The Delirium of Illness

The following is actually a hand-written letter I sent to my best friend in February, 1999. I had been really sick for several days. In fact, aside from the brain tumor I had in my 20s (which was an altogether different kind of sick), my illness in February, 1999, was the sickest I'd ever been in my life. In this letter, I detail three dreams I had at the height of my fevered illness, which I think depict very well how the line between the dream world and the waking world blurs when we're ailing.

Allow me to take this opportunity to write you a letter. Let me start by saying that I may not finish this because I may grow tired and find that I need to rest my weary wrist. I am very, very, very sick. I was sick last Friday, and then Saturday I was very, very, very, very sick. Indeed, I dare say, Death was scratching at my door. I was fraught with fever, my lungs laded with a bitter mucous stew, my head held hostage in a prison of painful pressure. I was fuckin' fluey. Sunday I was very sick. My fever broke Saturday night, and Sunday, day of rest, as it turned out, I thought, mistakenly, that I was on the mend. But Sunday night my sleep was fitful and I was repeatedly roused from my sickened slumber by the bubbling toil of laboured breath rattling in and gurgling out of my troubled chest. When I finally woke this morning, I discovered that I had lost my (aural) voice entirely. This has never happened to me before, but I can not for the life of me make a sound aside from a pained hiss or pounding (with my fist on things). I feel like absolute crap, only worse. I saw my doctor today and whispered to him my woes. He did what doctors are good for - prescribed. Most notably, I am now in possession of a bottle of cough syrup containing codeine. "Take two teaspoonfulls..." the bottle advises. Why should I heed the advice of a bottle with such questionable grammar? I drank half of it as soon as I got home. And now, indeed, I do find, as warned, my wrist grows weary, as does my mind, whence the welcome delirium of codeine-containing cough syrup. La la la, I sleep now, scratch more later.

Through the miracle of modern handwriting, it is now later. Last night I had three of the strangest and most disquieting dreams that I have had this weekend. If you hold the belief, which I do, that dreams have meaning, then it is notable, I think, that the question haunting me is not "What are the meanings of these dreams?" but, rather, "What is the meaning of these dreams?" for they are truly a trilogy, united, I believe, in message and substance, however arcane. I could begin with my conclusion, but perhaps the better thought is to lay down the ink for you here as best I can for your own experience and conclusions to be drawn. I can not know this. It's a chance I must take. A significant aspect of these dreams is that they occurred in the present, in real time. By that I do not mean "in this day and age," but that the moment I was dreaming was the moment I was living, the moments indistinguishable, the line between the real world and the world of dreams not blurred but obliterated, the dream world being as real as any and hence the real world being as possibly of dreams as the world I knew to be imaginary.

So light a candle, draw the drapes, and fix yourself a cup of tea - for now I will tell for you these tales three.

During one of my many brief visits with sleep last night, accompanied by the peripheral presence of Death hovering in the shadowed alcoves of my mind, conscious only of the hot, stale air of my room that I was, only by necessity, forcing through the mucous-dipped, phlegm-englazened passages of my bronchi, I was thrown into wakefulness by a frantic and frightened Sherman. I scooped him up. "What's the matter?" I asked him, brimming with alarm and concern. He only whimpered. I looked at him in the dim blue of early morning and saw that he had gotten a large patch of very strong tape stuck to his head. In his efforts to free himself from it, he had badly scratched himself. His left eye was bleeding and most of the fur and some of the skin was gone from his scalp. A deep, low frightened growl gurgled in his throat as I sprang from the bed and cradled him. I walked to the kitchen to turn on the light so I could see to help him. The kitchen was a mess. The under-the-counter clock radio had been dislodged and was smashed in pieces on the floor. Food and dishes had been thrown from the shelves. He had ransacked the kitchen in his futile attempt to loose himself from the painful grip of very strong tape. My heart nearly burst at the realization that I had been so oblivious to his suffering. I flipped the lightswitch, but no light resulted. The kitchen light was not working. I went back to the bedroom to turn on the lamp, but it was smashed. The overhead light wasn't working either, nor the light in the bathroom for that matter. The circuit must have been overloaded, and as I ran about my apartment unable to turn on any lights, I grew frantic in the realization that even now that I was aware of Sherman's need, still I was unable to help him.

I was then thrown again into wakefulness by Sherman, left eye bloodless, head full of fur, jumping onto my bed, stalking pigeons, adhering to nothing but his morning routine (no very strong tape anywhere to be seen). I smiled with relief and reached up to scratch his head, intending to say, "Hey there, buddy." as I often do. But I hissed it instead. It was then I realized that my vocal chords were fully encased in scar tissue. I decided I would phone my doctor at 9:00am when his office opened and plead for him to see me.

When the time came, I picked up the phone. I was uncertain how I would communicate, since I had no voice, but decided it would be best if I had total quiet and solitude to do so. So I went to the basement to make the call. The phone rang and a young woman's voice answered, "Doctor's office." I knew just who it was, the curly-haired Latina who always flirted with me a bit, asking how tall I was, telling me her brother is six-foot-five and her uncle is six-seven and isn't it strange since she is only five-two.

"This is Matthew Govig," I spoke, and was surprised that I was able to find a bit of voice after all - however weak and unstable it was.
"Yes?" she said.
"I'm a patient of Dr. Vazquez," my voice creaked. There was a moment of silence, and I thought I hear her giggle. Did she need my insurance information? I pulled out my card. "My..."
"Do..." she began.
We both paused, waiting for the other to continue. "I..."
"What..." she started again.
Again I waited for her to continue, but I heard only silence.
"I need to see the doctor," I strained, hoping my voice would last long enough to complete the conversation.
"Yes?" she said, and I heard her giggle again, then more silence.
"Look," I pleaded, my voice beginning to waver, "It's very difficult for me to talk. I'll tell you what you want, but you need to tell me what you need to know."

Just then my Romanian grandmother burst into the room from the stairway with her two friends. They were carrying a large, overstuffed leather chair and chattering loudly in Romanian. I was surprised because, until that moment I had forgotten that I was Romanian.

I began screaming at her in my thick Romanian accent, "Oma! Shhh! I am tryink to talk on ze phone!"
"Ve're wery beezee!" she told me.
"I can't hear ze fuckink phone! I don't care! Shut up!" I bellowed.
"Ve're beezee!" she said. "And don't sink you can speak to your grandmuzzer zat vay!"
"Just shut up! I am tryink to speak to ze doktor, for ze love of Christ!" I was spitting as I shouted, as much for emphasis as I was salivating with anger and frustration.
"Ve're beezee," she stated again and turned back to her friends and the overstuffed leather chair.

Communication was impossible.

I looked up at the clock. 6:32. A couple more hours to sleep before the doctor's office opened. I was puzzled by my dreams, but also disoriented. Things that seemed real were suddenly not, and things that should have been obviously of dreams seemed to me to be real and plausible. I could no longer just question my dreams, I had to question reality. I had to question myself. I had to question everything. What was real? What is a dream? Am I still dreaming? Reality didn't seem to matter. It was irrelevant, or as equally relevant as the imaginary. There was no difference. I felt frustrated by the things I had experienced in my dreams. My frustration was real, and I had really experienced those things that caused my frustration. But everything was beginning to seem more and more unreal. Reality was seeming to unravel. Nothing seemed real. Was anything real? Was something else real that I had no contact with? Was I aware of this? Was I becoming aware of it? Was I being made aware of it? (Or was I imagining this awareness?) I began to think I was being presented with a puzzle. Yes, I was puzzled by my dreams, and now I wanted to piece together the puzzle - to learn the answer to the puzzle. To learn, perhaps, the irrelevance of the answer.

I went back to the basement to get some things. I thought they would help me solve the puzzle. Maybe they would have, but I can't remember what they were. Nonetheless, I gathered them into my arms and turned to head back up the stairs. The light went out, but there was another light on deeper in the basement. I walked over to it and pulled the chain hanging from the socket. The light went out, but there was still a light on in the next room. I walked in and shut the light off. Most of the basement was now lost in darkness, but a flourescent lamp hanging from the ceiling still flickered and hummed near the back wall. I knew that when I shut off that light, the basement would be pitch black and I would have to find my way back to the staircase in the dark. I walked over to the light, but I could find no switch or chain to shut it off. I looked at the wall. There was a large circuit panel hanging there with hundreds of switched, none of which worked to shut off the flourescent lamp. I knew I had to shut off that last light. Something was telling me I had to figure out how to shut it off. What was so important about this light? What did it mean? What would happen when I shut it off? In dreams, just as in reality, when I shut off this light the result would be darkness. But I couldn't shut it off. I couldn't make it dark.

And then I awoke.

(So, I think it's amazing how these dreams relate to one another, even though they occurred in three separate consecutive attempts at sleep. In the first dream, I - the person responsible for taking care of Sherman - am unaware of his pleas for help, can not communicate with him, and can not help him while also being unable to turn on any lights.

In the second dream, my own pleas for help are not heard, nor received, and I am unable to communicate with my grandmother or my doctor - two people I might rely upon to be responsible for caring for me.

In the third dream, the lights are on, and I am turning them off - but find myself unable to turn off the last light, despite many efforts to find a way.