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Fever of Unknown Origin
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Fever of Unknown Origin - Synopsis


"My initial experience of illness was as a series of disconnected shocks, and my first instinct was to try to bring it under control by turning it into a narrative. Always in emergencies we invent narratives… Storytelling seems to be a natural reaction to illness, … Stories are antibodies against illness and pain."

"A dangerous illness fills you with adrenaline and makes you feel very smart, I can afford now… to draw conclusions."
- from Intoxicated by My Illness by Anatole Broyard


"The terms are clear: if you want to live, you have to die; you cannot have mountains and creeks without space, and space is a beauty married to a blind man. The blind man is Freedom, or Time, and he does not go anywhere without his great dog, Death."
- from A Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, by Annie Dillard



"Illness lived in our house like a fifth family member." So states Judith Ford in her literary memoir, Fever of Unknown Origin, an account of how, at the age of 42, she developed a mysterious illness that subtly and irrevocably changed her perceptions of life. The story begins in an emergency room where Ford is sitting with her mother who has just suffered a massive stroke. As she waits to learn her mother's fate, Ford recalls her own experience of having been admitted to this same hospital. Ford's illness had come out of nowhere, it seemed, and brought her busy schedule – which included three children, a full-time psychotherapy practice, a relatively new second marriage, a daily running schedule – to an abrupt and terrifying halt. At the time of her mother's stroke, the author's illness is three years in the past but is far from settled in her mind.

Ford's mother is eventually moved to a nursing home where she will live out the remainder of her life. Ford's father already ill with advanced emphysema, becomes more and more disabled. In view of her parents' increasing needs, Ms. Ford realizes that her plan to return to college to pursue an advanced writing degree has to be scrapped. Instead, she hires a writing coach. Her coach gives her assignments which Ford squeezes into late hours of the night, the unexpectedly freed-up time when a client cancels, the early mornings before the kids wake up. Over time, she noticed that certain themes kept popping up, again and again, in her writings. Themes having to do with illness, with death and diminishment, wonderings about the existence or non-existence of something greater than oneself and a fascination with people who survive against enormously bad odds. "How is it," she seems to be asking again and again, "that given our awareness that one day we will lose everything and everyone we love, will lose our very selves, how is it that so much of the time, most of us manage not only to get through the days with some measure of satisfaction, but, also, to create lives of meaning and purpose. Isn't it interesting how the prospect of loss, once you look right into the face of it, can make a life seem bigger, deeper, more vivid?"

Fever of Unknown Origin evolved from Ford's sessions with her writing coach, and the synchronicity of dealing with her parents' journeys towards death just a few years after she herself had nearly died.

The second chapter of the book, in fact, was developed directly from an assignment to write about a childhood memory. In that chapter, Ford takes us back to a pivotal scene, an encounter, at the age of four, with what she would later identify as existential loneliness, her realization that she was separate from her mother – and from everyone – and that she, as well as all the rest of us, was operating without a net. It was her first glimpse into the reality of human vulnerability and the inescapable fact of death. She describes the physical impact of this awareness and tells us how she organized her life from then on to keep herself distracted from thinking about what she'd seen. "But I didn't forget," writes Ford. "…What I did was layer-over…. I filled the cavities of my life with schoolwork and constant motion. I rode my bike, took ballet classes, hung from my knees from high bars, played softball, basketball, hopscotch and jump rope…. I did all my homework on time, never was tardy or truant. I wrote short stories and poems and brought them in to share with my teachers…. When I was grown… I began writing in a journal to help me keep my balance… I started my own business when I was thirty, got a divorce a year later, when my daughter was a year old, moved to a suburb with a good school system and began putting in 60 hour weeks in order to afford living there. Too old for pogo sticks, I joined a fitness center and took up long distance running. And, I kept writing."

It was this frenetic pace, meant to protect her, that actually set the stage for Ford's eventual collapse. She writes: "one of my colleagues had expressed amazement that I could have become so ill when, in her view, "you lived healthier than any of us." I'd thought so, too, that I'd been doing all the right things. I had been so sure that those things – like, not eating red meat, exercising daily, cultivating positive thoughts and images when stopped at traffic lights or waiting in lines -- would keep me safe. As if a healthy lifestyle were the modern equivalent of sacrificing a lamb to God, doing a good-hunting dance, or fasting during lent. I'd even thought my habits could counteract the effects of the long hours I worked, the long hours I didn't sleep at night. I'd been so sure."

The book, which reads more like a novel than a simple memoir, is a multi-layered consideration of the themes of loss and dying, what causes illness and what creates healing, and how people make sense of serious illnesses and come to terms with them. Ford explores these themes through a series of stories that wander through time. We go, for example, from the emergency room scene that opens the book, back into a story from Ford's childhood, then back into ancient family history (ancestors that created a spiritual community in rural Wisconsin in the mid-1800's); forward in time to Ford attending a professional conference and noticing how terribly exhausted she is (she will be hospitalized a few months later for most of the summer). Through these stories we get to know Ms. Ford, of course, but also her parents, Mary and Bert. We see Mary as a woman who is often depressed but also possesses a wicked sense of humor, both delightful and cutting. She is one of those people who should never drink; alcohol unglues her and makes her do things that confuse and scare her children. But drink she does. Often and a lot. Her husband, Bert, is a passive, slide-ruler-and-pocket-protector kind of guy whose quiet guidance and consistent support stand out in contrast to Mary's dramas. Bert's life is one long disappointment, except, he would say, for his kids, whom he loves without judgment or deep understanding.

In addition to the family stories, Ford uses her life-long involvement with running to show us how profoundly her illness affects her. She loves running as intensely as she loves her life and measures her state of health and mind by the quality of her daily runs. Early in Fever, she goes for a three-mile run which, because she is becoming ill, she can't complete. We get a hint here of how thoroughly the illness, when it hits full-force will surprise and unbalance her.

Fever is at times heartbreaking, but just as often, funny. We even laugh, at first, at some of the early scenes in the hospital after Ford is taken ill. The story becomes more harrowing as the weeks of Ford's hospitalization add up and she fights to keep hold of the threads of her life (her clients, her children, her sense of herself ),in the face of what looks like imminent death or at least, chronic disability. We are immersed with her in ever-worsening symptoms, mystified doctors, and the fear, boredom and despair of the patient-role.

The book ends on a note of triumph – of both body and spirit – a forgiveness of past wrongs and a reclaiming of sidelined life. Nothing is simple or pure here; this is a hard-won victory, a resounding recovery but muted with the memories of past pain, an awareness of the exquisite brevity of life, and the knowledge that loss is an unavoidable part of the package.