmas!  Feliz Navidad!

My Beautiful Mother

My Beautiful Mother and I

My Beautiful Mother and I

My beautiful mother is very, very ill.

I held her for a while this evening.  The drugs are not working.  She is shaking and terrified.  A staff member told me to hold her hand and tell her it’s all right for her to go if she has to.

I cannot do that.  That is the job for her primary caregiver. I just cannot.

She is being given “End of Life” treatment.

The first words out of her mouth when she saw me,  “You look so good.”  (Mom, thank you! )

She mumbles and mumbles.   Then:  “I might die,” she said clearly.  Mostly she mutters,  “Help me.”

I couldn’t understand what she was saying at first.

It seems to calm her if I put my hand on her shoulder or my arm around her.  She dropped off to sleep for a while.

Undoubtedly she is the best mother ever, the strongest, and smartest (when she is not drugged).  I love her dearly.  What other mother could  have given the gift of indestructible confidence to such an ordinary daughter?  Not only was I as good as anybody else, but much better!  (Well, yes, I am much better.)

See, that’s what she did for us.  I have been called a bitch (a compliment, no?) and a sweetie (an even greater compliment).  It’s all compliments–see?  That’s my mom!

But she isn’t sleeping. She wakes up after 10 minutes.   “Couldn’t you give her Ambien?”  I asked.  I am an expert on Ambien.  It is the only drug you will ever need if you can get it.  Throw out your Prozac and whatever else.  Just go to sleep.

Here is what I know about my beautiful mother.  (Surprisingly little.)  She is a good mother.  When I was in the hospital for a tonsillectomy and almost bled to death, she did not leave my side.  She set up Barbie patio furniture on my bed.

She is  good at everything.  Bridge?  The best.  Want to see the prizes?

Badminton?  Pretty good.  I remember a day of playing badminton after t my father didn’t come home one day. It was an occasion.  She rarely played with us.  She was fun, but somehow frail.

She never stooped to playing Bingo.

She has many, many, so many  friends.  I can count mine on one finger, to quote John Mellencamp.

Sometimes life is too ridiculous to live
You count your friends all on one finger
I know it sounds crazy just the way that we live”–John Mellencamp, “Between a Laugh and a Tear”

She saw EVERY movie, and I do mean EVERY movie.  She fell asleep when we went to Pollock.  We laughed over the last movie we saw in a theater together,  Bridesmaids.

She knows politics. She is sharp.  She was a political science major. She waited for hours on the Old Capitol lawn to see Hillary and Bill Clinton.  “I hoped to see a woman president in my lifetime.”

She saved Holy Cards (a really nice one of St. Patrick), the St. Patrick’s Catholic Church Dedication Liturgy (a new church was dedicated in 2009 after the destruction of the original church by a tornado), and a surprisingly good Special 25th  Anniversary issue of People magazine. (I have been reading about Madonna, John Travolta, and Karen Silkwood’s children tonight.)

I would like a pack of Holy Cards.

Note how beautifully dressed she is in the picture above.  That is a cashmere sweater she later gave to me.

She introduced me to reading.

Baby Animals:  that is the name of the book we’re reading in the picture.  I am one year old.  I already have a huge pile of Golden Books.  Little Red Riding Hood, Three Little Kittens, The Poky Little Puppy, The Little Red Hen.  Every time we go to the grocery store I get another Golden Book.  (My panda has been abandoned for a good book.)

I meant to post a much more glamorous picture of her, but I couldn’t scan it.   It simply wouldn’t work.

I think the whole family should have met before an End of Life decision was made.  Families often fight about this, my doctor told me.  He knows of a case where a brother and sister came to blows.

If they’d tell me her weight and the dosage I could figure out the dosage of Ambien on my calculator.  Just call me Doctor World Wide Web.

I want her to be comfortable.  I do not want her to suffer.

I do not want to say goodbye to her.  I want her to survive.

I’m red-eyed from crying, but will not be red-eyed tomorrow.  I will be strong.  It is what I can do for her.

I called my dad, but he was cold.  “Let me know if anything changes.”  They have been divorced 40 years.

That is when I knew that it was hopeless.  Nobody is going to step up to the plate.  If anyone steps up, it has to be me.  I saved her life twice. But I have been ill, and this time it has gone on too long without intervention.

And I will leave you with a Bob Marley song that isn’t very practical here.

Get up, stand up: stand up for your rights!
Get up, stand up: stand up for your rights!
Get up, stand up: stand up for your rights!
Get up, stand up: don’t give up the fight!

It should be:  Get up, stand up:  stand up for your Mom!