On my grandparents’ farm, a chick hatched with a twisted leg. “Wring its neck, or the others will peck it to death,” my grandfather advised. But my grandmother had other ideas.
She lined a shoe box with hay, punched holes in the lid, and put the chick inside. She set the box in a brown wicker basket, along with twelve eggs individually wrapped in newspaper, a slab of fatback from last year’s pig to flavor my mother’s white beans, and a cabbage from the garden.
My uncle got on his bike and rushed to the recader, the messenger who got on the train and delivered my grandmother’s weekly baskets to us in Barcelona, where I was recovering from measles.
That evening the chick was on my bed, pecking at breadcrumbs.
I spent a good part of my childhood in bed, with colds and fevers and sore throats. I would pass the hours by imagining faces in the cracks in the ceiling and making mountains and valleys with my legs under the covers. Sometimes, nearly mad with boredom, I crawled under the sheets, all the way down to the foot of the bed, and stayed there until lack of air pushed me gasping back to the top.
My grandmother’s chick changed all that. Cheeping and hobbling on the sheet, flapping his stubby wings, he kept me company. Together we listened to the clanging of the streetcars outside and the singing of the maids as they washed the dishes in the neighboring apartments. Together we waited for the stories that my mother and my aunts took turns reading to us.
When, decades later, I was diagnosed with CFS, another, much longer era of bed rest began. But there is no real rest in this condition–just a malaise of mind and body, like the onset of a flu that never goes away, and an inability to relax or get comfortable, while the mind treads obsessively on the same well-worn track: This can’t go on! What can I do to get better? What if I never get better?
During what I call my horizontal days, there is little that other humans, no matter how loving, can do for me, since the energy to talk or even listen is more than I can muster. But I am never lonely. A long roster of critters, the successors of my grandmother’s lame chick, have kept me company through the worst of the illness.
On my bed these days you will find little red Bisou, a Cavalier, and Telemann, a gray cat. They love it that my CFS keeps me mostly at home. Best of all, for them, are the days when, after breakfast, I have to go back to bed and stay there. “Yay!” they say to each other as they rush past me into the bedroom, “she’s going back to bed!”
I lie on my back and Bisou reclines against my left leg. Telemann sits on my chest, purring and kneading, his white toes spread wide. Then he touches my nose with his, blinks three times and falls asleep.
So do I, if I am lucky. Otherwise, I close my eyes and try to remember Buddhist precepts (“pain is inevitable, suffering is optional”) but they bring me little comfort. Instead, I place my left hand on the dog, my right on the cat. Bisou’s long, flat coat feels like satin; Telemann’s short, thick fur feels like velvet. Their ribs rise and fall under my fingers, and gradually my own breathing slows down. We doze in a pile like an ill-assorted litter, and I can feel the oxytocin lapping at my tissues.
My spouse looks in. “Won’t you rest better if I get the animals out of here and close the door?” he asks.
“No! Please leave them. We’re fine,” I assure him. I can’t imagine anything more depressing than me alone in the room, obsessing about things left undone that I may never get done (what will my friends think if I cancel X? Will my loved ones stop loving me if I don’t do Y?) It would be like going back to my pre-chick days.
What impelled my grandmother to send me that bird? She belonged to a farm culture in which all animals, wild and domestic, were kept strictly outdoors. The hunting dog was chained in the yard, and the semi-feral cats that emerged from the hayloft only to beg for bread crusts never knew the touch of a human hand. A chicken in bed with a sick child! What could be more unsanitary, dangerous, disgusting? But fortunately for me, my grandmother listened to the instinct that told her that the lame chick would do me more good than any drug.
When the afternoon light begins to fade Bisou checks her inner watch: is it dinner time yet? Telemann yawns, executes a perfect down-face dog, and jumps off the bed. I throw a parka over my pajamas and take Bisou outside. Indoors, Telemann leaps miaowing from windowsill to windowsill, urging her to hurry up.
After dinner, they both get the zoomies. Telemann hides behind the sofa and leaps on Bisou as she trots by. She turns and chases him under the bed. He dashes out and bats at her wagging tail. When he starts to lose interest, she paws at him to get going again.
We make a good team, the dog, the cat, and I. Together we have lived through another day without giving in to despair. I haven’t done the laundry, played the recorder, written a single line, or washed my hair, and there is no guarantee that I’ll be able to do these things tomorrow. But B and T, now stretched out before the fireplace and blissfully digesting their meal, aren’t thinking about tomorrow, and perhaps neither should I.