By: Madonna Hamel
I must have been staring at this screen for over an hour when I finally floated back into the task at hand. Not that writing is always a task, despite what many authors claim. In fact, the true task lies in moving oneself from not-writing to writing. It’s like trying to hoist old farm machinery out of prairie gumbo, not that there’s been much of that these days. In fact, word has it we are experiencing the longest stretch of extreme heat in this territory’s recorded history. And it’s the heat that is partly to blame for my inability to muster myself into action. And not even a good storm to offer the briefest of reprieves. We had one dramatic electrical three weeks ago, but that’s it. In joyless weather like this naps are not only justifiable, they are necessary.
But my fuzzy state is also aided by medication and a sort of stunned realization that I narrowly escaped succumbing to blood poisoning. I’ve been sitting here going over all the events leading up to my surprise admission to Shaunavon hospital’s ICU. On the 25 of July I was in my garden, thrilled with how it was coming along and aware that one missed day of watering could turn the whole thing into crumpled up compost and the next day, I was having blood drawn and getting hooked up to an IV full of antibiotics. And all because of a dang sow thistle.
If I may say so my lettuce is be-oo-ti-ful. Ok, it’s not strictly my lettuce, Betty planted it and I’m tending it. But, for the record, everything west of the lettuce, I planted, including the mother zucchini I just hauled across the road, and the lovely perfectly spherical turnips, emerald peas and delicate cilantro, which one either loves or hates and which I happen to love. I thought I’d grab an extra armload of lettuce for Jacqueline Carlier’s birthday party in an hour’s time when I grabbed the stem of a sow thistle instead. One of the tiny needles pierced my palm and instantly sent a bolt of pain all the way up my arm.
All through the birthday supper at the hotel I poked and prodded and squeezed at the spot where the microscopic thistle penetrated my skin. “Look!” I kept waving the steadily swelling oven mitt of a hand under Ervin’s nose while he handed me plates of Chinese food. “Ye-e-es,” he said in his humouring tone. “Isn’t that something!” “Yes, it is. And it’s starting to itch.” “Here, have some almond gai ding.” Meaning, get over yourself, which I managed by shifting my attention to memorizing the names of his enormous family.
One of Jaqueline’s great grand-children was busily filling a small notebook with her “special” pen. A child after my own heart I asked her about what she was recording. “I’m drawing everyone, see!” And she reached across Ervin’s plate to show me her rendition of the birthday girl. “That’s amazing! And what’s that?” I continued, pointing to a strange creature with a banner across its back. “Why don’t I just come sit beside you,”she suggested. And she did. The creature, it turned out, was a unicorn, representing The Ultimate Unicorn Club, and she, Brielle was the club secretary. (Evidently, a far more efficient secretary than I’m proving to be for the Val Marie Elevator Committee.) Meeting times for the Ultimate Unicorn Club are “whenever we want.” And “Purpose of Club: to kill all clowns. Especially snake clowns.” “Wow! What’s a snake clown?” I ask. “It’s a snake…”, she explained, displaying infinite patience and a hint of pity, “… that’s a clown”.
All that night I dreamt of snakes that were clowns and clowns that were snakes and every once in awhile I’d wake needing to scratch my swollen hand. By the time I got to work the next morning a red line was starting to make its way up my arm, and just before noon , when Avril and Page both arrived for their lattes and the usual suspects had all reached consensus as to the diagnosis, it was decided I should seek medical help before I lapsed into delirium. I still hadn’t considered that I was in any kind of serious trouble until we got to Climax and the red line had reached my elbow. We stepped out of the blistering heat of the day and into the cool clinic and headed for the front desk. “Helloooo?” I called out, while Avril started looking for help. No one answered. We walked through the rooms, marveling at the drugs and equipment just sitting out there, up for grabs.” Can you imagine this happening in Toronto? They’d be cleaned out by now!” “ Ok, I’m starting to get a little nervous. It’s like the night of the living dead around here! Where is everybody?”
The Climax nurse hastened me on to Shaunavon Hospital Emergency where she assured me a doctor would be waiting. The red line was now past my elbow and headed to just under my shoulder. Although alarmed, I decided I’d concentrate on the burgers at Harvest Eatery I’d treat us both to after I’d been treated by the doc. Avril was contemplating how she would explain my sudden death to my family. Instead I was immediately handed a gown and shown to my own room where I waited for blood tests and an IV that would be changed four times a day. Avril went looking for food and came back with a ham sandwich and a coffee. By the end of my stay in room 9 I’d found the ice machine, the evening snack fridge and the cupboard where they kept the tea bags and digestive biscuits.
That first afternoon she drove back to Val Marie with a list of things I needed and a promise that she’d pass it on to Ervin. That evening he arrived with three bags of books and one of apples, socks, a sweater and a nightgown. “I’ve got half your apartment here!” he moaned, then proceeded to tell me stories about far hardier people than us who survived animals falling on them and infections from barbed wire before there was even penicillin. ‘When was penicillin discovered?” “Not sure.” And we both whipped out our cell phones and raced to discover penicillin first. His great grandmother was a well-known healer in these parts; people would load their injured and their ill onto carts as far away as Bracken to be healed by one of Grandmother Carlier poultices or baths. After a bit of googling we moved on to the usual: argue the facts, make each other laugh, laugh at ourselves, then recap the crazy events of the day. This day was crazier than most.
The next day Page came to check on me and was permitted to take me for a walk as long as he got me back for my 4pm IV. He took me to the library where I found a copy of ‘Wind in the Willows’ on the twenty-five sent book sale table. I’ve never read this, I admitted to Page. You haven’t! Oh you have to, it’s a classic. Turns out, later that evening Avril concurred. She was shocked. “What else haven’t you read?” “ Well, let’s see: Moby Dick, Hard Times, Sense and Sensibility, Harry Potter”…“Which one?” “None of them.” “What!?!”
Over three days I read four books, including “Wind in the Willows”, which, I was shocked to learn, is about a deluded obsessive compulsive upper crust egomaniac toad with an inferiority complex who has gets busted for grand theft auto while in a blackout! At one point Mole, Ratty and Badger have to rescue him using sticks and guns! “Well, of course it is!” laughs Avril. “You didn’t think it would be on my top 10 list of best books if there wasn’t some action?” I also read the latest issue of my new favourite magazine: Creative Nonfiction. This month’s theme is Joy. My intention before the thistle incident ,was to felt pen a “d” between the “o” and the “y” on the front cover and send it to my sister Jody in Medicine Hat in time for her birthday, for she is a harbinger of joy. But back home on my couch, re-reading it, I’m searching for a sow thistle’s silver lining.
The editor of CNF writes that the Joy edition received the fewest number of submissions. Writing about joy isn’t easy, it turns out. Or maybe it’s just not hip. While many nonfiction writers – we being a self-absorbed lot – dive into misery; few do joy well. And yet, misery we can do without, joy is essential. It’s the whole point! Especially the unexpected joys that shine a light into the heart of a crappy week, like friends texting from across the country, checking up on me at all hours, OMG! How are U? I lay down the magazine; listen to the birds and the wind in the cottonwoods. I’m good. And good is just enough space for joy.
Madonna Hamel is a writer and performer. Her radio documentaries have won awards for CBC for whom she’s worked as writer, producer, reporter and broadcaster covering the arts, religion and current affairs for over 20 years in Quebec City, Winnipeg, Windsor, Toronto and Kelowna. Born a Westerner, she calls Val Marie, Sask. home.