The earth is home to millions of potential pathogens, of which a thousand or so depend on human hosts. The pathogen I contracted was, in its own way, an author; it rewrote the instructions followed within every cell in my body, and in doing so, it rewrote my life, making off with nearly all my plans for the future.
At age thirty-four, on a brief trip to Europe, I was felled by a mysterious viral or bacterial pathogen, resulting in severe neurological symptoms. I had thought I was indestructible. But I wasn’t. If anything did go wrong, I figured modern medicine would fix me. But it didn’t.
Thus begins the writer’s long and arduous journey back on the road to recovery. It would turn out to be one that spanned nearly two decades of her life.
The observations reflected in this book are from a single year of that journey, the time when she was mostly bedridden, and had only the snail for company.
I was surprised at how therapeutic and restorative I found this reading experience to be.
WHEN THE BODY is rendered useless, the mind still runs like a bloodhound along well-worn trails of neurons, tracking the echoing questions: the confused family of whys, whats, and whens and their impossibly distant kin how. The search is exhaustive; the answers, elusive. Sometimes my mind went blank and listless; at other times it was flooded with storms of thought, unspeakable sadness, and intolerable loss.
Watching the calm, gentle pace in which the snail goes about its daily routine, brought much comfort and relief to the writer who felt that time and everyone else were passing her by, while her own world was at a standstill.
Given the ease with which health infuses life with meaning and purpose, it is shocking how swiftly illness steals away those certainties. It was all I could do to get through each moment, and each moment felt like an endless hour, yet days slipped silently past. Time unused and only endured still vanishes, as if time itself is starving, and each day is swallowed whole, leaving no crumbs, no memory, no trace at all.
THERE IS A CERTAIN depth of illness that is piercing in its isolation; the only rule of existence is uncertainty, and the only movement is the passage of time. One cannot bear to live through another loss of function, and sometimes friends and family cannot bear to watch. An unspoken, unbridgeable divide may widen. Even if you are still who you were, you cannot actually fully be who you are. Sometimes the people you know well withdraw, and then even the person you know as yourself begins to change.
Each relapse shrinks my world down to the core. And each time I’ve started to make my slow way back, over many years, toward the life I once knew, I find that nothing is quite as I remember; in my absence, the world has moved forward.
She found much encouragement in seeing how the snail, who could only experience the world through its three senses (smell, taste & touch) “…… a life so devoid of sight and sound” went about living as best as it could, despite its limitations.
In its native woods, my snail could not see the moss over which it glided or even the plants it climbed. It could not see the trees, nor the stars overhead. It could not hear birdsong at daybreak, nor the midnight howls of coyotes. It could not even see or hear its own kin, let alone a predator. It simply smelled and tasted and touched its world.
It renewed her hope, and reminded her that life was still worth the living, challenging as it were.
Survival often depends on a specific focus: a relationship, a belief, or a hope balanced on the edge of possibility. Or something more ephemeral: the way the sun passes through the hard, seemingly impenetrable glass of a window and warms the blanket, or how the wind, invisible but for its wake, is so loud one can hear it through the insulated walls of a house.
IT CAME DOWN to this: I envied my snail’s many abilities. I wished I could create an epiphragm at a moment’s notice and seal myself off from the challenges of the world. If I couldn’t, like a snail, have strength equal to many times my weight, I’d settle for just getting my normal strength back. If I couldn’t glide straight up a wall or sleep stuck to the ceiling, I wished I could at least walk upright with the rest of my species. I wanted to escape from the chink of illness in which I was stuck.
As I tried to make my life livable within a few rooms of my house, I wondered how the snail was coping in its native woods. Though I was home, I was still not free from the boundaries of illness. I thought of the terrarium’s limited space, and how the snail had seemed content as it ate, explored, and fulfilled a life cycle. This gave me hope that perhaps I, too, could still fulfill dreams, even if they were changed dreams.
And here’s an interesting observation that really makes for some good food for thought:
How wonderful it would be if we humans with illnesses could simply go dormant while the scientific world went about its snail-paced research, and wake only when new, safe medical treatments were available. But why limit such an amazing ability to the ill? When a country faced famine, what if the entire population could go dormant to get through a hard time in a safe and peaceful way until the next growing season came around.
Yes, how wonderful it would be, indeed.
In summary, here’s an excerpt from a letter to one of her doctors :
I could never have guessed what would get me through this past year—a woodland snail and its offspring; I honestly don’t think I would have made it otherwise. Watching another creature go about its life . . . somehow gave me, the watcher, purpose too. If life mattered to the snail and the snail mattered to me, it meant something in my life mattered, so I kept on . . . Snails may seem like tiny, even insignificant things compared to the wars going on around the world or a million other human problems, but they may well outlive our own species.
And in an entry to her own journal :
A last look at the stars and then to sleep. Lots to do at whatever pace I can go. I must remember the snail.
Always remember the snail.