On A Dark Night

On A Dark Night November 22, 2023

a night sky
image via Pixabay


I got sick again.

If you’ve never had a chronic illness, you cannot know how terrifying it is to be sick. If you’ve not known what it is to be often homebound and sometimes bedbound, unable to accomplish anything, for more than a decade, and then to have a better diagnosis and a treatment plan and begin to get your life back when it’s too late to live normally, I can’t describe for you the panic that wells up when you start to get sick again.

Adrienne keeps bringing home viruses from Middle School. Since she was homeschooled up until now, this is the first time our immune systems have had to handle these bugs. She’s already getting accustomed to them; she sniffles for a few days and is fine. I keep getting badly sick and losing days. The last time I was getting over a bad cold was at the beginning of the month, and on Sunday night it started again.

I was at the late Mass, listening to the Parable of the Talents, when I realized the tickle in my throat was more than just the dry air. I got a disposable mask out of my purse and put it on quickly, just before the cough came on. We slipped out of church just after the dismissal, with my head already getting blocked up.

On Monday, I sipped chicken broth and throat coat tea. I managed to injure myself with an Airborne tablet, which I didn’t even know was possible. I tried to dissolve the big pill in a glass of water but didn’t wait long enough, so when I gulped the fizzy fluid I swallowed a razor-sharp shard that got lodged in my esophagus and didn’t come up without a fight. Adrienne walked home from school, which was lucky because I couldn’t have driven to get her; we sat on my bed chatting in the evening.

That night, the fever began.

I hardly ever catch fevers, and when I do I get ridiculously ill. My body temperature tends to be a bit low. When I tracked my cycles with an NFP chart I couldn’t circle my basal temperature daily because it was a few tenths of a percentage below the lowest one. That means that if I heat up to a measly 99 degrees Fahrenheit, it’s already a catastrophe. This was hotter than that. First I shivered under blankets, and then I baked and kicked the blankets off. I took medicine to bring the temperature down, but it didn’t work. And then the cough got worse, so bad I couldn’t lie down but had to sit up and lean my head forward to stop the postnasal drip.

I looked over at my phone, and it was five in the morning.

I wondered if I was going to die.

I wondered if I was going to live, but live in helplessness, lying in bed and watching the world go by without me, failing my daughter, a burden to my whole family, with no friends and nothing to show for my life, just as I had before my diagnosis in 2020.

I wondered which was worse.

Have you ever sat up in bed, leaning forward to stop from coughing, at five o’clock in the morning, wondering whether you’d die or suffer something even worse?

Have you ever been sick for so long that a sudden fever and a cough are more frightening than a death sentence?

That’s what it’s like to be chronically ill.

I used to be at peace with my chronic illness, in a way. I used to take great comfort in the Catholic teaching that unavoidable suffering was united to the Passion of Christ and a kind of prayer. But I have been so overwhelmed by my religious trauma lately that I can’t find that part of myself. I am afraid God doesn’t love me. I don’t know if he’s here in my suffering. Maybe God is disgusted and angry that I can’t fight off the panic attacks and go back to Confession, or that I am so overwhelmed I often stay home from Mass. Maybe he just wants to smack me because I’ve realized that the Church is an abusive mother and I’m deconstructing what she taught me to try and find what God really is without all that baggage. Perhaps I couldn’t hold onto my faith any longer because I’m just not predestined.

Catholics don’t exactly believe in predestination in that way, but it seeps into the conversation anyway. I am afraid that I’m going through this terrible Dark Night of the Soul because God has always wanted to get rid of me.

I would certainly like to get rid of myself.

This isn’t the first time I’ve been afraid I was dying while badly ill at five o’clock in the morning, and afraid God would damn me if I stopped breathing. But it hasn’t happened in awhile, and I was out of practice.

I turned to my Archangel Michael icon I keep balanced on the headboard where it’s always falling off. It’s one of the only “real” icons I own, a hand painted piece with gold leaf. This particular icon is very ugly and battered because I ruined it by sticking it under my pillow once when I was having nightmares, and almost all the gold rubbed off. You can see some of the etching now, and the places where the iconographer’s hand moved differently than the template.

“Tell him I’m trying,” I begged. “Tell him I’m terrified of him right now. Tell him I want it to be that he understands and doesn’t blame me. Tell him I want it to be that he loves me and it’s not just wishful thinking.”

Somehow, at some point after that, I fell asleep.

When I woke up, the fever was broken and the cough was nearly gone. It was noon– less than three hours before I had to get Adrienne from school. I drank more tea and another Airbornne concoction, carefully, without accident this time.

I don’t know if there’s meaning in all of this, but I want there to be.



Mary Pezzulo is the author of Meditations on the Way of the Cross, The Sorrows and Joys of Mary, and Stumbling into Grace: How We Meet God in Tiny Works of Mercy.







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