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Fever of Unknown Origin
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Poetry Samples
Fever of Unknown Origin - Excerpts

from Chapter 1, 1992, in the hospital with Mary (Fordís mother):

All three of us were silent for a few minutes. My motherís hand felt warm and still, like a small animal curled up to sleep in the palm of my hand. I stroked her long thin fingers, noticing her narrow gold wedding band, the tiny diamond engagement ring that matched it. Sat thinking that there wasnít much point in doing anything other than this, this sitting and being-with. Nothing was going to make this better. Nothing anyone could say or do. No drug to hook up to that IV that would make her brain whole again.

The fog that had cushioned the impact of Dr. Amundsonís words had dissipated. Now my chest ached with a peculiar sensation of heaviness and void. As if a big boulder had set itself down on me and cracked my ribs wide open.

The low hum of voices, footsteps, fluorescent lights and machines spread out over and around my parents and me like water flowing over stones.

Maryís new voice, a little less desperate now, broke the silence. "This is too much,"

"Youíre damn right it is," I responded with more force than I intended.

"Be sweet. Say sweet things to me."

"Okay. Sure."

A nurse walked in. "I have some Atavan for you now. Dr. Amundson said you could have some." She unhooked part of the IV tube and squeezed the contents of a clear syringe into it.

"Call me Honey," Mary said.

The nurse smiled at her, "Sure. You should start to feel a little less uncomfortable now, Honey."

Mary smiled back with half her mouth and closed her eyes. Her dark brown hair straggled limply against the pillow.

from Chapter 5, 1990, early symptoms:

Falling into sleep is easy. Itís coming back up that isnít. I have to pull, shove, wrap ropes around and heave myself up out of sleep. Part of my disabled brain wondering, every morning, why I would want to get up after so short a rest. Even on those rare mornings, when Iíve actually slept 9 or 10 hours. Sleep sticks to me like wet sand. Sleep sculpts my hair into odd damp shapes. Turns my breath sour no matter how well Iíve brushed and Listerine-ed the night before. Even my skin emits a sweet rotting odor.

In short, first thing in the morning, I seem very like someone who is not well. Who is not herself. In order to get up, get dressed, let the sitter in, get me and the kids off to school and work, I have to call up my well self from memory and enact her. You understand? It takes intentional effort. I portray my former self and after a bit, I forget Iím acting. I just do it. The way the dishwasher turns on and washes your dishes when you push its buttons. Not questioning whether or not if feels like washing dishes, whether or not it might prefer a nap; it just does the dishes. Because you pushed its "on" button. Iím like that. I push my own "on" button and I operate all day and into the night, just as Iím supposed to. I go to work; I talk to clients; I fill out forms; I eat my lunch; I make phone calls. Some nights I work until 9:00 or 10:00. Other days Iím finished by 3:00. I drive my red Toyota Tercel home; I read the mail; I make dinner; spend time with the kids; do the bedtime routine.

Fall down dead into sleep. Thinned out to parchment. Swear to God, you can see right through me.

from Chapter 12, 1958:

I ran up the stairs to my brotherís room, taking the steps two at a time. By the time I reached the top landing, I was sobbing, red faced, and out of breath.

"Mom says sheís going to kill herself," I gasped. My father stared at me as if he couldnít quite hear me. I repeated myself. "She said nobody cares about her and she might as well die. And then she got on the floor in front of the stove and opened the door."

"And thatís where she is now?" my father asked.

"I guess," I answered, a little confused by the question and the fact that he wasnít already on his way to her rescue. How did I know where she was now? Did he think I had x-ray vision and could see through the floor? "She must be," I added. "Yes."

Both my father and my brother continued to sit there in their chairs, books and papers on the desk in front of them, their faces blank. With shock? Or because they didnít believe me? It didnít matter. It was apparent to me that neither one of them was going to do anything. I turned to go back downstairs, thinking that, okay, I would have to be the one. I pictured myself wrestling my mother for control of the round dial that turned on the gas. What if I wasnít strong enough?

"Wait," my father said. "Okay now. Wait." He nodded his head as he stood up, pushing the wooden desk chair out behind him. It scraped loudly against the gray tile floor. He glanced down, checking that he hadnít left a mark. I stood on the stairs and waited. I was thinking about that other night, the night of the broken tea cup, just a few months ago, when my mother had cleaned my room with such violence. I imagined that that might be what was making my father decide that heíd better go check things out for himself after all.

"You plunk yourself right here now," my father gestured me towards his now empty chair. "Iíll be right back."

I sat down as he directed, although I didnít know what I was supposed to do there, in the homework helper chair at my brotherís desk. I looked over at my brother. He gave me a knowing smile.

"You made that up, right?"

"No!" I answered, insulted. "Iím not stupid!"

"She really said that?"




My brother wasnít smiling anymore. In fact, he looked scared. I felt sorry for him.

"I donít think she really meant it," I said to him. "but she turned the gas on as I was leaving."

"She was probably just going to cook something." Dick said.

"No. She turned on the gas but I didnít hear her strike a match." (In those days, the only way to light a gas oven was to stick a burning match over a small hole in the bottom of the oven. A few seconds would pass and then some invisible force would snatch the flame off the match and with a whoosh, the burner inside the stove would ignite. If it didnít ignite, then natural gas would continue to stream out of the little hole, creating a bad smell and a dangerous climate.)

We were both quiet, listening for what, Iím not sure. The "whooosh" of the oven lighting? The kitchen blowing up? Our parents shouting at each other? But there was no sound at all, not even their voices.

"Can you smell gas now? I asked Dick.

"Maybe," he said.

"Yeah," I said, "me, too."

from Chapter 21, in the hospital, 1990:

And I notice, then, that Iíve been shivering. For how long, I donít know. Feels like itís been a while.

The news is over now and the Tonight Show is beginning. Johnny Carson is in the middle of his monologue. Maybe if there were something more compelling happening on my TV screen I would be able to continue to ignore how I feel. The shivering seems to be subsiding now. I know that means my fever is probably about as high as itís going to be for a while. I toss the blankets to the end of the bed. My whole body is hot again. For some reason, this time I notice how red my hands and fingers are. Are they really flushed, as they appear to me to be, or is that my imagination? Iím sure my face is flushed. Do hands flush with fever, too?

I should take my temperature. I put the digital thermometer that Chris brought me from home in my mouth and wait. When I take it out a few minutes later, it reads 106.


I remember something about 106. A childrenís story. A little girl in a log cabin with a very high fever. I canít quite remember what happened to her. She lost all her hair? She went blind? Did she die? I think she went blind.

from chapter 34, in the hospital, 1990, a few days later:

Chris goes home to the kids and the hospital quiets for the night. I donít turn on the TV or pick up the phone. I donít play any of the tapes that people have sent to me. The sound of music, any music, makes my skin crawl. Since I was old enough to put a needle to a vinyl record, Iíve listened to music, danced to it, collected it, sung with it, used it as backdrop to my life. Now I hate it. I wonder if Iíll ever like it again?

I wonder if Iíll ever like anything again.

I lie in the silence looking over the damage this illness has done to my life, to my family. And no end in sight. I am fairly certain, now that Iím in the hospital, that I wonít die of this. The doctors tell me I wonít. But no one knows when Iíll be well. And once well, will I recognize myself?"

from chapter 42, in the nursing home:

As Nic and I walked off the elevator on 3 North, Josephine, a short, skinny woman with runny eyes, zipped down the hallway towards us in her wheelchair. She zipped up and down this hallway a lot. We were used to her. Josephine was rarely still. Sheíd sit in her chair, her left foot in a sock, resting on a footrest, while she pumped hard with her sneaker-clad right foot, propelling her chair down the hall at surprising Ė and sometimes alarming Ė speeds.

"Gotta get in shape," Josephine would always tell us as she flew by. "Iím gonna go home soon." Josephine had been there four years. A nurse had told me that Josephine was probably not going to go home soon. Probably she was never going to go home. Her house had been sold long ago, and no one in her family was able to take her in.

Next we passed Helen. Helen, also in a wheelchair, liked to lurk in the doorway of her room, ready to attack passersby with word requests. Today Helen wore a faded housedress of indeterminate color, her gray hair wild and thin and standing out all around her ears. Her nose and her voice were equally sharp.

"Give me something to Spell!!" She shouted at us as we walked by. When neither Nic nor I answered, she spelled her own word. "F-O-W-B-M-E-N-T!" she shrieked belligerently. And in case weíd missed it, she repeated the letters at even higher volume. Nic suppressed a giggle until we were well past Helen. Then he was overcome.

"Fowbment?" he said, laughing hard. "Whatís a fowbment?"

My mother had told me she liked to give Helen hard words to spell, like "prism" or "asphalt". These made Helen swear. "Shit!" sheíd shout. "Shit, Shit, Shit!"

"Then," said Mom, "I like to say, okay, Helen, spell ĎShit.í That makes her scream even more."

When we got to Momís room today, the television was booming as usual. "HELLO!" I shouted at her, twice, before she heard me.

"Who is it?" she called back before turning her head from the Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman to look at us. "OH. Itís you guys. Goody. Theyíve nearly killed me today"

"Oh yeah? Again?" I said without much interest. She told me every day that the staff were trying to kill her. When asked why, sheíd say, "Itís because they think Iím a spoiled white lady," or "Iím onto them; Iím the only one here whoís with it enough to notice what theyíre doing," or "theyíre all lazy, donít want to be bothered and I bother them too much."

from chapter 44, Maryís final hospitalization, 1997:

The next time I visited my mother she assured me that she knew she wasnít at Home Depot. And she knew it wasnít snowing. "That," she announced, "was a side effect of my digoxin level being too high." Amazing how sheíd maintained her alacrity with medical terms. She remembered medication names and the names of syndromes better than I did while she couldnít remember if sheíd had breakfast or not. I explained to her about her heart valve and her slim chances without having to simplify anything. She seemed to understand. She was unperturbed. In fact, she wasnít much interested.

"I wouldnít want surgery even if they said I should have it," she said. "I guess I donít have to go back to that awful Coast place." She sounded bored and sleepy. Then, she brightened, turned her head to the right, reached her hand through the bars of the bed rails and made a motion with her fingers.

"Hello, precious," she hummed. Her fingers curved and made scratching motions at the air.

It took me a second to recognize what she was doing. Dog-ear-scratching. It couldnít be anything else. "Mom, is Abby here?" I asked.

"Well, yes, of course," she smiled. "Abby has come to take me home."

I didnít know what to say. Weíd gone from, "your heart valve is rotten; it canít be fixed; youíve got heart failure" to "hello-Abby" in the space of an instant.

"Oh. Okay. Abbyís here." I tried to sound non-committal. Just because I couldnít see Abby didnít mean she wasnít there, did it? My father had seen her, too.

My mother continued to pat and scratch at empty space.

"Did you know, Mom, that Abby visited Dad, too, the last time he was here?"

"No, did she? He told me his mother came." Scratch, scratch. Whispered endearments: sweetie-face, dearest angel.

"Abby came, too." I watched her flatten her hand and run it down an invisible skull, a silky, aristocratic muzzle. I could almost see Abby there myself. What the Hell. Why not. "Itís nice to see Abby again, isnít it, Mom."

Silence between us then for maybe five minutes while my mother patted and scratched.

"Do me a favor," she suddenly said, between caresses.

"Sure. What?"

"When I die, I want my ashes to be next to your Dadís."

"Yes. Thatís the plan, Mom. You told us that and itís all been taken care of."

"But I want to be in the mountains, too. Can we do both? Is that allowed?"

"I think so. Yes. Iíd be glad to do that for you. Yes. Does it matter which mountains?"

"My mountains. You remember."