My daughter turned six, and do you know what my husband bought her? A red vinyl doctor’s bag for children. She unwrapped the gift in the living room of our New Jersey home, which was filled with cake-eating kindergartners and their parents. When I saw it, I said nothing. I only wished I’d been born a more confrontational and assertive person, so that I might have torn the bag from my daughter’s arms in those few seconds before she could become attached to it. Instead I sneaked into the kitchen, where I ate half a can of cashews by myself. (This was about all I could eat anymore: cashews and other unhealthy nuts.) Only after eating the cashews did I have the energy to rejoin the party, so long as I didn’t have to speak of or look at the red vinyl doctor’s bag. But I found that I couldn’t not look at it. It was at the very center of the table, large and ominously heavy — the largest and heaviest of the presents, in fact. A metal snap on its front had been popped open to reveal eight different doctor’s tools, each held in place by plastic prongs.
I am always asking doctors about their medical equipment, so I know that the stethoscope was popularized not because it improved a doctor’s ability to hear a heartbeat — although it had that effect, too — but because in nineteenth-century France it was considered improper to put one’s ear to a man’s chest or, especially, a woman’s bosom. The amplified heartbeat was secondary to the stethoscope’s main function, decorum. I asked my third neurologist, Dr. Isaac Yampolsky, if he would be willing to put his head to my bosom in order to listen to my heartbeat. Say, I told him, it was a medical emergency, and we lived in a world without stethoscopes. Didn’t he believe in equality between the sexes? But you ask a doctor something like that and he thinks you’re making fun of him.
Another time, I asked Dr. Yampolsky whether he knew about the early days of the microscope, when doctors were convinced that the magnified contents seen through the eyepiece were partly the work of the viewer’s own mind. These doctors continued to rely on observations made by the naked eye long after other scientists had come to embrace the invention. Since first reading this unsettling fact, I’d actually been inside a laboratory where several medical students were hunched dutifully over big, owlish microscopes. But they did not look happy about it, I told Dr. Yampolsky, who had stopped listening. This hints at one of my great truths about doctors, not one of whom have I known ever to utter the phrase “I am mistaken,” or “You may know best,” or any variant thereof.
Years ago I was seeing an allergist, Dr. Herman Bell, about some rashes that could not be explained by any of my known allergies and that were eventually determined to be psychosomatic and related to the epilepsy. We were seated in his office. He was conducting a series of skin tests on my arm while ignoring my questions about the skin tests, his face inches from the purple, rash-affected arm yet somehow oblivious to the human being attached to it. “Why are doctors so terrible at talking to their patients?” I asked myself aloud.
“The chatty ones become dentists and optometrists,” he snapped. “You want to talk? Get your teeth cleaned.”
This may have been true in his experience. However, my dentists and optometrists, so often preoccupied with their industrial toothbrushes and eye charts, have been no better conversationalists than my allergists. But I didn’t say anything. Dr. Bell seemed incensed by my question, and I didn’t want to risk injury to my arm.
After some silence, he said, “You know, doctors become doctors because they are skilled at the practice of medicine, not because they enjoy gabbing with you.”
“I don’t see why it can’t be both,” I said, or possibly whispered, or maybe only thought. But what I was also thinking was that I have known several doctors who are bad at small talk and the practice of medicine. Who knows why doctors become doctors? Not Dr. Bell. He was no more self-aware than the rest of them. But I can’t help wondering how much influence parents have in the matter. I was reminded of my mother, a Jewish woman who never wanted me to go into medicine or law or any of the other professions Jewish mothers stereotypically push on their children. She used to say that what the world needed more of was love and art.
I wasn’t sure whether Dr. Bell was Jewish, or what role his parents had played in shaping his career ambitions, but eventually he was outed as one of those doctors who is bad at everything. In addition to his rudeness, he misdiagnosed my rash three times before sending me to a neurologist.
We still hadn’t diagnosed the epilepsy when, a few years later, I was referred to Dr. Yampolsky. My mother had just died of Alzheimer’s, and the absurd hypothesis at family gatherings was that my occasional confusion and the three or four fugue states I’d suffered were early signs of the same disease. We didn’t know that the rashes were connected to these other symptoms; they were thought to be a different sort of malady. And no one knew about the other other symptoms — the dread, the déjà vu, the fearsome moments of ecstasy — since I had never mentioned them or even associated them with anything clinical. I’d always thought that these were common afflictions, especially among artists.
When I mentioned my mother’s death to Dr. Yampolsky at our first meeting, he did not say, “I’m sorry for your loss,” or, “My condolences,” although the death was recent enough that he might have. What he said was “Actually it’s imprecise to say your mother died of Alzheimer’s. The exact mechanisms of death related to Alzheimer’s are unknown.” Clearly he is no better than other doctors when it comes to human interaction, and in many ways is below average.
Yet we’ve come to tolerate each other, and now I can laugh whenever he says to me, “I’m a neurologist, not a therapist, and if I were a therapist, I wouldn’t be yours for a million bucks.” He thinks he can talk like this because he is such a renowned neurologist and because, unlike my previous doctors, he made a confident diagnosis after only a handful of conversations and brain scans. This was before the temporal-lobe epilepsy worsened to the point where I was seizing one or two times per day. The diagnosis would be obvious to any idiot now, he told me a few months ago.
“Not to me,” I replied.
“I meant any trained idiot,” he said, tapping his pen with impatience.
The red vinyl doctor’s bag contained the following: stethoscope, thermometer, tapered ear-examining scope, tomahawk reflex mallet, blood-pressure cuff, syringe, and two indeterminate tools, presumably also imitations of those implements of torture familiar to an exam room. The day after the birthday party I woke from a nap — I’d been trying to ward off a coming fit — to discover my daughter in the living room, where, surrounded by the carnage of discarded wrapping paper, she was using the tools to conduct macabre experiments on her dolls. One doll had the blood-pressure cuff wrapped around its head. Another was receiving both thermometer and syringe in the mouth simultaneously. Yes, it had taken only twenty-four hours for the doctor’s bag to wreak havoc on my daughter’s sense of empathy — just as I had feared — so that when she grew up she would have no choice but to become a doctor. We would never be close once she became a doctor, I knew, since she would be able to speak of nothing but medical instruments and the electrical activity of the human brain. Or worse: she would perform poorly in medical school and be forced to become a disgruntled allergist like Dr. Bell. Then she would always think sourly on how her parents had compelled her to enter medicine by plying her with the gift of the doctor’s bag, despite her lack of aptitude for it.
Lurking in the living-room doorway, I watched as she stabbed a doll in its eye with the plastic needle of the syringe. I tried to gauge by her expression how much empathy she was feeling at that moment. As if sensing my gaze, she turned.
“Hey, potato,” I said.
“Hi,” she said flatly, and looked down, now concerned with her reflex mallet’s placement along where the doll’s rib cage would be.
I needed air. In the backyard I found the only normal person in the family, our son. He’d outgrown experiments on dolls or action figures. Now he was picking tomatoes from our large box garden, stepping carefully over the rows of dark kale and holding the front of his shirt up as a makeshift basket.
“They’re ripe,” he said. Bright-orange ooze dripped from either side of his mouth.
Even though I could no longer eat tomatoes because of the extreme high-fat diet Dr. Yampolsky had prescribed, I had to smile. It was just what I’d needed to see at that moment, and then it happened, as though we were characters in a play.
It is easy to laugh about doctors of previous eras and their befuddled, unscientific attitude toward microscopes or bosoms, yet each time I am prescribed a drug for my epilepsy I am convinced not only that it will not work, but that no drug has ever worked for anything, and that all perceived successes throughout the history of medicine — from Hippocrates and Galen on down — have been due to the placebo effect. As I sat in the pharmacy across from the hospital a few months ago, holding Dr. Yampolsky’s latest prescription in my hand, I was again swept up in a reverie of illogic and unscientific thinking. Surely, I thought to myself, these drugs will not work, just as no drugs have ever worked for any illness, especially a brain illness. How can a drug affect the workings of one’s brain? As I crossed and recrossed my legs in the pharmacy waiting area, facing a shelf of cough drops and candy, I became convinced that the very concept of a drug designed to affect the workings of one’s brain was absurd — was pure shamanism. Generally it is my husband who is the illogical and unscientific one, but we switch roles with the commencement of each new drug regimen, when I become convinced that any perceived efficacy against my seizures will be short-lived and placebo-related, while he becomes no less convinced that we have found the miracle cure. I have even become interested in alternative medicine and spiritual therapies, though in the past I was highly critical of these. My credulous husband — who once tried to manage his blood pressure homeopathically, adding garlic and hawthorn to all of his otherwise high-cholesterol meals — now criticizes my alternative medicine and spiritual therapies, such as the Reiki healer I saw only once, or the traditional Chinese medicine practitioner I saw three times, despite my husband’s suspicion that he was not Chinese at all and may even have been 100 percent Caucasian. My husband urged me to trust the physicians, ill-informed as they were, and he urged me to distrust the Reiki healer and traditional Chinese medicine practitioner, both of whom made no secret of their shamanism and even appeared to revel in it. It didn’t help that my husband was wrong every time. None of the drug regimens had worked, and with each failure my skepticism of conventional medicine grew. Pacing beneath the garish green light of the pharmacy, waiting for my pills to be counted, I wished that I were instead waiting for the Reiki healer or traditional Chinese medicine practitioner, both of whom burned incense and played ambient music in their waiting areas. As I gazed at the rows of cough drops, I saw mainstream pharmaceuticals for what they truly were: a darker, more insidious form of shamanism. I thought of my medicine cabinet, that cornucopia of round or oval-shaped pills, each a wide, innocent eye. “Who, me?” the pills seemed to say.
This disturbing series of thoughts returned reliably every time I went to fill a prescription, like those forms of madness associated with the lunar cycle. I couldn’t stop myself. We were all of us — doctor, shaman, patient — equally brainwashed, completely illogical.
I was irritable because of the extreme high-fat diet, my husband said when I finally confronted him about the red vinyl doctor’s bag. Dr. Yampolsky had placed me on this diet a few weeks before the party, following the failure of the most recent drug regimen. As usual, the drug had seemed effective for a short while, probably owing to my brain’s determination that it would work, as well as its — the brain’s — general gullibility. And again, per usual, the effects had worn off. My seizures returned with a newfound vigor, my mind once more growing clouded for several minutes at a time, several times a day. I was drained and depressed and had been unable to paint at all.
“How does it work?” I asked, looking over some pamphlets in Dr. Yampolsky’s office. The treatment’s ugly, pseudoscientific name was the ketogenic diet. It was designed specifically to treat drug-resistant epilepsies but sounded like something one might hear about on a daytime talk show. I had to trust that this was not where Dr. Yampolsky had learned of it, even if he sometimes did watch reality TV to “unwind.”
“The body thinks that it’s starving,” he said, seeming pleased. “And a starving body doesn’t seize.”
“How should I know?” he said, then thought for a moment. “Nobody knows.”
But I wasn’t irritated, I told my husband, horrible and fatty though my meals now were. (We were lying in bed, where all our memorable fights occur.) No, I was worried about my daughter’s attachment to the doctor’s bag. This attachment hadn’t waned; in fact, just the opposite. She now brought the bag with her everywhere, even to school. Was this attachment a positive force in her life? Was it a good thing for her to become so familiar with medical instruments — such as syringes — at her age? Wasn’t there something perverse, even fascist, about the orderly way the tools fit into the bag, each snug between its rigid pair of molded prongs? Did we want our daughter to believe that the world was so ordered? Instead of buying her a toy purse or even a briefcase, in which inner disorganization is often the sign of a rich professional life, my husband had purchased a regimented cabinet of torture devices and drug implements. Wasn’t he worried at all?
“No,” he said, “to all of the above.”
I asked when he’d bought the bag, and he replied that I had been at a doctor’s appointment, of course. My husband does not accompany me to these appointments, since often a procedure involving a large brain scanner or just a long, intricate questionnaire will require him to remain in the waiting room for an hour or more. “All those stupid magazines,” he has said to me, shuddering. He prefers to drop me off, run errands while I undergo my tests, and return only when he estimates I am finished, which may be long after I am finished, so that I am the one who is forced to sit in the waiting room with the regressive women’s magazines, the covers of which always seem to include the phrase “bikini body.” How did Cosmopolitan manage to undo all of Betty Friedan’s hard work?
It was on one of these errand runs that my husband bought the red vinyl doctor’s bag, thinking of how my daughter had occasionally asked about her mother’s medical procedures. I asked whether he was aware that such bags haven’t been used since the old days of house calls, which doctors no longer perform because of their increased unsociability.
“You can take away the bag if you want,” he finally said.
“What I want to take away is her desire for the bag,” I said — a desire my husband had created. “And what is all of this ‘if you want’? What happened to being equal partners?”
“We are equal,” he said. “Separate but equal.” And he turned off the lamp on the bedside table, which only further irritated me.
I have been conditioned by my experiences with the medical professions not to express irritation, or any emotion, unless absolutely necessary. As a woman, if you betray an emotion to a doctor, he will simply stop talking or hand you off to a nurse who knows nothing about the situation. Female doctors are even more dismissive than male ones, in my experience, despite all of my (admittedly sexist) expectations. It may be the case that female doctors must be extra callous in order to combat all of the received stereotypes about women in the workplace. The absolute worst of all known doctors, though, is Dr. Yampolsky. Whenever I have raised my voice or started to cry in his presence, he has quickly ended the conversation. “Oh, God,” he says, and pushes his chair back into the wall so that his many diplomas rattle.
Nor is he afraid to say to a patient, even a patient with a brain illness, “Listen, don’t be an idiot.” He thinks this sort of abuse is charming, as it sometimes is when issued from the mouth of a grizzled diner cook or bus driver. But the worst is when he says nothing and only looks at you in a way intended to make your idiocy clear. It was this look that I expected to encounter — and did encounter — when I asked him, “Has anyone ever told you that you look exactly like Edvard Munch?” He really did have the painter’s sickly complexion, as well as the right combination of mustache and glowering eyes. I was reading a biography about Munch, I told him, because the painter’s work was an influence on my own and because of a quotation of his that I had come across: “Without fear and illness, my life would have been a boat without a rudder.” I asked whether Dr. Yampolsky thought that Munch had been an epileptic, since many artists and writers of previous eras suffered from undiagnosed temporal-lobe epilepsy.
“Of course he was an epileptic,” he said, giving me the look. “Everyone knows that.” But on further inquiry we discovered that he was thinking of Vincent van Gogh.
It wasn’t long before my daughter moved on to human subjects. I was distressed when she asked to “play doctor” with me, but I thought that I could handle it, that I could support her interests even if these were directly opposed to my own hopes for her life. But then I caught sight of the red vinyl doctor’s bag.
Before that, everything was going fine. She had strapped the blood-pressure cuff to my arm — my husband or son must have shown her the correct technique — and was pumping away. I focused on stroking her dark, lovely hair. She pumped, I stroked. No problem. Then I happened to glance at the bag itself. I think my sudden panic was due to the redness of the bag, which seemed intended not to soothe but to alarm. It was the red of a raised welt, or of the turreted lights atop an ambulance. All at once I felt as though the cuff were around my neck, rather than my arm. For a moment I could even hear sirens. This wasn’t a fit, though, only a normal deranged person’s hallucinations. The cuff tightened. “Mommy’s done,” I choked. “Potato, you have to let Mommy up.”
My daughter’s brow furrowed. “But you’re sick,” she said.
This gave me the terrible idea.
“Mommy’s having a seizure, baby,” I said. “Mommy needs to take a break.”
My daughter knows that my seizures have an ineffable power that must be obeyed. She allowed me to strip the Velcro cuff from my arm. “I’m sorry, potato,” I said, backpedaling right away. “You were hurting Mommy a little.” But the damage was done.
“I’m a horrible mother,” I told my husband that night in bed.
“You’re not,” he said. “It does seem a bit extreme, though.” Then he pulled me close to his side. “Look, if I’d known you were going to have this reaction, I’d never have bought it.”
“I’m sorry, too,” I said, intuiting his apology. “But what’s wrong with me? Besides the standard stuff, I mean.”
He adjusted his glasses. “I don’t know. Look inside yourself. That’s what I do.”
That Saturday the four of us rode the New Jersey Transit bus into the city for a morning of edification: my husband and son bound for the Museum of Natural History and Hayden Planetarium, my daughter and I for the Museum of Modern Art. I was even able to convince her to leave the doctor’s bag behind. “What if you lose it on the bus?” I asked, thinking that the spectacle of art and sculpture at the museum might cause her to forget her latent plans to become a doctor. Then I would simply place the bag out at the curb with the rest of the garbage.
I’d known better than to suggest that the whole family go to MoMA. I could no longer persuade my son to visit any art museum, and his father has always been a doomed case in the art department. My daughter was young enough not to have developed their strategies of resistance, but I was thwarted anyway by the fact that there were not many Munch paintings in the Expressionist gallery. Were they all uptown at the Met? Shouldn’t MoMA get all the Munchs they want? I asked a security guard. He thought that the Munch Museum in Oslo, or even the Louvre, being older and also European, might have more of the Norwegian’s paintings on display. I said that maybe someone should sneak a few over to the United States, and he laughed. I asked whether anyone ever tried to steal paintings from the galleries on his watch.
“Sometimes,” he said, shaking his head. “People are crazy. More often they want to write on them.”
Absent from the gallery were any of Munch’s early bedroom scenes involving sick, convalescing, or dying persons, for which he often used family members or himself as subjects. These were my favorites. When my seizures began, around the time of the mysterious rashes, I often took to bed in the same manner as the characters depicted in those early works, or else wandered about our backyard like the disturbed woman in the most impressive Munch painting on display, The Storm. His palettes and moods made perfect sense to me, though they had once drawn sharp criticism from the art world. “Surely that can’t be a hand, can it?” one ignorant critic had said of one of the sickbed paintings, or so I’d read in the biography. “It looks like fish stew in lobster sauce.”
It’s little wonder that Munch, surrounded by impossible people, shot off his middle finger with a revolver. Like van Gogh with his sliced-off ear, Munch blamed his shot-off finger on a certain woman in his life, but clearly these women were only proxies for the artists’ madness. If I ever shot or cut off an appendage, I thought in the museum, I would be sure to blame it not on my husband or one of my children, but on whichever doctor I was seeing at the time.
Early in our relationship, long before I trusted him to prescribe anything so severe as the extreme high-fat diet, Dr. Yampolsky gave me a form to help me describe my symptoms. He’d already explained to me the different types of seizures — grand mal and petit mal and so on — as well as the special case of temporal-lobe epilepsy, which a person may have for years without diagnosis or even recognizing that something is amiss. He told me to go home and circle everything on the form that pertained to my episodes. But the form was predictably useless, so instead I compiled my own list of qualia: being temporarily unable to read; being unable to speak or recognize speech; face and voice blindness; forgetfulness; fugue; dread; perseveration; a sense of ecstasy or disproportion or — worst of all — both simultaneously. Yet I could not find the words to describe the central experience itself. “It’s a private sensation,” I said.
“Well,” he said, skimming the list, “I have a pretty good idea of what you mean.” This afforded me the rare opportunity to mimic his incredulous stare.
Later, during a visit to an electroencephalogram laboratory, he asked whether I’d had any religious conversions in the last ten years. I told him that though I’d been raised Jewish, I was and always had been a feminist secular humanist. “I have no religious beliefs specifically so that I cannot be caught in that worst sort of hypocrisy, religious hypocrisy,” I said.
“Hmm,” he said, and wrote a word down on my chart. The word was obviously much shorter than feminist secular humanist. I asked what religion had to do with my seizures. “Oh,” he said, “patients can become religious when their symptoms start, if the lesion affects the religious or moral part of the brain.”
I was astounded. Could we isolate this brain region? Is all religious belief caused by a lesion? For it often resembled brain damage among my more conservative family members.
“Who knows?” he said. “Hold still.” A lab technician was manipulating some electrodes she had glued to my head. I wondered: was there a way to remove the religious part of the brain while keeping the morality part? If we could turn this into a simple procedure done at birth, like circumcision, it could be a very good idea for society. I said as much to Dr. Yampolsky.
“Neurosurgery isn’t an accepted procedure for social planning.”
“But can it be done?”
“Who knows?” he muttered again, probably thinking that I was making fun of him, or of all doctors.
It was only later, during the MoMA visit, that I realized my interests in philosophy and art might be the secular equivalent of a religious conversion, and that the seat of religion in the brain might be identical, or at least adjacent, to the part that allows us to appreciate ideas and paintings. (The thought struck me in the de Kooning retrospective, as we stood in front of a large, ugly, and very nude Pink Lady.) I couldn’t be sure of why I had become interested in these topics many years ago. If it turned out to be related to the epilepsy, then lobotomizing at birth would indeed be disastrous. It might eliminate art from the world.
The galleries grew more crowded as the morning wore on, and soon my daughter was begging for us to visit the gift shop, where I bought her a pricey set of watercolors. Even then she did not seem to miss the red vinyl doctor’s bag — a good sign, I figured. But I was disappointed that she showed no interest in the Expressionists, de Koonings, or any other paintings I’d brought to her attention. I thought that maybe she’d been unable to see them properly, as small as she was, but I was worried about lifting her in my arms for any length of time in the unlikely case of a sudden, unexpected fit.
I was in the bad place — cataloging my failures as a mother — when we arrived at Port Authority, where my husband and son were to meet us for the journey home. I thought of the many ways in which I was weak and selfish, passive, self-obsessed, a poor role model, not to mention a mediocre artist, and much, much too old to change any of it. The men and women in line for the bus to New Jersey were so visibly competent and healthy by comparison: hale, productive members of society who never caught the flu, feared their children, or wasted whole days wondering whether it was possible to communicate anything meaningful to another human being. Why hadn’t they thought to whisk my daughter away from me for her own protection? Then they could place me out with the rest of the garbage.
Loud voices at the front of the line saved me from these spiraling thoughts. “What’s going on?” my daughter asked.
“Let’s not worry about it,” I said, thinking that the commotion ahead of us was due to some homeless person’s lewdness or a dispute between lovers. But as the crowd began to shift, I saw right away what was going on. There was a man curled up on the ground, writhing. While still holding my daughter’s hand, I approached and kneeled down beside him.
“Are you all right?” I asked. “I’m going to turn you on your side.” It was lucky I was there, or some uninformed person might have tried to force him to bite down on a pencil. Or something worse, like a stick.
A shrill woman shouted from behind us: “He’s drunk. He was stumbling around.”
I ignored her and pulled the man by his coat until he was in the safe position. I tried to pry an eyelid back in order to check his pupils. It could have been an atonic or myoclonic seizure, is what I was thinking.
“Get away,” the man slurred. “Get the hell off of me.”
I was surprised to hear him speak. “You’re having a seizure,” I said. “Let me help.”
“He’s just drunk,” the woman said again. “Leave him alone.”
But the man sat up, not seizing at all, just drowsy. “Ah . . . diabetic.”
“Do you need something to eat?”
He blinked. “Sugar.”
I surveyed the dirty bus terminal. Seeing that there would be no entertaining act of violence, the crowd of New Yorkers had lost interest, except for a few who might have been hoping to heroically perform CPR or a tracheotomy for tomorrow’s New York Post. The rest had returned to thumbing at their phone screens. Naturally I had no sugar on me. I was about to ask a stranger for help when my son and husband ascended the nearby escalator, and I saw that, miraculously, my son was drinking from a bottle of high-calorie soda. (I would have to overlook this lapse in my husband’s parenting skills.) I explained the situation. My son handed over the bottle, which the man finished in one long swig. Then we propped him up against a wall until he revived enough to retrieve a shot from his backpack that would help raise his blood sugar. My daughter’s eyes widened on seeing the syringe. Unless I imagined it.
“Thank you, ma’am,” he said.
“I knew you weren’t drunk,” I said. “The condition was obviously medical.”
On the bus, I considered what would have happened if the man had been having a seizure. It would still have been up to me to help, and I’d have known exactly what to do. Yet it also occurred to me that I’d been guilty — if only for a moment — of the same diagnosis fever that afflicts most, if not all, doctors. Perhaps no one was immune.
That evening I was determined to weed my garden while a trace of summer daylight remained. I wanted to consider the events of the day in peace, and I still liked to kneel between the rows of vegetables and root out crab grass with a screwdriver, even if I could no longer enjoy the fruits of my labor. Tomatoes, eggplants, and especially carrots all had too many carbohydrates. I could eat two carrots per day on the diet, but this was a depressing compromise, and I preferred to eat no carrots. When he was younger, my son had once received a punishment where for a whole week he could watch only a half-hour of TV a day. His response was to shout, “Then I might as well not watch TV at all!” And so I knew that certain aspects of personality are genetic. Would my and my mother’s genes be enough to prevent my daughter from becoming a doctor? Would it be such a tragedy if she did, so long as she was able to remain kind and caring? I wanted to ask Dr. Yampolsky, but this was just the sort of question he would have no answer for, and that would therefore insult him. Plus, he had recently stopped answering his phone when I called, preferring to listen to his voice mail “to see if it’s really important.”
As I formed a pile of weeds and loose dirt, the dog sniffed around and licked up what bugs he could find. That was all right by me. The dog suffered no dietary restrictions. He wasn’t one of those neurotic dogs, and he didn’t seem to mind when, on wanting to go inside, he was forced to wait at the back door until I could gather enough energy to rise from the garden bed.
In the living room I saw my two children nestled in a dim patch of light, my daughter listening to my son’s heartbeat with the toy stethoscope. Maybe she could even hear the heartbeat, if the stethoscope had some functionality despite being made of plastic. For a moment I watched them from the living-room doorway, my son in repose, my daughter ordering him to breathe, then repositioning the stethoscope’s white button on his chest — as though this were a normal, human thing to do.
My seizures sometimes induce a kind of deep contemplation of a fact that later strikes me as obvious. As I walked into the kitchen to wash the dirt from my hands, I found that I was moving in a fog, feeling not dizzy but clearly — or decidedly unclearly — in the beginning stages of a fit. I performed a simple test by examining a takeout menu on the fridge. I couldn’t read it, and so I knew that I was having a seizure. I heard my children speaking in the other room but couldn’t understand their words. Why had I come into the kitchen? A line of Wittgenstein’s was repeating in my head, in a chirpy voice not my own: “The general form of propositions is ‘this is how things are.’ ” I couldn’t remember any context, just that disembodied phrase hanging in the air.
Even so, it seemed profound. “This is how things are.” Everyone, even Wittgenstein, is convinced that they know how things are. Standing there, I felt warmly toward, or even loved, all of the people in my life, including doctors who didn’t know Vincent van Gogh from Vincent Price. Everything — the takeout menu, the refrigerator, the slab of marble countertop, the sensation of air on my arms, the light and bits of shadow coming through the kitchen window — seemed also to be saying, in individuated voices, “This is how things are.”
The extreme high-fat diet was a great success. In a few months it halved the frequency and severity of my seizures, and then, surprisingly, it continued to work long past the point at which my drug regimens had all started to fail. To celebrate my improvement I planned a large, keto-friendly meal for the whole family, and one breezy morning I walked to the local health-food store for ingredients. Once upon a time I’d loved the health-food store, even though its owner was an avowed deer hunter and libertarian, but ever since starting the new diet, shopping had become a complex puzzle, and I could no longer enjoy it. With each product, I had to examine the nutrition facts, or else check a notebook filled with information from a ketogenic-diet website. I was forced to read the words fat and calories dozens of times, first on the food labels, then on the covers of the bikini-plastered women’s magazines in the checkout line. I never used to read the nutrition tables on the backs and sides of packaged items — tables that were invented by doctors — but now I was forced to read every one. And while I never used to gain weight, even after my pregnancies, now that I was reading the nutrition facts on food packaging I was gaining weight.
When I finished calculating all of the carbohydrate and calorie numbers for the meal, I saw a young woman I liked working one of the registers, and I stood in her line even though it was longer than the others.
“How are you?” she asked when I reached the conveyor belt. “You feeling good?”
“I’m tired,” I said. “I have no energy anymore.” She knew all about my diet, of course. I brought her up to speed about the red vinyl doctor’s bag, my daughter’s obsession with it, and the MoMA trip, ending with the surprising event at the bus depot, which my daughter had yet to stop talking about.
“They do that,” the woman said. “My nephew was obsessed with pro wrestlers for a whole year. Suddenly wrestlers are out. Now it’s dinosaurs and dolphins.”
“But what if she doesn’t grow out of it?”
“There’s nothing you can do.” She looked as though I should be satisfied by this answer. “Anyway, you’re lucky. A doctor’s a good problem to have.”
“Maybe she could prescribe me a diet with vegetables,” I conceded. “At least you can eat whatever you like.”
“Oh, but I can’t!” she cried. “I can barely eat anything. I have a slow metabolism.”
I frowned in an exaggerated way, but it seemed forced, and I stopped. “But you don’t have a brain illness,” I said. “So you’re lucky in your own way.” This woman had liked me ever since I’d told her years ago that she looked like Modigliani’s Jeanne and later gave her a postcard that featured the portrait.
She was right though. More than anything, I didn’t want my daughter ever to say that she became a doctor despite her mother’s opposition. I would encourage her interests whatever they were: doctor, artist, bikini model. It was part of the deal, I thought, standing outside the health-food store, where for a moment I felt unburdened, even happy.
But it was easy to think supportive, happy thoughts just then, under the sun and with the doctor’s bag nowhere in sight. At any moment it could reappear, my daughter ministering to some wounded backyard animal or earning her medical degree.
And in August there would be elementary school, with all its attendant dangers.