Myself Healed (Richard Selzer)

I would make my own diagnosis. Without the aid of―no, in very spite of those miscreant doctors, stupid men who warm their arrogant fingers in the orifices of their unwary patients. Who knows what perverse, bestial thoughts oil about in their mean brains? And, ah, their eyes, cynical and professionally glum, that fend off good news with expressions of outrage and ill-concealed avarice.

For months they have prodded my armpits, spread apart the buttocks to peer into my rectum, palpated my liver and spleen until these poor parts are bruised and softened. Like dogs they have cocked an ear to the soft noises of my body, the beating of my heart, the soughing of my breath, the borborygmi of my intestine. My fluids and my solids have they drawn off and collected in containers, each portion sniffed, smeared, strained, and stained. Little chunks of my flesh have they chipped away, these cut into fine slices and embedded in wax to be examined under the microscope. Me! Trapped in paraffin and scraped like a carrot. My flesh that God created in his image! There are twenty-four hour specimens of me, great jars of bile and gastric juice, cartons of stool, flagons of urine, and endless tubes of blood. Even the sweat has been scraped from my skin to be funneled into tiny Ehrlenmeyer flasks. My very marrow has been sucked up and smeared upon countless glass slides that they might study the arrangement of its cells as though in the cryptic message of their pattern lay the secrets of enlightenment. Let me delay no longer to tell you what it is that “ails” me. A plant grows inside me. Yes, that is correct. Do not, I pray you, adopt that arch-browed, mouth-pursed look as if to say, “Be careful, he is mad.” Nor dare to be indulgent. No, I tell you with the firmest sort of assurance that there is a plant within me. A vine, dark and sturdy, whose muscled tendrils even now grapple the coils of my intestine. I have been clenched by it much as Laocoon and sons by their external constrictors.

I tried to tell them. Listen, I said, it explains so many things: the gradual sense of tightening that I have experienced, starting at the navel and radiating therefrom to the lower rib cage; the greenish cast to my skin as the creeper smears its toxins on the membranes. But they shrugged, and rocked back and forth their heels, and gazed out the window. In the end, I gave it up.

From the beginning I have known that it is a vine. When I close my eyes and gaze inward, as I have taught myself to do, I see pointed holly leaves atop long hairy stems. Its exact nomenclature escapes me, as my knowledge of botany is rudimentary at best.

Nevertheless I know in my heart it is a vine I should have resented less a fern, I think. I am partial to them, and surely it would have been less abrasive, less binding. I could have come to grips earlier with a fern, a la Jonah and the Whale. The young frondlets are especially lovable, rising from the trunk like little clenched fists which open delicately to scatter their leaves about them. Even an African violet would have been better. Margaret used to grow them, called them her “candied darlings.” I have always hated them ― hundreds ofsmall blooms, all shades of purple, and no distinction whatsoever. They had names like “Rob Roy” and “Ballerina.”

Nonetheless I would have given all in all to have one of those dainties within me instead of this ropy squid of a vine. Then again, maybe not. I should be exchanging pain for nausea in that case.

So much for diagnosis. Now therapy. How to get rid of it before before it sopped from me the last drop of succus entericus, and with it my life. I knew that I must remain calm, but such ideas as the following agitated me to the point of frenzy. Were the roots to push caudad, thought I, and the trunk thrust ever cephalad, should I not at last have a moment of possibility? i.e., that moment when the root were to present itself at the anus. At such time, should I not be able to seize it with my hand and, wrenching downward, secure that wicked ball to the out-of doors?

Cut it off with a knife or a pair of pruning shears? I had no evidence that such was its growth habit. For all I knew, the root was happily embedded in the steamy recesses of my caecum, and with no proclivity to migration. Yet we follow such wild quests, do we not, with the zeal and singleness of purpose of compulsive madmen?

Therefore did I place myself supine upon the floor of my bedroom, with my legs elevated until they swung above my head, overhanging the shoulders in the so-called exaggerated lithotomy position, that most vulnerable of attitudes. With the aid of an elaborate little system of mirrors, I was able to bring into focus that very part through which I envisioned the divine extrusion, if you will permit me one sad little jest. In this wise, for hours, with the concentration of a Zen priest did I peer―no, study the aperture whose every pucker and crease were to become as well known to me as the terra cognita of my hand. Indeed, I begrudged the blinking of my eyes lest it rob me of the first telltale sprout of a rhizome. Only when my neck and shoulders could no longer sustain the burden of the lower half of my body, only then would I tear my gaze from that portal and slowly, painfully, lower my hips, knees, then feet, to lie there exhausted, yet already regrouping, gathering my strength for the next watch. Of my accouchement … for it was midwifery that I practiced there upon the floor next to my bed, and deliverance that I sought.

Alas no single dendrite did I spy.

Conversely, I have stood before the bathroom mirror and with equal intensity stared into my pharynx, as though by the very force of my will I could coax the ultimate apical leaflet to flutter into view between the tonsillar pillars. No gardener greedy for the first genetic glimpse of green after the endless winter matched me in my hunger for the first sighting of my parasite. But no. The skulking predator adventured not forth. Then hatred consumed me for the creature maraudlng from within what it feared to grapple face to face.

At one point, driven by failure and frustration, I sought consultation with an herbalist, Hecanthra by name, a old woman who spent her days grinding the dried pods she would gather from the forest floor. She insisted first that I dress, then, while I stifled my revulsion as best I could, stroked my abdomen with her dry, cornified fingers, beneath whose nails I envisioned the crushed corpselets of worms and nameless subpetrous insects collected in her incessant scrabbling.

She leaned forward to sniff my navel, pressing the prong of her beak to my flesh as she did so, and all the while her edentulous gums swiveled against each other in a kind of continuous self-abuse. At last, she drew off to one side and squatted on her haunches, where she remained for the better part of an hour. When she returned to me she was holding a greased milkweed pod stuffed with God knew what horrid medicaments. This she used upon my person as a suppository, with I leave it to you what shame and discomfort on my part. In addition, she bade me drink a vinegar sauce which she swore would shrivel an oak tree. Suffice it to say that aside from a disastrous bloody flux, my condition remained unchanged.

I had thought my case to be unique in the annals of medicine. (I persist in referring to my “duality” as a disease only in the interests of simplification and readability.) Actually, I was coming more and more to the realization that it is indeed something else, an extraordinary mutation, if you will, a rare example of the unification in one organism of the plant and animal kingdoms, which, in my humble opinion, is the direction that evolution will take within the next few thousand years. I am but the forerunner, the herald, of a whole race of what I have tentatively entitled “Planimals,” thinking the corollary “Aniplants” lacking somewhat in seriousness of tone…. Again, in the beginning I was under the impression that I was unique, the sole example of an unusual form of parasitism, or, as much time elapsed and I became aware of the essential benignity of the host-growth relationship, saprophytism. Since then, my studies in the archives of surgery have brought to light two other cases of this phenomenon. One, a man in Tierra del Fuego who astonished his surgeon by presenting him with an appendix inflamed by the presence of a germinating seed in its lumen. That surgeon proved his unworthiness by throwing away the seed and with it all possibility to pursue the nature of the throw-ahead which I choose to call now “Florafaunism.” Instead, he maundered on in the scientific literature about the vagaries of appendicitis, and the fate of ingested foreign bodies. As I read his irrelevant report in the Proceedings of the Society of Chilean Medicine, Vol. 14, No. 22, I was seized with such a sense of outrage that I inadvertently cried out, “The seed, fool, the seed. Did you not plant it?”

Somewhat less scientific, but certainly richer in style, is the second case, that of Signora Theresa di Stefano of Gallipoli, a dessicated village of southern Italy, who with her husband, Luigi, tended grape arbors from which they extracted each autumn a particularly rancid zinfandel. Whether one attributes it to the inheritance of acquired characteristics, or to some as yet unclarified form of toxicity, it is known and documented that the children of this couple―one male, Giangiacomo, and one female, Felicia―were born with a rich purple color to their skin, and almost from infancy complained of peculiar identical griping pains radiating from their navels. The entire matter would have lain dormant had it not been for the insinuation of a cruel and sly Fate which ordained that Felicia, upon her twelfth birthday, should become pregnant by the libertine tenor of a traveling opera company, and nine months later should spontaneously deliver herself of clusters of luscious dark grapes of a bouquet unmatched for its beauty in the entire Italian peninsula. This occurrence was absorbed by the community and her family as a miraculous announcement of forgiveness by the Virgin Mary, and a restoration both symbolic and actual of the virginity of the girl. Accordingly, Felicia’s mother, Theresa, in an act of truly touching adoration, concocted a wine from the newborn grapes which is still used each year in the Festival of the Virgin Mother. Naturally, one might be skeptical of the aura of folk and place which has surrounded this event, but the central biological facts are undeniable, having been attested to by a papal nuncio and a group of hostile Southern Baptists, among others.

Admittedly these two cases do not possess the neat click laboratory switch. Still, even the most starch-collared thropologist would hesitate to give the lie to our most colorful myths; take, for example―to remain in Italy for a moment ― the one concerning Romulus and Remus, suckled by a wolf, or the notorious Rape of the Sabine Women, about which happenings there is not a jot of evidence, but the very tenacity with which they have clung to the hills of Rome, imparting their special fragrance to the history of that city, lends them credence. The truth survives. If one does not believe that, one has lost all hope for mankind, and one is a swine. I myself have come to look upon this second case, the incident of the Virgin Grapes, as a kind of religious allegory from which moral truths can be drawn.

I suppose I should have told Margaret about my condition before we were married, but truly, I was scarcely aware of it myself at that time, and had experienced only the first faint intimations of Florafaunism. It is even possible that my pale green complexion, and my habit of pressing both palms to the sides of the rib cage to still the fluttering within, lent me a certain air of “romance,” une belle difference, if I may, that was attractive to her. Somewhat slight of build as I am, although muscled and strong, I assure you, these two eccentricities gave a poetic ambience to my carriage. In any case, I know now that I was for her something to be nurtured, cultivated like one of her damned African violets. There were even times when I could have sworn that the same fish meal with which she fed her “darlings” was strewn upon my salad. Her nickname for me is, in retrospect, quite revealing. I was to her “Little Prince Greentease,” a perfect name for an anemic violet. It must baid, however, that under her fluorescent vigil I bloomed, took on bulk and stature, waxed, despite the persistence, in truth deepening, of my greenishness, a fact which did not appear to upset Margaret at all. Did I, unconsciously, choose for my wife a gardener of plants, knowing on some elemental level that she was necessary for my survival? Was this marriage which ended in Hell actually made in Heaven? To this day I wonder.

When I announced to Margaret that I was through, leaving, fed up with a relationship which had diminished to the level of a daily watering, she expressed no obvious regret or surprise. Perhaps there was just the slightest emphasis to the way she broke off a leaf pocked with brown spot from her prize-winning double-frilled “April Showers” as she nodded in agreement. But after all, she is only human. Some sign of acknowledgment of our eight years together was not unexpected. The next day I had left, and since then have devoted my life to the understanding of my condition.

It must now be said that within the past six months I have entered upon a new phase in my study of this matter. There came a time when I stopped struggling to rid myself of the vine, to expel it through one or another of my orifices. I suppose that I simply grew tired. It takes stamina to sustain such an effort, and, in the end, mine ran out. I took to my bed, and lay there listening as to a ticking clock to the cellular multiplication taking place within me, the mitoses that would one day soon, I thought, encroach upon me in some vital way, and destroy me. It was a state of sad expectation such as is seen in the men of a garrison long under siege, who, at last, starving, out of ammunition, bled out, have hoisted the flag of surrender, and now wait and listen for the marching feet of their conquerors. So did I lie in wait, vacant, and resigned.

I cannot recall the precise moment when the idea occurred to me. It was as abrupt as a shaft of grace. But that is of importance. What does matter is that quite suddenly I knew that my vaunted desire to devine myself was an artificial construction on my part. Into the void that was my mind crept the realization that the vine had become the very architecture, framework, and lattice upon which my flesh was strung. Take it away and I would fold, slump, run down, spineless and devoid of fiber. By some opacification of insight I had overlooked the beating heart of the matter, the essence of it, and that is the absolute need that the plant and I had for each other. Suddenly I asked myself what I would be without it, what would be my concerns, where my devotion directed, and the answer was as death-dealing to me as would be the rupture of the root from its stem. In short, we were and are necessary to each other. There is between us a need that is more than mere dependence, more than the fact that we feed upon each other, clear each others’ wastes, shelter, brood, nest, conceal, comfort, and accompany each other. In short, to give it a name, it is love. Yes, love, and a kind of love such as I have never known, a privileged, rare love that recognizes its ecological completeness, and accepts it ungrudgingly, that sees its evolutionary destiny with courage. Such a love knows nothing of jealousy, or fear of inadequacy, or comparative performance.
With this realization came also my well-being. Insight has cured me, not of a disease, but of the failure to recognize my great good health. No longer do I feel the old griping pains, but rather a gentle internal massage which is expertly delivered and utterly fulfilling. No more the anxious examination of my skin, hoping for an ebbing of my color. I am proud to be a member of the green race. Let those who mock me scurry among the crags and swamps of this uncomfortable planet, hissing with need. I am well.

Discussion Questions:
1. At one point, the narrator likens his illness to parasitism; however, toward the end of this piece, his anxiety is replaced with feelings of love and well-being. As the story progresses, how do you understand the narrator’s significant shift in perspective towards the vine growing inside of him?
2. How do you believe the narrator’s relationship with his own diagnosis has affected his relationship(s) with other people?

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