In this new column, After a Fashion, Esmé Weijun Wang examines one particular article of clothing she owns, and tells the story behind it.
Lately I have been fighting to hold despair at arm’s length. In pulling Tarot and oracle cards as a part of my morning ritual, I revealed the Queen of Swords and Memento Mori. The Queen of Swords is intelligent, clear-headed. She indicates a need for using one’s intellect. Memento Mori simply means: Remember that you have to die.
I was diagnosed with Lyme disease in early 2015. My test results came back while I was at a writers’ residency in Nebraska, where the temperature was often below zero and I was attempting to revise my novel while coping with what I then thought was fibromyalgia. In my studio, I sat at the desk provided, staring at the fax in my email, and tried to make sense of the symbols littering my screen. Here was an explanation for my symptoms after years of halfhearted and vague guesses, and yet medical explanations are in my experience rarely useful; they point at possible solutions, but to be alive and sick is a far more complex endeavor than we like to admit.
At the moment, my husband Chris is away on a business trip. I am home alone with our dog, a sink filling with dishes, and a bed strewn with books and papers that I pray will be useful to me. The past few weeks have been physically difficult, but not to an extreme. I’ve found it harder than usual to sit up in bed, or to sustain a telephone conversation; I went to the emergency room two days ago and came home with a bottle of narcotics that I’m willing myself not to take. In times like this, when my body dwindles, despair creeps alongside me to offer its version of bedside manner: Remember that you have to die .
I can see from my sickbed Grandma F’s camel coat, which hangs at the end of a free-standing rack. A camel coat is the kind of wardrobe staple I’ve always wanted, yet never bought for myself; a good one is expensive, and though I’m in my early-to-mid-thirties, I still look too much like a high-schooler to make the look truly work. Camel coats are the stuff of J. D. Salinger stories; they appear in the MaxMara catalogue, perennially hanging off the shoulders of slim white women. For years I’d wanted a camel coat the way I yearned for a caviar Chanel purse or a pair of Ferragamos, which is to say that I wanted to wear something that reeked of a confidence I have yet to possess.
Before the camel coat hung in this room, in San Francisco, it hung inside a garment bag in my in-laws’ laundry room, in a suburb of New Orleans called Metairie, waiting to be brought to the assisted living facility. It hadn’t quite fit Grandma F when my in-laws first bought it, and so it was tailored to Dominique, my sister-in-law, who is an otter keeper at the Audubon Zoo and the same petite size as her father’s mother. I noticed the coat when Chris and I arrived for Christmas last year, dragging our suitcases behind us into the house as we do every winter.
My mother-in-law told us, in private, that Grandma F was being moved to hospice care. We weren’t to tell Dominique. Nor were we to believe, my mother-in-law said, that this meant Grandma F was at death’s door. It simply meant that Grandma F was going to receive more specialized care on an individual basis, at the same assisted care facility where she was already staying. We hadn’t visited her yet, but we planned to, and when we were given this news, there was no urgency in it.
The family had cleaned and vacuumed in an attempt to rid the home of cat dander, which I am horribly allergic to, and prepared a variety of gluten-free snacks for me as well. It was a miracle to us all that I was even in Louisiana; instead of getting better with such treatment over the ten months prior, I was getting worse. The fevers and days of severe weakness, of finding it difficult to swallow or breathe, became increasingly frequent. October was a nightmare not only of symptomology, but also of faith; I was so sick for so many days that I could feel hopelessness nipping at my edges. Chronic Lyme can lead to death, but this is not what I was afraid of.
Nothing about my case, according to my doctor, indicated that I was in danger of dying anytime soon. Instead, what I feared was the in-between space: a purgatory for those too sick to truly live. In the beginning of November I staggered into my doctor’s office with my eyes shut—I was too weak to keep my eyelids open at a normal rate—and he suggested that we try Low Dose Antigen Immunotherapy. I had my first injection in the clinic on that day, and it almost immediately improved my quality of life. By the next week, my health had improved to the point where instead of cancelling our Christmas trip to New Orleans, as I’d feared we would have to do, I began to look forward to it instead. Despair halted its onslaught for a time.
In Louisiana one morning a friend asked if I had been to St. Roch’s Chapel. No, I said, I hadn’t even heard of it. Chris had heard of it, but had never been. I looked it up and discovered that St. Roch was known as the patron saint of, among other things, miraculous cures. The chapel devoted to him in New Orleans was built after Reverend Peter Thevis prayed to St. Roch for his parishioners to be spared from yellow fever, which was raging throughout the area, and found that his community was, in fact, miraculously saved. St. Roch’s Chapel has since become a place where those hoping for miraculous cures not only pray for intercession, but also leave behind prosthetic limbs and glass eyes as offerings once they’ve been healed.
Despite a year of ad hoc religious study and consideration, I am not a Catholic. Nor am I “nothing.” As the saying goes, There are no atheists in foxholes , and being sick is one of the greatest foxholes I know. I practice a morning ritual that includes prayer, including prayers from different sects of Christianity; I also study different forms of Buddhism, which is a nod to my father’s side of the family. I had only been living with Lyme disease for three years, but those three years stretched and yawned over hazy lifetimes, and I badly wanted to be cured. My desire to go to St. Roch’s Chapel came from both reverence and the willingness to try almost anything to find wellness again, and so we went.
The chapel was far smaller than I’d anticipated—smaller than any church, smaller than a school cafeteria. There were no visitors or tourists save for Chris, Dominique and her boyfriend, and myself. A statue of St. Roch beckoned, colored in pastels. In a wide-brimmed hat, with a mustache and goatee, he looked a bit like a suave conquistador. Off to the side, in a closed-off, gated room of about three feet by three feet in size, hung artificial limbs and crutches, as well as homemade plaques and miniatures of dogs, hearts, and crosses. These items serve both as decor and symbol; a glass eye is a glass eye, small and coated in dust like an outsized marble, but recalls sight regained, suffering, and hope for anyone who notices it.
The camel coat is a camel coat. Hung on the wall to the left of the coat is a quote attributed to Joan of Arc: “I am not afraid. I was born to do this.” However my life unfolds, goes my thinking, is how I am meant to live it; however my life unspools itself, I was created to bear it.
At the chapel I had brought a beloved stone striated by white lines. According to what I’d read, I was supposed to leave something only once I’d been healed—but my intuition told me to leave something then, and so I knelt and tossed the stone through the bars. I said a clumsy prayer while the sun sluiced through the windows in the tiny room.
Grandma F was doing all right—speaking, making requests—and then she wasn’t. On the ride across Lake Pontchartrain, rolling across the causeway to her assisted living facility, I thought of the last time I’d seen her on the Christmas prior. Her white hair was done in curls, and she sat on the couch at my in-laws’ while everyone bustled around her and fixed plates for the older folk. She’d asked me, as she did every year, how California was, holding my hand with her cold, dry one. I duly answered her questions, but Grandma F was not the type to bare her heart, and so I knew little about her besides what I’d been told by my parents-in-law: She’d left elementary school in order to earn money for her family picking strawberries, and a near-mythical number of people came to her ninetieth birthday party. Everything in between these two events—an entire life—was a mystery to me.
Now she was in bed and barely conscious, lost in the purgatory of suffering between life and death. She occasionally mumbled. More often than not, she moaned in what sounded like discomfort, or even pain despite the morphine. I had never before been so proximate to death, and was surprised to find that I wasn’t frightened; I sat by her bed and stroked her hand, telling her that we had come to see her, and that she wasn’t alone. The morning of our visit, I had pulled the World card—the World is symbolic of the end of a cycle, indicating completion and fulfillment.
She died before the week was over. We’d had Christmas at the house, as per tradition, but she was in our thoughts as she lingered, and my father-in-law had stated a desire for Christmas to be as normal as possible. Somehow, it was possible. I rested in the living room, alone, while I listened to the family talk and eat and laugh in the other rooms of the house. I thought about how illness separates us. Something I’d realized that year was that illness is, in many ways, a stronger force than love—I couldn’t feel love for anyone or anything on the worst days, because that was all there was: suffering. It filled rooms. It obliterated the sky.
I had, coincidentally, brought a black dress, but had no appropriate coat for the funeral. My mother-in-law suggested the camel coat, which was still hanging in the laundry room. They had never had a chance to give it to Grandma F when she was well enough to wear it, and when I tried it on, it fit perfectly. While looking for family photographs to give to my brother today, I came across a series of prints I’d had made from those weeks in New Orleans. Here was St. Roch’s Chapel, with St. Roch himself looking out onto the pews. Here was Chris entertaining his cousin with a Nintendo DS at Grandma F’s wake in a tiny Baptist church. Here I was at her funeral, which is one of those days made to remind us of death and dying and illness. In the photo, I am wearing the camel coat meant for her, and I am trying to smile.