An Acute Exacerbation

  1. Your mother feared blades of grass and their spores, grocery-store surfaces with leftovers of human touch. Right now, you are at the lip of a world teeming with threat. Thousands, many thousands of bodies out there, crawling with microbes ready to jump into your trachea, invade your alveoli, harden the soft tissue of your lung. You don’t know what you are faced with, what this means. You think you can’t breathe, your brachial tubes contract. You’ve seen suffocation. There is always panic, at the start.
  2. You’ve bought masks, hand sanitizer. Leave the house only for essentials, they say. Flatten the curve. You should buy an oxygen monitor, you think. Your mother had one. Her old oxygen tank still sits by the couch in the living room, oceans away. These things saved her life, before.
  3. There is a curfew. Cars disappear from the road, faces from windows. The news reports the air quality in Manila has been the best in years. Would you chance your lungs to find out? Would your mother have?
  4. They didn’t have an explanation for her, back then, just a diagnosis. Symptoms of pulmonary fibrosis include: shortness of breath, a dry cough, fatigue, unexplained weight loss, aching muscles and joint. Loss of lungs, an acute exacerbation. Check. You read descriptions of the disease. It is a calamity; fevers and trouble breathing, days to live. Maybe. If you live, you could be marked forever. You wonder if you’ve already had the virus.
  5. You believe in a recurring universe and cyclical lives. Patterns repeat. March 28th, her birthday. August 28th, she died. At sixty-three, she had a lung transplant; nearly dead, born again. At sixty-three, her mother had died. Lungs, too. The virus is in the air, ready to be breathed. Are these the seeds of your eventual demise?
  6. Your mother washed her sheets every two days. Now you do, too. You clean the counters and the light switches and the door handles and wonder whether you will die in a hospital bed or your own. All around you, the disease is spiking. So is your dread. You see a man walk on the road outside your window. The human body seems a virus. You recoil. You haven’t touched a stranger in days but you wash, wash, wash your hands.
  7. The hospital is strange place: part comfort, part terror. St. Luke’s down the street has sent a notice. We are at capacity for Covid-19. Stay home. When you drive by it on your way to the grocery store, your limbs shake. Perhaps you are not strong after all. You never did meet your mother’s pulmonologist. You offered, instead, to wait during appointments, to get something from the car, to carry samples over to the lab. Confirmation is crisis.
  8. In hospitals, they have to make judgements. Who has the capacity to live? You don’t want to be in line, to sit in the sad hallways, on the wrong end of a decision. You’ve seen how those things work; lungs, too, are allocated only to some. Your mother had to meet criteria: age, health, blood type, distance from donor hospital, lung allocation score. On the list, off the list, on again. There are never enough organs available for transplant. You hope no one you love has to see a doctor, that there is nothing to do but sit and wait. You can survive the wait. To hope is the most difficult thing of all.
  9. For months, she waited. For diagnosis, then for new lungs, for appointments in the hospital hallways, for doctors, for blood tests, for the right time to take the right number of pills. Before the transplant, she waited each day for the next. Time builds slowly, second by second, even in quarantine. All you have to do is survive its scarring. For years, her chest had contracted, fingernails touched with periwinkle blue. Her lung capacity was 11% before relief arrived. What is your capacity to survive?
  10. At the best of times, the human body is fragile. The wrong vehicle, the wrong turn, and your days crash to a halt. You thought being a donor was heroic. Now you look at your family and wonder about the man whose lungs found your mother. The day of her resurrection was the day of someone’s funeral. Did he have a love? What must his mother think? They say maybe there is a cure for the virus; recovered bodies can donate blood to the sick. You wonder if you can pass life on.
  11. Desperation makes desperate habits. Someone who tested positive has committed suicide. Hospitals are begging for masks, citizens for good sense. The grocery stores flood. You wear your own mask, you buy. Cans, pasta, milk. On TV, they show empty shelves. Old people are wandering the aisles in despair. You know a different brand of grocery store angst. You had relaxed, remember, thinking all was well? Five years post-transplant, your mother and you had celebrated. Cheered good health before she fell, a blood clot stopping her breath, and died. Right there, aisle 6.
  12. If your mother was still alive, you would not see her. You would shroud her in disinfectant, quarantine her lungs. You would hide her from the world, put barbed wires outside her house, dig a moat no one could cross. You would call her only from a distance. You would not ask her if she was okay because you would not be okay. She would ask you, though. She would know your terror; this would have been her life for years. Both of you would cry. Are you glad that she is dead?
  13. Now here we are, pandemic, plague. The words hardly matter. It is dark and getting darker. You see terror on your screen, people filling their time with activities and bread and because they must, a rage against dying. You count a fourteen-day count every time you see a person from a distance. Maybe you’re safe. Outside the police lines, just beyond the neighborhood walls, other people are also living, holding only fear in their hands. They have no food, no jobs, no physicians on speed dial. You sit in your house and you watch your heart empty. You hang cheer on your virtual face. This, too, shall pass. Your mother did not teach you this.
  14. Your mother braved her crisis, she wrapped herself in armor, she fought to live her life. I’ll buy my own grocery, she said. I’ll go to the mall to buy your birthday gift. When you thought she was sitting, holding back from the world, from you, she wasn’t. She was fighting, balancing her moments to live more days; she was supporting other transplantees, sometimes staying at a distance to save their lives. You see this now. Three weeks in, you’re already tired. It takes strength to live a deliberate day.
  15. Donate life, she said, over and over and over, even when the days unfolded worry from their creases. She wanted to live. You wondered, then, if being alive was that simple, if living was that hard. You see it now and you will not sit, wrapped in the luxury of your own sadness. You will not complain. You did not have to stay up at nights, wondering if this breath was going to be your last, or this, or this. You do not have to do this now. She taught you better than this.

Hananah Zaheer

About Hananah Zaheer

Hananah's work has recently appeared in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, South West Review, Alaska Quarterly Review and Michigan Quarterly Review where it won the Lawrence Foundation Prize for Fiction. She was awarded a Tennesee Williams Scholarship in Fiction at the Sewanee Writers' Conference for 2019 and her short story “Fish Tank” was a Distinguished Story mention in Best American Short Stories 2019. She was a finalist for the Smoke Long Fellowship 2019, the Doris Betts' Fiction prize 2014 and a recipient of residencies and fellowships from the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, Rivendell writers' colony and the Ragdale Foundation. Her work has been nominated for the Pushcart prize. Hananah is a freelance developmental editor and also serves as a Fiction Editor for Los Angeles Review. She is the founder of the Dubai Literary Salon and Manila Literary Salon, a prose-reading series. Currently, she is working on a collection of short stories and a novel, both set in Pakistan.

Hananah's work has recently appeared in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, South West Review, Alaska Quarterly Review and Michigan Quarterly Review where it won the Lawrence Foundation Prize for Fiction. She was awarded a Tennesee Williams Scholarship in Fiction at the Sewanee Writers' Conference for 2019 and her short story “Fish Tank” was a Distinguished Story mention in Best American Short Stories 2019. She was a finalist for the Smoke Long Fellowship 2019, the Doris Betts' Fiction prize 2014 and a recipient of residencies and fellowships from the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, Rivendell writers' colony and the Ragdale Foundation. Her work has been nominated for the Pushcart prize. Hananah is a freelance developmental editor and also serves as a Fiction Editor for Los Angeles Review. She is the founder of the Dubai Literary Salon and Manila Literary Salon, a prose-reading series. Currently, she is working on a collection of short stories and a novel, both set in Pakistan.

One comment

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *