In the mirror this morning, the stranger looked back at me . It took her one week to take my body. Her hair, smile and the colour of her eyes were familiar. It was the shape of her face that was different, disfigured and daunting, creating her new identity and making her who she was. This woman looked 20 years older. Saggy eye bags, and burning and bulging red patches on her forehead from the illness that had engulfed her body and giving her the extra years on her face.
I stepped away from the mirror, afraid. I took my bag, car keys and left the house. It was 6am.
I got in and took the wheels of the Honda, staring at my swollen, bluish red fingers trying to bend over the steering and grip tight. It was painful. The auto-steering had a mind of its own and often spun back. My joints were not co-operating. Discomfort and unco-operative joints was something I had envisaged later in life, not today. I did not want to look at the rear vision mirror as I reversed. I did not want to face the stranger again. I forced myself to ignore the pain and itch in my deteriorating body. The fever stood tall. I was glad my feet could work at the pedals better than my fingers. This, gave me some comfort and reassured me, I could still drive in my condition. I needed to get to the doctor quickly. The medication my Gp had prescribed seemed to have failed and my health worsen in the past three days. Last night, I thought I would die with the high temperatures of summer, fighting against the rising temperature of my body.
After ten minutes of driving, I had to slow down because the saggy tired eyes wanted so badly to sleep. I stayed on low gears and concentrated until I arrived at the shops. I parked and took a cab into the city to see the doctor. The cab driver looked at me suspiciously. His eyes went from the large red patches on my arm and elbows to my neck and forehead. I wondered what went through his mind. I was too sick to care.
“Can you take me to Wickham Terrace?”
“Yes”. He forced a smile and I tried one, knowing, my smile would have been ugly.
I stepped into the cab and when I gave him the doctor’s address at Wickham Terrace in Brisbane City, he muttered something and drove off. It must have been the face of the stranger from the mirror that got to him. Usually, the cab drivers liked to have a conversation with me during the course of my cab-journeys.
I shut my eyes and slept until the cab stopped. I paid the driver and made my way to the specialist doctor. Everyone at the foot of the lift stared. Could it be that bad? I wondered. This tower houses many doctors. I was sure, I was not the first weirdo to appear on the scene. Several floors upstairs, I saw an opened door and asked the receptionist if I could stay; I had come one hour early to see my doctor. Secretly, I also needed the cool air-conditioning. My skin was burning like fire although it was only 7:15am and the air was cool. The receptionist smiled kindly and said it was OK. I sat down on the comfortable chairs and closed my eyes, relieved. My mind drifted to my girlfriend Marina. Yesterday, Marina heard my voice on the phone and came to get me.
“You don’t sound good, but you have to come with me”.
“OK” I gave in.
When she had arrived at my house, she was shocked at how I looked. I told her that I had been ill, but it seemed to have gone longer than usual. She told me there was more to it and it was best to swim in the ocean. She believed salt water was the cure. So, we packed our change, some food I left the sick-bed I had been in for a few days. We drove an hour away to Bribie Island.I had joked to Marina that once I completely surrender my whole body to the disease, perhaps it would leave me alone. I would get better. The swelling started on my back and everyday, it the symptoms had moved up and over my head. Yesterday, after day six, the burning swells starting coming down on my forehead and neck.
The saltwater was amazing. It was good to feel the force of the waves hitting against me and the salt stinging me. The healing was working. I soon forgot how sick I was as I played with the waves and swam like a fish again.
After our swim, we ate crab, fresh cucumber and drank hot tea with lemon and honey. Then, we spotted two black cockatoos and Marina, who is half Chinese and Papua New Guinean told me it was a good omen. She insisted we drive to a news agency and buy lottery tickets, so we did. At the same time, the Specialist doctor had called me back and said I could come in this morning instead of January 15. It was a good omen.
A knock on the surgery door forced me to open my eyes. My doctor’s receptionist had arrived. She popped her head in next door.
“The lady is not mine, she is yours”, the first receptionist said.
“Oh”, responded in hesitation.
I laughed and said, I had an appointment with the skin allergist.
Soon, she ushered me into the surgery and the allergist arrived. Two patients went in for fifteen minute consultation each and then he called for me. The allergist looked me over and asked me if I was alright.
“No”, I said. He would not know the difference between the stranger and I because this doctor had never seen me before.
He gave me a chair and I quickly told him what was happening to my body and showed him the lumps. I was tempted to show him a pre-hives picture of me and say: “Doctor, this is me”. He asked all the questions and guided me through the history of my hives’ problem. After a 45 minute consultation, he decided my issue was not an allergy as previously diagnosed and the medication given was incorrect. He told me he had never seen such a severe case before but all the symptoms pointed to a viral infection of the immune system – not an allergy. I was surprised. He made a joke about the disease not being something else and specifically said it was not contagious. I then joked if it was puripuri, which was witchcraft. The doctor rolled his eyes. As it turned out, doc had spent his early medical training Madang Hospital, Papua New Guinea.
I asked the doctor if he could cure me, something like giving me an injection because I was sick of being sick and there had to be something to fix me instantly. He laughed.
After examination, he said there was one thing that could knock this “thing” over, but I had to follow a stringent routine with the medication he was to prescribe. I waited for him to write everything out and I repeated his instructions back to him. I needed to get better.
I missed a week’s pay. That was what I paid for the specialist. I took the lift to the ground floor to have breakfast as instructed, and take my first prescribed magic pill. My cousin arrived with her ten-year-old and three-year-old daughters. The girls ran up the footpath to me, giggling, excited and ready to give their aunty a big hug but as they came up to me, they both stopped and looked at me like I was a stranger. It was only then, I realised, how bad I must look. Children are not good at hiding their feelings, I already knew I had become a stranger within my own body. My cousin rang her partner and described me as “unrecognisable”. She bought her daughters chocolate and cream and I spent the next ten minutes trying to convince them; the doctor had said my condition was not contagious.
“I am not contagious. I am your aunty”. They gave each other looks.
There were no hugs and kisses when they dropped me off, just wave-goodbyes. My older son had earlier said: “Mum, I love you, but I am not going to touch you, you look gross”. (He was joking). His brother, on the other hand kept hugging me and telling me, “I’m scared mum and I don’t want to look at you”.
It has been 12 hours and the magic pill has started working. I feel a lot better. I took a walk to my greenhouse and spoke with the birds. The swelling is going down and I hope in the next few days, the pill will help me get rid of the stranger.