And that’s why the Lyme disease diagnosis wasn’t much better than no diagnosis at all. Because my dad got Lyme disease at a time when it was still seen as a metaphor. As a sign of some inner flaw. A rare personality quirk. A fatal uniqueness.
The first inkling we got of Lyme’s place in the established disease canon was at church, when we overheard one man say to another: “Russell doesn’t have Lyme disease. That’s a fad diagnosis.”
And I saw my dad’s hand involuntarily touch his breast pocket, where he kept the crumpled, crumbling gold leaf test results like some sort of amulet. Close to his heart.
And then I slowly began to see it everywhere — like a nightmare where the lights come creeping up and you see that you’re surrounded. I began seeing Lyme disease in movies and on TV shows and hearing about it on the radio. Always as a punchline. In the movie Drop Dead Gorgeous there’s a character who’s a severe hypochondriac. In the end credits, they tell us that he finally figured out that he has Lyme disease. I saw Lyme misrepresented in an episode of House and heard it misrepresented on NPR.
And then the insurance letters started coming. The ones from the health insurance company saying that they didn’t recognize or cover treatment for late stage Lyme disease. And the ones from the life insurance company, often arriving the same week, saying that my dad’s insurance premium was being raised to $400, $600, $800 a month because of the Lyme diagnosis.
And at church. And at my dad’s work.
One time this woman asked me if I had noticed that my dad smelled sort of funny — sort of a sour smell? Why did he smell that way? And this one guy at church always made a point of asking me where my dad was. Which would have been nice. Except that one time he said: “You know, the Bible says it’s OK to miss church if your ox falls into the ditch. But if the same ox keeps falling into the same ditch, it might be time to shoot the ox or fill in the ditch, don’t you think?” And then he laughed like he’d said something extra funny. And I thought about that morning, about my dad crawling from his bed to the kitchen table because his legs had quit working.
And people said things like: “I wish I could get a disease that let me stay in bed for days” and “I think it might be kind of nice to have Lyme. To get to relax and not be able to understand anything my wife says!”
And I started to realize that, still, nobody really believed that my dad was sick. He had the hypochondriac’s disease. The fad disease. He had late stage Lyme — the disease for people who need a disease.
The whole thing started to remind me of this story I’d read in high school. The Piece of String. It’s early morning and the main character, Maitre Hauchecorne, has just picked up a piece of string in the road and slipped it into his breast pocket when he notices that he’s being observed. He’s embarrassed for being so thrifty, so he looks around on the ground for a minute and then shuffles off quickly. That afternoon, the richest man in the village announces that he’s missing his pocketbook. And things start to unravel from there.
The other villagers accuse Hauchecorne of finding the pocketbook in the street and stealing it. He denies it and pulls the piece of string from his breast pocket as he explains what happened.
And the villagers say: How clever he is. How crafty to think of such an elaborate lie so quickly.
The mayor searches him and finds no pocketbook.
And the villagers say: How clever he is. How crafty to sneak home and hide the pocketbook while no one was looking.
A few days later, someone finds the pocketbook on the other side of town. Hauchecorne thinks he’s avenged.
But the villagers say: How clever he is. How crafty and devious to steal unobserved to the other side of town to get rid of the pocketbook.
From that point on, Hauchecorne dedicates all his time to relating and repeating the story of his piece of string. And always the villagers nod and say — Well, of course, of course. It was a piece of string all along now, wasn’t it? — while the corners of their mouths turn up and their eyes twinkle. Imagine that. Just a tiny piece of string the whole time.
My teacher told us that one of the main themes of this story is how important it is to have a good reputation. To be honest and above reproach. Even at the time, I knew she was wrong. Writers don’t write one man against the mob stories when the mob is right. This is a story about how people make up their minds about someone, categorize people and events, and then refuse to change their minds. No matter what. This is a story about collective, cultural suspicion and disbelief. About the bland, banal cruelty of groupthink.
Years later, this would be my dad’s story. While he slipped his cherished test results out of his breast pocket and began telling and retelling his story to anyone who would listen. While he pointed and said — See? See?! It’s Lyme disease. It says so right here. It’s always been Lyme disease.
While people patted him on the shoulder, mouths twitching, eyes twinkling — Of course. Of course it is. It’s been Lyme disease all along, hasn’t it?
But in their heads they thought: How clever he is. How crafty to go out and get himself a diagnosis.