Thursday, September 9, 2010

The Fever Called Living

'The crisis, the danger is past and the lingering illness is over at last,
and the fever called “Living” is conquered at last'
- Edgar Allen Poe.

What is this fever? Is it not hypocritical to identify living as a feverish state because surely if we live, we are healthy? And if it is conquered then surely we have ended our lives; ended our breathing, feeling and passion. We need fever to have life; it is what gives us power to endure and suffer and enjoy. But what does the end of fever and illness bring? Recovery, certainly, but also equal parts loss. You have experienced a kind of ultra life in which everything is accentuated, everything prolonged, everything memorable and afterwards you are left weakened and in shadow of your former feverish self. What we take away from this is a sense of balance between what we remember with healthy retention and what is burned into us through malady.

As young, adventurous travellers, East and I were attracted to Nepal for the trekking routes through the Himalayas toward Mount Everest. On our third day in the country we flew from Kathmandu to the notoriously treacherous Lukla Airport where the runway fell dead from the mountain side between smudgy firewood piles and stone and steel homes. It was warm there, high in the peaks with the tips of the Himalayas shifting underneath low cloud lines. Our first climbing trail was an easy uphill trot that put us at Phakding by midday just in time for the rain. Our accommodation had no hot water, no electricity and no food that didn't need to be killed and plucked but spired around us were the most beautiful compensations for any discomfort. We opened our books, drank milky sugar tea and tried to believe we were actually where we were. That we deserved such stunning surrounds. Before any of this could be realised, East complained of feeling nauseous and suspecting altitude sickness he went to rest. I ate my chicken curry and read by candlelight until a tiny torch beam alerted me to East's movements. He was ill enough to warrant visiting the bathroom but not to recognise the severity of his symptoms. I made the mistake of assuming he was simply purging a temporary sickness and left him to find his own way back to the room. When I returned to check he was bent in thirds on our thin double mattress, head hanging from the side, unable to lie flat or sit straight and moaning in a way that made my heart hurt. Altitude and our guide's advice be damned, this was something far more serious. Lukla hospital was two hours downhill in the dark moonless mountains. Down steps which in daylight were dangerous.

From the moment East voiced his troubles, illness became the focal point of our climb up Everest. Those moments reaching Phakding as we walked past daisy spotted rice paddies, stray dogs loving our enthusiastic steps and mist - the mist drowning its way up into the valley - paled in white-washed comparison next to the horror of illness. Suddenly our recent lives were defined by this sickening fever. My feelings of helplessness accentuated with every minute that East lay insensible except to run and vomit out a second floor window. Never have I been less in control of a situation, nor been swamped with such a powerless rush of love. His suffering became mine; shivering on the dust-blown floorboards, restless on a windowsill spat with cold rain and bile. From his pain I gathered more than sympathy. As he was carried by sherpas back down the trail I was struck by how incredible these moments were. Here we stood, in the close company of Nepalese legends, in a midnight Himalayan mountain range. Despite the exactitude of the circumstances, we were experiencing magic within terror. I stumbled behind them listening to East moan and retch and was truly frightened that my beloved would die outside an empty mountain lodge. Everything around me was hyper sensitive; my feet sliding in my unlaced boots, the young leech nibbling between my third and fourth knuckle, torch light too weak to illuminate my way down the rocks and so I fell behind in mud. I felt an overwhelming urge to say goodbye to him in case he slipped away on the backs of those giant men while I was too far back to be called. Exhaustion led us to rest in the hospitable front room of a supplies store and East was able to take some water and sleep and I, still in my raincoat, curled around his bent legs and and touched him to know he was still there. He woke to tell me he had hallucinated fiery snakes weaving in the air before him and his fear was so great he tried to show me where they had been. I told him nothing was there, nothing would hurt him and was compelled to lie with him until he calmed. But his hallucinations were also mine; the hour walk downhill was as vivid in my mind as his feverish imagination. I was compelled to take photos of this lodge the next day so I would remember how it looked after the storm. Where East suffered illness, I experienced heightened living and in that room, under blankets that smelled of sweat and smoke, fever became the great communicator of human emotion.

By morning he was partly recovered but I had woken in the early hours with similar symptoms. In ordinary situations the tables would simply have turned and I, the ill member, would be cared for by the healthy party. But East was still sick and once I had finished emptying my stomach we had to endure the remaining hour trek back to Lukla hospital. So we both, torsos cramping, quite miserably continued a retreat that hours earlier was luminous with agony and panic. Fever gone, all we had was debilitation – retracing the path in a defeat so pristine that even the monumental prayer rocks scattered amongst the valleys did nothing to lift our spirits. At every flat stretch of ground we stopped to lie our bodies long to ease our pains. It started to rain but I had no strength to pause and dig out my raincoat and so the water soaked through to my shoulder and collar and I grew cold but continued to sweat. We reached Lukla in a state of black and white, headed only for the hospital and relief. East was told he had contracted e-coli poisoning from bad water and given a series of pills and instructions to rest until the worst was over. And so, unable to enjoy our incredible surroundings, we slept to recover a sense of our former strength. Worse still, my illness, not serious enough to grant medication, made me selfish; my fever eased and morphed into narcissism. The danger to East's safety had surfaced in me as surges of affection but now, with him still weak and myself equally sick, concern became self-pity and I stopped caring for him. I obsessed about getting back up the mountain and pressured East into believing he would be well enough to try again the next day. I focused entirely on my frustration and pain and gave no more thought to how truly sick he was. It took antibiotics and two days sleeping in a wooden, waterless room for me to regain my tourist euphoria. As soon as I was well enough I read through our books and silently wandered the cobbles of Lukla while East remained in bed. On one of these walks I met an older Italian man who sheltered with me under a restaurant's eaves and told me about the thousands of places he had gone and things he had seen; all things I wanted in my life. He had travelled when white skin was enough of a rarity to send an entire African village chasing after his motorbike thinking him to be an angel, and in days when meals were cheaper than wine or petrol. I told him about our failure and he, seeing my disappointment, said it didn't matter because I had so many years to come back and try again. With his words I rediscovered my tenderness that had been so completely removed by sickness. I forgave setbacks, frustration and change; I regained my compassion. But with my selfishness went the final vestiges of fever and I missed its intensity. The fever of lives lived too powerfully.

The fever of life isn't a sickness or prolonged suffering, nor is it a state of weakened being where hallucination becomes reality. It is those moments when experience, be it positive or painful, clouds over every day sensation. When memory is accentuated to the point where if you were to close your eyes years later you could still relive every second with exact clarity. And always will there follow a period of silence and disillusionment within the convalescence; a mourning for the slow recovery of body and mind. For East and I, fever changed the direction of our entire trek and forever manipulated our memories of Nepal. We could not walk away with stories about reaching Everest base camp and even conquering the illness couldn't take that fact away. What we got was another tale with more human endeavour and strength than any difficult mountain trek. And the fever, while it burned, was all we needed to live.

Lara will probably never die. Her stubborn streak is far too powerful.


  1. Beautifully written- you are powerfully descriptive. I really enjoyed this piece and almost broke out into a cold sweat as I trekked through the muddy terrain, writhed in abdominal pain and shared in your vivid journey.
    You may not have reached Everest this time, but you still left Nepal victorious.

    You've definitely left us with some food for thought re moments that make us feel most alive. Love it!

  2. Must East forever prevent us from attaining the lofty peaks to which we aspire??

    A lovely story, thanks for sharing.