I stayed up till 3:30 am reading this book, Mumbai New York Scranton, by Tamara Shopsin. I started it on the walk back from the library*, weaving down the sidewalk. I made Peter read the first 20 pages, about India and old taxis, the pots of paste for sticking on stamps in the post office, the vintage hotels that feel like 1943 inside.
In late 2005, I got sick with a freak bacterial infection in my heart. In early 2006, I had to have emergency open-heart surgery in San Francisco. Which turned out to be for the best, in so many ways. (One: nurses in California are just plain nicer.)
It was jarring, to say the least, to be dumped in the deep end of the American medical system. There’s a certain preparing-for-the-apocalypse streak to my traveling. Going to countries where the sidewalks are broken and the buses wheeze and you can’t drink the water–and yet, everyone is still pretty happy–gives me a feeling that when the U.S. slides down the pole, I’ll be able to cope. (I was going to mention squat toilets here, but that reminded me I already wrote a tiny bit about this back at the time–here’s the post.)
I just took a whole paragraph to set up how endocarditis and surgery was a big check-your-privilege moment. Tamara Shopsin does it in one sentence, as she’s wheeled into surgery: “I am glad it doesn’t feel like 1943.”
I’m grateful to Shopsin for describing both the charms of India and the horrors of sudden surgery with such economy. Peter was so taken with the India section, I think he might actually want to go. I was so gripped by the surgery section, I was right back there, in that odd hospital-exhaustion zen space, where I was OK with whatever happened, but just felt sad for everyone around me.
It was good to read about an experience that mirrored mine, in a way that wasn’t maudlin or epiphanic. A near-death experience didn’t change me, even though everyone kept asking if it had. It was relief to read Shopsin’s book and have it not be about transformation. Maybe the best thing about being lucky enough to get into the American medical system, and then get out of it unscathed and in fact improved, is that you can be the same old person in the end. I’m blind in one eye now (byproduct of the infection), but otherwise, I can carry along with my life, and travel to strange places, use squat toilets and the whole bit, and just generally not worry.
A few months ago, I wrote thank-you notes to my doctors in San Francisco, on the seventh anniversary of my surgery. This is one for Shopsin too.
*Support your local library! Mine in Queens had this book as soon as it was released. I bought a copy later, because the photos (by Shopsin’s husband) are so great.