Jonah Smith-Bartlett

 

LAURENT’S SYNDROME

Ronnie Dewitt’s office is full of knickknacks that brought me much joy when I was a boy playing doctor on the bedroom floor of my father’s Raleigh-Durham apartment. Tongue depressors, cotton balls, bandages, a blood pressure pump and a stethoscope, both of which Fisher-Price made a pretty good plastic baby blue model that never once failed Boppy, my favorite stuffed bear. The disconnect is in a large stack of pamphlets, directly next to a photograph of Dr. Dewitt and, I suppose, his much younger wife, that have no use for subtlety as large block-print letters read, Twelve Signs of Serious Heart Disease. I would have provided Boppy with much more pleasant reading material provided Boppy could have read.

“All right,” Dewitt says as he opens the door, enters, and closes it, not once looking up from the folder in his hand. He’d only been gone ten minutes at the most. Hardly enough for a thorough diagnosis. Although with the Internet and technology as it is now, well, a man can decide if he has diabetes between third in line at his local McDonald’s and the Big Mac combo.

“Give it to me straight, Doc.” Calm, cool, collected. Nothing to worry about here.

“Well,” Dewitt said, now pushing his thick-rimmed glasses to the top of his nose. “I’ll be frank. You checked off nearly half of the health concerns on your admittance paperwork.”

“I thought it best to be thorough.”

“Right,” he replied, tone a well-polished perfunctory. “Shortness of breath, heart palpitations, headaches, numbness in all extremities, loss of appetite, sleeplessness, muscle pain, hair loss. It goes on.”

“I’m not prone to exaggeration.”

“No,” Dewitt said, now with just the slightest and inoffensive of smiles. “I don’t think that you are.”

“I’ve been doing my research.” I didn’t want to go down this road, worried that my initiative and fear-induced gusto might appear to be undermining his years of training at the Yale School of Medicine. The diploma hung proudly on the wall next to a see-through man with color-coded vital organs. “A tumor isn’t out of the realm of possibility. I don’t think brain cancer is either. Worst of all, well, have you heard of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease? That one is where I would place the smart money.”

“Mr. Laurent,” he said, keeping his eyes perfectly locked with mine as he quite prematurely closed my chart folder. “I’m a medical doctor.”

“That’s what the sign said.” This was my last attempt at humor as I felt the familiar anxiety rising in my chest. Here came the heart palpitations. Or the numbness in the extremities.

“Yes,” Dewitt said. “Yes, it does. But I recommend that you see a psychiatrist. And quickly.” He put a hand on my shoulder and added this bit to, I believe, leave the guilt behind and make it to the cafeteria for an early lunch break. “No charge.”

 

Of course I told my wife none of this. No, in order to keep her at arm’s length from my impending doom, I told her that I was taking midday culinary courses at the Marshview Community College. This is the kind of thing you can do, I explained, when you’re fortunate enough to work from home. She hasn’t yet asked for proof of my story by way of scallops or chicken francese. I am on thin ice, but I’ve been skating by so far.

“You’re home early,” she says as I open the door. She’s sitting in her usual chair in her usual way at our kitchen counter. Her thin shoulders are hunched, and her blonde hair is tied up in a bun. She takes a pencil from behind her ear, places it in the book that she has been reading, and looks me straight on with the smile that might mean that she finds me pretty handsome in these slim-fit green chinos but might also mean that I’ve been found out. I’ve taken good care to hide invoices from a dozen or so doctor offices, but other secrets are out there too. I bought a Barry Bonds signed baseball for six hundred bucks, and that’s under the bed. Beneath the bathroom sink is the first scene of a screenplay I’ve been writing. It’s the story of Frank and Jesse James retold on a vast Martian colony which, so the Internet has told me, has some similarities with our American Old West.

“Yeah,” I say. “Yeah, well, just thought I’d take the day off. Spend it with you.”

“Oh,” she replies. “You don’t have to work today?”

“What’s the point? Nothing that can’t be done tomorrow.” Like a good husband I am prioritizing our marriage. I also happen to believe in the irrelevancy of my work. Don’t need to do it today. Don’t need to do it tomorrow. Really just doesn’t need to be done. I’m in advertising. People are going to buy whatever they need because people just need to buy. I’m a hack who puts a jingle to it.

“So,” Amy says, “is this really what all middle-aged white men are like?”

She raps her fingers on the book that she’s been reading. Rabbit Redux by Updike. She’s been reading all of Updike once her brother told her that the esteemed writer “gets” middle-aged men. I don’t recall the exact plot of Rabbit Redux. Likely another symptom. But I do remember enough about Updike that I probably don’t want my character to be painted with those broad strokes.

“Not what all middle-aged men are like, no.”

“Most of them?”

“Probably.” And this is true.

“Well, what about you?”

“Well,” I reply and then find myself entirely short of an answer. So I take her hand in mine, kiss her just below the ear, and head upstairs to take a shower.

 

If I had a dollar for every squabble like this one, I’d be able to take you out for steak in Upper Manhattan so long as we were on lunch menu prices:

“Sir, I’m sorry, I’m going to need you to speak up.”

I’m on the line with another infuriating Nancy or Lynne or Jane-Anne doctor’s office receptionist who is doing her very best job to get the calendar set and the pharmaceutical ducks in a row and wants to make it to the end of the workday without John Ivy League MD giving her hell because he had a bad day and now she must too. Still, I would appreciate it if she could understand me in muffled tones. I’m assuming that 9-1-1 operators can do it because I’m assuming they must actually stop a home invasion now and again.

“I want to speak to Dr. Jacoby.”

“Last name.”

“What? I’m not a current patient. I just need to speak to the doctor.”

“Last name, sir. Please.”

“Laurent. L-a-u-r-e-n-t.”

“Thank you, Mr. Laurent. And your first name, please?”

“Alan.”

“Adam?”

“Alan!”

“I’m sorry, sir, but I really am going to need you to speak up. Look, it’s very crowded here and very busy, and I just can’t hear you. Are you calling from a cell phone or a landline? If it’s a cell phone, you should call us back. We’re open until 4:00 p.m. today.”

“No,” I say. “I need to speak to Dr. Jacoby.”

I hear her typing on the other end of the line. She’s searching for my records. Or she’s looking through the database to make sure that there really is a Dr. Jacoby in heart, mind, body, and soul. There is. I found him online. I am just outside of Wilmington, North Carolina, calling a doctor at some Los Angeles mecca of a hospital where hundreds of “highly specialized” and “platinum members” (whatever this means) of well-renowned medical associations have left behind long-gone sacred summers of offering free checkups to impoverished Haitian masses to instead examine, heal, and care for daytime soap opera stars and failed game show hosts well past their expiration dates.

Dr. Jacoby, according to at least three websites, is the nation’s foremost expert on Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.

“Thanks for your patience, Mr. Laurent. Dr. Jacoby is on vacation for the next few weeks. If you’d like I can set up an appointment for you next week with Dr. Friedman.” The length of my silence likely betrays my distress, so she adds, as if what I need are more diverse opinions and not fewer, “Or Dr. Bernard or Dr. Goetz. They are all very good.”

“No,” I say. “No, that just won’t do. I’m sorry but no.”

I hang up in part because, despite what I thought was some pretty keen politeness, the vast medical world has let me down again. I have also become aware that Amy is outside our door listening.

 

I haven’t spoken to my father in over five years, but Amy, being a better daughter-in-law than I am son-by-birth and a better human than I am also human, checks in with the old man once a month. It turns out, she tells me every time, that he wants to know how I’m doing. How Amy and I are doing. How the ad business is moving along in comparison to whatever business is the hot topic of the evening news, which these days is usually oil. These businesses—advertising and oil—aren’t easily comparable, and relating the price of a thirty-second radio spot with the political aims of the Saudi prince would be nonsense, which is why Amy doesn’t try it and instead says something to him along the lines of “business is business” or “Mondays suck for everyone.” The point is, she echoes so sweetly that she almost hides her utter frustration with my stubbornness, that he just wants to know how I’m doing, and this desire to know probably indicates an important fact something along the lines of persistent fatherly love.

There are two very clear reasons why I stopped speaking to my father. The first was that for over thirty-four years, he had been telling me a detailed fib—that my mother, who had apparently left my brother and me, both under the age of five, to “truly be free” with some friends and a Michigan-born golden-haired prophet of an Eastern religion that had no real history anywhere further east than Detroit (the discovery of this fact was my father’s redemption vis-à-vis the World Wide Web). The second reason was when he finally did spill the beans that my mother was, in fact, alive, he told my brother first.

Amy comes home after her most recent visit with my father and drops her purse next to the door with a sigh that indicates a bottled-up frustration regarding her stubborn husband.

I’m in the kitchen rereading Rabbit Redux when she comes in, pours a glass of red wine, and sits down next to me.

“Good evening, honey.”

“Alan,” she says, unconcerned with the pleasantries. “Get an overnight bag together. In the morning we’re driving up to Maryland. We’re going to meet your mother.”

 

Amy insists that she does the driving as this morning I’ve been experiencing blurriness in my right eye. When we cross the Virginia border, she tells me that she, as opposed to my father, should take the full blame should we reach some traumatic truth in Maryland such as my mother is dead or, worse yet, a Trump supporter. My father had suggested that a conversation about that other half of my DNA might bring me comfort in these dark days of illness, but it’s Amy who insists upon it and hands him the envelope upon which he writes my mother’s address. An opened invoice from a doctor’s office.

“Almost there,” she says, taking her eyes from the road as she looks to exit Route 40. “How are you feeling?”

“Been better,” I said, then catching her glance full of honest concern, “but I’ve been far worse too.”

“Maryland,” she replies. Acknowledging our shared geographic location seems safe.

“Prettier than I thought it would be.” This is true. I had seen both photographs of the harbor and articles about the murder rates. The second stuck with me far more successfully, although those numbers have been slowly but consistently dropping over the last number of years.

“Going to meet your mother,” she says slowly and in a low volume as if only a meditative state can make this whole thing go any which way but wrong.

“I know,” I reply coolly, noncommittal to any particular emotion regarding this imminent reunion. I roll back my tongue in my mouth. A toothache on the lower left side.

 

I don’t have much time to take in the ordinariness of the two-bedroom ranch (I expected anything but ordinary) before I see my mother through the living room window. She is fumbling with a remote control. Trying to turn the television off or on. Or the volume up or down. She isn’t having much success as she places one remote down to give a hearty try with another. She’s fumbling with the last desperate products of a Radio Shack “Everything Must Go!” Juggling two sons might have been too much. My immediate series of short, rapid exhales is likely another symptom. Then again, this could be what forgiveness feels like.

“You look like her,” Amy says as she takes one last sip of the coffee in her Thermos and gently closes the car door. “At least the nose and the cheeks.” These aren’t my most flattering features.

 

Here’s the summation:

Mother thinks that we are hawking encyclopedias (a career, I am certain, no longer anywhere in practice). When Amy, not I, reveals that this trembling man in front of her is, in fact, her eldest son, she drops to her knees and wraps her arms around mine. She cries and bawls and apologizes and says again and again how young she was and with her particular youth came a particular foolishness. This goes on for ten minutes when Amy suggests that perhaps it is better to move the embarrassing theatrics (Amy says “happy reunion”) inside.

It might be that my father wasn’t entirely lying when he spoke about the Eastern prophet who stole my mother’s heart and perhaps her soul as well. There’s no evidence of him exactly, no photographs or postcards from the cities where he has brought true enlightenment, but her decorating gives my father’s tale some credibility. There are scrolls with paintings of kneeling geishas on the wall, teacups with gold-outlined Chinese riverboats on full display, photographs of anonymous peasant farmers in rice paddies above the small fireplace, and a non-anonymous photo of the smiling Dalai Lama. If she bought in to any of these things as having more spiritual importance than anything else belonging in a five-dollar yard sale bin, none of them did much good in the grand scheme of things. She shares her age as sixty-five and her relationship status as alone for a very, very long time now. One of these, and I’m not sure which one, brings the tears back again.

Mother has lived a life haunted by grief and the unknown. It could be that my brother and I had met some ill fate or were at least wandering around in the world with no purpose because she was never around to help us determine what the purpose of our lives should be. She likes Amy, she says repeatedly, and so I must have turned out all right despite the odds.

“How is your brother, darling?” The familiarity in conversation is awkward but not offensive. I do have to give her credit for the nine months of pretty heavy lifting.

“He’s getting on,” I reply. A noncommittal answer. But I don’t want her to take too much credit for the truth. A happy marriage, a low six-figure income, two honor roll kiddies, and still pretty down-to-earth with love for bad jokes and an emotional over-investment in college football. That credit goes to my father.

But as for the reason for our surprise arrival at her doorstep? She once had food poisoning from undercooked Maryland crab but otherwise has enjoyed a life fit as a fiddle. No heart palpitations, headaches, numbness in her extremities (numbness in ethics up for debate). She’s never heard of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease and she doesn’t want to know the details. She’s just happy to see me. She puts us up for the night in what she calls the “prayer room.”

 

Amy waxes philosophical on the way home. Perhaps I’ll feel renewed in body with this renewed sense of purpose, which she defines as “making up for the lost years.” When I tell her that I have no real intention of returning to Maryland, she replies that I don’t actually mean that (I do), but she’ll go up to see her mother-in-law now and again even if I don’t (she means this too).

“Maybe our bodies heal when our relationships heal.” She says this with all seriousness, emphasizing the gravity of this potential truth by turning down the volume on the radio. She’s no Dr. Jacoby. She’s not even Dr. Friedman, Bernard, or Goetz, but she has gained a pretty high level of expertise in me by standing by me all these years, holding my hand, and sharing in my suffering even if she believes that not one iota of it has any basis in reality. Neither, of course, does unflinching love.

 

With the exception of semi-regularly occurring heart palpitations, the effects do eventually subside. With that one particular effect lasting on well beyond the rest, Amy promises that she will accompany me to the cardiologist next week.

 

I walk down the steep back stairs to the basement of Third Avenue Methodist Church to attend (and yes, this exists) my fourth meeting of the Creutzfeldt-Jakob support group. I sit between David, a contractor who always complains that he should be running the construction company instead of the idiot who is, and Martha, a near-retirement seventh-grade English teacher who abhors “teaching to the test.” Apparently this wasn’t the case just a few years ago, and Martha was beloved for her creativity, even winning North Carolina’s prestigious title of “Teacher of the Year” in 1989. David is fifty-eight and Martha sixty-two, and they both acknowledge that as Creutzfeldt-Jakob usually has an onset for people at just about sixty, they’ve done a fairly good job of averaging out to the right statistic. Neither of them comments on the fact that I am only forty-seven any more than I tell David to ask his boss about becoming a partner or instruct Martha to say darn it all and teach just the way she did back in ’89. All of us, of course, will soon be gone in the blink of an eye anyway, and what’s the use in anything but affirmation of the troubles of the lives that we lead.

I might get the boot if I tell them that, after Amy finally got me into a shrink’s chair, I’m nothing more than your run-of-the-mill hypochondriac. But since I no longer believe (thanks to more than a couple of medications) in the ringing in my ears, I just go ahead and lend myself out as a fellow listening pilgrim.

Rick, a stay-at-home father who actually won the lotto a few years back, not that it matters now, always brings the doughnuts from Kroger and, as we are in a Methodist church, breaks them in halves to help with the caloric intake while whispering “the Body of Christ” with each tear.

“You know what really irks me?” he asks as he wipes the holy doughnut crumbs off his slacks. “I can’t tell what I hate more. Is it that I’m leaving my son without a father or I’m leaving a country without one more vote for the 2020 Democrat?”

He goes on to explain that he’s not going to be able to care for his boy much longer and he doesn’t want to leave his beloved in the hands of climate change deniers.

 

Amy has moved on from John Updike, after taking in some Edith Wharton for some reason, to a laundry list of self-help books.

I’m half asleep by the time she finishes a chapter on who knows what.

“Alan,” she says, assuming I have enough mental capacity to respond. “Do you think we are living life to the fullest?”

“Yes,” I reply, though I suppose it’s a low bar. After everything being so wrong, something so minutely right as a warm body next to you who will be there again tomorrow night and the night after that is simply good enough.

“Living on cloud nine,” I say, turning the pillow to the cool side.

“Huh,” she says, refraining from explaining the monosyllabic reply any further. “We’ll see what the next chapter has to say tomorrow.”

Amy flips off the lamp on her nightstand and begins to breathe slowly and deeply. She’s fast asleep before the moonlight can crack through the window curtains.