Hiccups aren’t supposed to be scary.
When you’re a child, they’re almost funny. You find yourself making a sound like a small bird. Something inside you ticks like a clock, or a toy that’s been wound up to perform at intervals that are so slightly out of sync as to cause a little suspense. When will it happen again?
After a while you grow weary of the novelty. You hear about all the cures for hiccups that don’t work. You may even try a few. You hold your breath. You jump up and down. You experience what appears to be a hiccupless moment.
And then you hiccup.
Though there are accounts of hiccuping continuing for several days, most of us find that the spasm of the vagas nerve goes away after a while. We soon forget about the discomfort.
A few nights ago I woke up with hiccups and it wasn’t funny. Ever since my heart attacks, I’ve been aware that illness isn’t merely the body misbehaving, or an invasive infection that must be fought. Your body can fail you in ways you cannot predict, no matter how much medical advice you followed.
It’s almost a metaphor for life itself: things fail that you cannot foresee, cannot control, did not plan, are not your fault. They can be as innocuous as hiccups, or as terrifying as a heart attack, when the part of your body you never think about (unless you exercise hard, or fall in love, and even then, sooner or later, you think about something else) stumbles just enough to let you know that you can’t take anything for granted anymore.
If you’re lucky, as I was, you’re close enough to doctors who can fix it. But the fix, like a patch on a tire, won’t change the fact that the tire has worn down to the point that it is vulnerable to what used to be harmless things that it had once rolled over with ease.
When I woke up with the hiccups I was recovering from surgery on my right knee. About half a lifetime ago, when I joined my son in a kids’ karate class, my right knee began to swell and hurt intermittently. The karate teacher suggested I go to a sports medicine clinic, where, after an MRI scan, I learned that a piece of my meniscus–a wafer of cartilage in my knee that insulated and supported the bones that comprised the joint–was floating about. It was unlikely that the pain would go away.
I had the surgery and, a few years later, suffered a similar tear on my left knee. At the time, I was told that this was due to the heavy exercise I did: running, karate, weights in a gym. I’ve since had different explanations as to why the piece was torn away from the cartilage and I’m correcting my behavior so that it doesn’t happen again.
But, about eight months ago, it happened again. As in the previous times, I waited for the pain and swelling to go away by itself. It didn’t.
So now I’m recovering from the surgery and, hiccups aside, it hurts. I know that the swelling and pain will eventually subside, but, until it does, the cure feels as bad as the original sickness. I’m trying not to take too many over-the-counter painkillers.
I no longer look at illness as something that eventually goes away. What involuntarily distresses us, what causes us undeserved pain, what fails without apparent cause or explanation changes how we understand ourselves.
I do not see myself as a victim of what I can’t control. Rather, I have a better understanding of the meaning of sustainability. I am, more than ever, considering what is it that keeps me going reasonably well, holds me together emotionally and spiritually when so much around me seems to be is falling apart, how can I accommodate the inevitable limitations that the years bring and, most important of all, how may I acknowledge that I am not alone, that sustaining life is an interdependence that can be recognized only in hindsight. Like so much of what is truly valuable in life, it begins, and ends, in mystery.
And I am looking forward to the one thing that makes discomforting illnesses, from hiccups to heart attacks, almost worth while: that wonderful, miraculous feeling you get when realize you’re getting better, you’re coming back, you’re returning to the person you were.