That morning, at 4 am, I got up from my kitchen table and stretched and put my hands on my hips and looked around my barn-turned-apartment in Oxford, Ohio. I had just finished my third-and-final final paper, wrapped up my first year of graduate school, and I was ready to drive home. Hoped to be there in time for lunch. I looked at my computer one more time. I hit send, grabbed my cat, Sylvia, got in my car and left.
At 6 am, somewhere in the middle of Kentucky, my car engine caught fire. I don’t mean it started smoking politely. I mean robust, healthy flames. At 6:01 am I grabbed Sylvia from the back seat and got us both out of there. At 6:02 am, Sylvia got spooked by the fire and bit my hand, which then began to quadruple in size.
And then about a dozen fully uniformed firemen appeared out of nowhere and started spraying my car. And then a police officer, who kept getting on the radio with the office and calling me the female, showed up and insisted on calling my parents. So he woke them up and they were confused and I was confused and he was confused — couldn’t understand why my parents weren’t going to come pick me up, even though I’d told him fifty times that they were in South Carolina and that I was almost twenty-four years old.
A little after 6 pm I was back on the road again, in a large U-Haul truck, trying to drive with my left hand since my right hand had gotten too puffy to grasp the steering wheel. I had read an entire book (Things Fall Apart) while sitting in the waiting room at the nearest garage, anxious to hear the mechanic’s diagnosis. I had eaten breakfast at the Waffle House across the street and evaded a creeper who offered to buy my meal and get me a hotel room and ignored the bickering and sarcasm of half-a-dozen irate gamblers who had broken down and were missing (Do you understand me?!) missing the Kentucky Derby. When the garage owner told me that my engine had melted — I sold him my car without a second thought and rented a vehicle from the only company I could find that would rent one-way. U-Haul.
By the time I got home, after 10 pm, my hand looked more like a paw and I couldn’t flex my fingers at all. I walked in and my little sisters jumped on me and there were peaches everywhere — on the island and on the peninsula and on the landing and my mom was standing in the kitchen canning and the whole house was steamy.
“I don’t know what we’re going to do with all these peaches,” she said.
“Oh,” I said, wiping my forehead with my massive hand.
And my Uncle Tom was there and Bill Laffer (the nephew of Art Laffer) was there. Talking about movies. I found out he had been there for a week, and no one knew when he would be leaving. His wife had recently died of cancer, and he had showed up at my parents’ door — because that’s what happens when you become the sick house. The sick family. Other people who are hurting find you.
And I looked around at all this familiar strangeness and for some reason I kept thinking: I am home, but I only have one hand. I only have one hand, but I am home.
And then someone, probably my dad, decided that we should get steak to celebrate my return. And my sisters started chanting: “Chocolate Cake! Peaches and Steak!” And it took us over an hour to get some semblance of dinner on the table and everyone was talking and that’s when it happened.
My dad asked for our attention. He might have even tapped his fork against his water glass. He slowly pulled out a folded and refolded piece of paper from his breast pocket. He cleared his throat.
“I didn’t want to say anything. Not until we knew for sure. But I got these test results from the doctor today, and they’re conclusive. Definitive. I have . . . Lyme disease.”
We all just looked at him. Forks in mid-air.
“Do you know what this means?!”
“This means.” He started to choke up, which had become less uncommon since the sickness. “This means I’m sick. I’m really, really, actually sick. Finally, finally. This means . . . that I have a disease. We have something to fight. Finally. This is . . . this is the best news of my life. This is . . .”
He couldn’t continue for a minute. He refolded the paper like it was made of gold leaf and put it back in his pocket. And then he told us everything he knew about the disease so far.
“We have to celebrate. We have to have a Lyme party,” he said. “To show this stupid . . . spirochete who’s boss! To show it we’re going to fight. Are you with me?” He looked around the table. “Are you . . . are you with me?”
He looked at me.
“Yeah, dad. I’m with you. Of course I’m with you.”
But I didn’t know what to do.
By 2 am I was relaxing in the bathtub, soaking away the U-Haul grime and the peach steam and hoping that cat scratch fever was only a song. My knees looked nice, coming up wet out of the water. I thought about a dream I’d had, years ago, before my dad got sick, about a big house that was falling apart and there was a big tree growing right up through the middle of it and these glowing, neon green inchworms kept dropping from the tree and wriggling around and chewing through all the wood. Burning through it like swirling drops of acid. Only my dad had bought this house and he kept telling me that it was nothing to worry about. That it was a fixer-upper for sure but structurally sound. And then I wondered if I was clairvoyant and then I imagined my dad’s muscles like the dark green of an IBM computer screen from the 80′s and the Lyme like the blinking neon green cursor.
Bad command or file name.
I shivered. I reached out and turned on the hot tap with my toe. Bent knees are prettier than unbent. But it wasn’t the cold water that made me shiver — it was something I didn’t recognize. Hadn’t felt for some time. It was hope, and I let myself feel it for a few minutes more.
Maybe my dad was right. Maybe this was good news. Maybe it was the best news we’d had in a while.