I stared up at my husband’s face from where I lay on the tile of a hotel bathroom floor in New York City.
“We really can’t go to Spain. I can’t be doing this in Spain.” March, 2018.
I’d been here before, staring up at faces from the ground. From the pro-shop floor during tennis lessons in high school, in Europe on a boulevard with friends in the middle of the night, in the Port Au Prince, Haiti airport, on the sidewalk after a talk I gave one spring morning in Charlottesville, from my own bathroom floor in my PJ’s at dawn where we had to call the neighbors to load me in the car to get fluids at the emergency department. The episodes are unpredictable and there seems to be no rhyme or reason. They are related to travel. Or not. They are related to hydration. Or not. They occur in the wee hours of the morning. Or not. They come with a dose of vertigo. Or not. One was anxiety-, stupidity-, and stress cardiomyopathy related, but the others were not.
Ultimately we have determined that most episodes seem to be an evil migraine prodrome. They are always followed by several days of an ice-pick-through-one-eye type of headache.
The problem is not so much that I go down, turn pasty white, vomit, and faint, but that I can’t get up.
I knew that if I gave it a few minutes, an hour, a couple of hours, I’d likely be here still, on these tiny black and white tiles, vomiting and miserable.
“I think I heard that you can get an IV nurse to come to your room in New York City,” I said. My husband was the King of Google long before googling things was ever a normal thing to do. It took him less than a minute to confirm that yes indeed, having an IV nurse uber over to your hotel room with a bag or two of resuscitation fluids was on the list of otherwise abnormal but normal things to do in NYC. Apparently, there are enough hung-over people and GI viruses in NYC to support a moderate sized army of traveling IV nurses.
How sad. But how wonderful.
My son and my husband lifted me onto the bed, and within an hour, there was the IV nurse, a halo of glowing light above her head, a 24 gauge needle and 2 liters of normal saline in her rolling suitcase.
I slept the rest of the day away and tried to ignore my raging headache while my son and husband explored the city and found time to get my son a New York Haircut.
Months went by with no more episodes. I dared to start thinking about going to Spain. Two years ago, we had made a plan to accompany friends on this trip in September, after settling our final child in her dorm room in college. But it wasn’t going to be the kind of trip where we traveled around in trains and crowded into unreliable Fiats. No, we were planning to spend most of the trip on bicycles, far from big cities or traveling nurses with IV hydration kits.
Our biker friend insisted I’d be fine: “No worries! If you can’t travel with three doctors, who can you travel with? You will have an e-bike. And if your e-bike breaks down, I will bring a rope and tow you up the hills.” He really could do that, his wife assured me. With no e-bike. The idea that he not only could do that, but would consider doing that is what made me finally commit to the trip.
There are other reasons I shouldn’t be thinking I can bike in the middle of nowhere, up and down hills, in the heat for five days in a row. The first that comes to mind is lingering lower extremity paralysis from a gymnastics injury at age 15. My quadriceps are awesome, but pretty much everything else from the waist down, not so much. Try going up several flights of stairs sometime on your heels, with no assist from those muscles in your calves. Imagine your butt, hamstring, and hip muscles refusing to do their fair share as well, and you get the idea.
What is amazing is not so much that our bodies fall into disrepair or play evil tricks on us from time to time, but that there are people who surround us, pick us up, and help us move forward even when it seems impossible. They offer tow ropes, reassurance, and seem comfortable with the idea that your presence may slow them down immensely. “Come on,” they say. “It will be fun. You will be fine. And if not, it will still all be okay.”
That is how I found myself outside a small hotel, in Ronda, Spain, a two thousand year old gleaming white village, standing at the top of a rain-drizzled, cobble stone street, about to try out the bike that I would use for the next week.
I put a leg over the seat and pushed off, teetering a bit, headed down the small hill toward the main street below. As I approached the bottom, I tried to turn left, while putting on my brakes which responded poorly on slick, wet cobblestones. The bike spun and went down. I fell hard. I walked the bike back up the hill, bruised and embarrassed, then I got back on.
For the next week, I rode slowly up impossibly steep, long inclines, at full speed down roller-coaster gradient hills, with brakes near-fully engaged down hairpin curvy roads on mountains, past sheep and cows and roosters and barking dogs, on remote roads, through long dark scary tunnels. I sweated and laughed and mostly kept up. The battery never gave out on my bike. I never needed towing. And I never fell again.