By Gayle Brandeis
Bali Belly is kicking my ass.
I blame the fruit ices. They had been so refreshing, those glittering mounds of mango and passionfruit and papaya snow. They had been so artfully arranged in their large glass bowl, decorated with spears of pineapple and sprigs of mint. I had just neglected to ask whether the water for the ice had been boiled. I don’t know why I overlooked it; I love the word for boiled—rebus. I love the word for water–air. I am paying the price for being so remiss with my words. Now my language training is expanding to include words like sakit perut (stomach ache), kentut (fart), and bau (bad smell).
I am in Bali to study the local dance and music; my eyes and wrists have grown more flexible while learning the graceful, twitchy pendet, my ears have acclimated themselves to the jangly gamelan instruments. I’ve fallen in love with the green terraced rice fields and the cheeky monkeys and the women holding three foot tall offerings on their heads and the tempeh satay with peanut sauce. It is my final semester at the University of Redlands; I chose to travel to the island for my study abroad with a group from the Naropa Institute, a Tibetan Buddhist college out of Boulder, CO. For about a week, while most of the group begins their day with sitting meditation, I begin (and fill and end) my day squatting over the pit toilet in my outdoor bathroom.
I share a stone bungalow with three women—my roommate Celia is a healer, with a specialty in releasing trauma from the body; next door are Rebecca, an herbalist and former midwife, and Angela, a nurse. If I have to be sick in Bali, at least I am surrounded by the right people.
The Naropa folks leave to attend a cremation ceremony, but Angela stays behind to act as my guardian angel. Every time I stumble out of the bathroom, or drift out of sleep, I find a small gift on my bed stand—a fresh bottle of Sprite, a sprig of flowers, a bendy straw, a mini Paddington bear clipped to the handle of a mug. Rebecca—who, to my continual amazement, has one brown eye, and one half-brown, half-blue, split down the center–introduces me to the pleasures and healthful properties of ginger root tea. And Celia–well, Celia saves me.
She climbs inside the mosquito netting around my bed one day when I am feeling feverish and fretful, and kneels beside me. Light pours through the window cut into the stone wall, filling her curly hair with fire. The air is humid as a mouth. She puts one hand flat on my stomach. I flinch.
“You’re carrying a lot of pain in there,” she says, her British accent an instant balm.
“I was sick as a teenager,” I tell her, blinking back tears. I watch a lizard climb through the window, skitter across the wall. “I spent a lot of time in the hospital.”
“For what?” she asks. I can feel heat pour from her hand, through my shirt, through my skin.
“They thought it was Crohn’s disease, but that turned out to be a misdiagnosis. I found out I have porphyria a couple of years ago.”
I don’t tell her that after I started getting better when I was 15, I pretended to be sick for almost an entire year more. Being sick had become a safe thing for me, a way to stave off the real world. I haven’t told anyone about my deception, not the boyfriend I’ve been living with for two years; not my sister, who had had her own teenage health issues and is the person I am closest to in the world. Certainly not my parents–especially not my mom, who had turned being the mother of a sick child into a vocation, a calling. My year of fake illness is my deepest, darkest secret.
“You have a lot to release,” Celia says. I really start crying then, but she continues, her voice as calm as ever. “I know you’ll probably want to have a baby some day, and you won’t want to have so much negative energy stored up in your belly. The baby wouldn’t like that.”
I nod, sniffling. My period is a week late, but I haven’t said anything, haven’t been ready to confront my own suspicions. I will find out a week later that I am pregnant with my first child.
“I’m going to lift my hand,” she says, “And I want all the bad stuff in your belly to lift up with it. You don’t need it anymore. Let it go and trust in your body’s ability to heal itself.”
I close my eyes. I feel her hand rise from my stomach. My diaphragm bounces like a trampoline. I feel a space open near my solar plexus. I feel the pain and shame of those earlier years begin to dribble out, then stream, then shoot into the monsoonal air like a sprinkler, a geyser, a fine gray spray.
Celia’s name appears in my inbox and my heart does a happy flip. Other than a brief visit in New York about 10 years ago, I haven’t seen Celia since Bali, haven’t heard from her in ages. Crazy how time has passed; my eldest son, the one in my belly in Bali, is now 23, my daughter almost 20. and my baby from my second marriage is just about to turn 4. Celia is going to be in Southern California visiting friends, she writes. She saw my essay in The Rumpus about my mom’s suicide and is wondering if we might get together.
I desperately want to see Celia, but life has me off kilter and overwhelmed. My house was recently burglarized, and I’m dealing with the clean up and insurance and police reports, along with some medical issues and other general chaos, and I am unable to write back right away. By the time I finally do, she’s almost ready to leave for the Bay Area.
“I’d love to give you a healing session as a wedding present if you have time,” she writes; she had read about my new marriage in my essay.
“My husband and I are actually separated now,” I tell her. I could use that healing more than ever.
The last few years have been deeply disorienting–within a two year period, I divorced my first husband, moved two times, was laid off, got pregnant in a new live-in relationship, got married, moved again, gave birth, lost my mom to suicide one week later, lost my mother in law to a sudden heart attack less than four months after that, moved for a fourth time when we bought and renovated a house, and started to quietly loathe my new husband. I slowly and subtly fell apart during this time, so subtly that no one realized it was happening, not even, maybe especially not, me. I only started to feel like myself again when I began to correspond with a man who lived across the country, a writer who dazzled me, who ignited a deep and ardent longing in me, a man who professed to be mad about me, as well, although he cautioned that he had nothing to offer, that he was not in a place where he could disrupt his solitary life. I heard this, but I didn’t. I asked my husband for a separation; I told myself it wasn’t because of this other man, that there were plenty of reasons for the separation, and there were, but I was a creature driven by desire–it was my engine, my headlights, my GPS system. I was practically levitating with it. I arranged to meet this man in another city, where we spent five sweet and intense days together. I shouldn’t have been surprised when he grew distant afterwards–he had all but predicted it–but I was. I flailed around like a wounded animal, dredging up all of the grief I had pushed underground–grief for my mom, for my aging dad, for both marriages, for shattered illusions (sometimes the hardest things to let go). I’m still flailing a couple of months later.
I juggle some things on my calendar so I can drive out to San Diego to see Celia before she leaves town. As soon as I find her friend’s house and she walks toward me, time folds in upon itself. Her soft British accent brings me right back to Bali, to black rice pudding for breakfast and the jangle of gamelan music and funeral processions running zig zag through the streets to outfox the demons who can’t turn corners.
Celia’s hair is now a pale coral orange–”I have help”, she smiles when I remark upon it; my hair is threaded with white. Both of our faces show signs of the two decades that have passed, but I would never guess she is almost 70, 25 years older than me. We are still ourselves, still the same women who whispered to each other through mosquito netting so many years ago.
Celia heats up some mung bean soup she had prepared the night before, an ayurvedic soup golden with turmeric. She slices up radishes and tomatoes and celery for a simple salad, douses them with olive oil and lemon. She toasts some bread in the oven, fries up some daikon, grabs a little pot of roasted garlic. We eat our lunch, delicious, outside in the lovely backyard garden and catch up, laundry draped over the backs of our chairs to dry in the sun. I tell her about my recent diagnosis of Crohn’s disease, how strange it is to have that disorder pinned to me 30 years after the first diagnosis and subsequent fake illness (which I finally reveal to her) and talk of misdiagnosis, especially since my symptoms are wildly different now. My mom had painted a large canvas titled “It Was Not Crohn’s Disease” as part of a triptych in the mid 90s. When the porphyria I was diagnosed with at 18 also turned out to be a misdiagnosis a few years ago, my mom didn’t believe me–she even called my doctor to make sure the tests had really been negative. She had her own narrative about my illness, about the family’s illnesses, the rare disorders she thought we all suffered from–porphyria, Ehlers-Danlos. Around the time of her suicide, she had been working frantically to finish producing a documentary she called “The Art of Misdiagnosis”, centered around her paintings about her family’s supposed maladies.
“You’ve had so much to deal with,” Celia says, and the concern on her face makes me realize that yes, yes I have. Maybe I shouldn’t feel so guilty about being so upset lately–feeling weak, feeling like I don’t know anything about life or love; feeling like I don’t know anything at all. I think back to when I graduated from the University of Redlands in 1990, five months pregnant. My dad had asked me what I had learned in college, and I imagine he was expecting me to say something about literary theory or the like, but I told him “I’ve learned three things: stay in the moment, keep my senses open, and don’t take myself too seriously.” I had been so sure at the time that I had learned everything I ever needed to know, that if I could only remember those three things, I’d be happy the rest of my life.
We drive out to the park her friend recommends by the harbor. As we pull into the lot, my mind takes me up the coast to the harbor in Oceanside where we released my mom’s ashes, where they had plumed underwater like mushroom clouds. We find a stretch of grass that seems fairly quiet, and Celia lays out a shawl for me to lie down upon, my purse as a pillow. I settle onto the fabric, the grass crackling beneath it.
I imagine we’re going to focus on my belly, the way we did in Bali, the site of so much illness and stress, but her hands keep being pulled like magnets over my chest.
“What’s going on here?” she asks, and I find myself aware of a constriction I hadn’t noticed before, or maybe have grown so used to, I don’t notice any more. I inhale and my ribs contract, as if they don’t want me to take a deep breath.
“Wow,” I say. “I had no idea my chest was so tight.”
“How would you describe it as an image?” she asks, and a board surfaces in my head, in my chest, a heavy gray board set firmly over my heart, weathered like driftwood but solid as slate. The board I had erected against my husband, against my own grief. Somehow I had been able to open my heart recklessly, lavishly, to this other man, but I had kept it closed off to myself. Her hand stays there, sending light and heat, and I can feel that board start to soften, can feel the pain and love I’ve trapped beneath it start to pulse and breathe as tears start to stream.
We don’t have much time–I have to race back to Riverside soon to pick up Asher at preschool–but Celia packs our hour with one profound revelation after another, saying things like ”Your mother claimed ownership over your body; it’s time to take it back” and “You had a contract with your mom–you need to identify it so you can break it”. She tells me that part of this contract was colluding with my mom over my illness as a teenager, that pretending to be sick is how I was able to survive.
“Your mother is still hovering around you,” she tells me, and part of me is skeptical about this, about such things being possible, but the trees above us are full of crows–I’ve associated crows with my mom ever since her death, ever since my sister and I pulled into her driveway for the first time after she hanged herself and a crow swooped right over the windshield, as if in welcome or in warning. I remember the time a week or two after she died when I was lying on my side, nursing my new baby, and I felt a hand press upon my left shoulder. There was no one else in the room, and I knew it was my mom, that she was asking for forgiveness. I wasn’t ready to give it to her. I shrugged my shoulder to knock her away.
Celia puts her hand on my left shoulder just as I am thinking about this. “She’s right here,” she says, sending shivers through my whole body. “You’ve been carrying her on this shoulder all your life.” That shoulder has always been lower than the other one; my shirts tend to slip off on that side, Flashdance style. “It was part of your contract with her.”
My hands and feet start to tingle.
“I think I’m hyperventilating,” I tell her, remembering a time shortly before I left my first marriage when I was curled on our bed, crying so hard, I hyperventilated; crying so hard, I couldn’t move my tingling hands.
“I think you know what you want to do and you’re just scared to tell me,” my husband had said, and he was right, he was so right–I knew I wanted to leave, but I couldn’t admit it out loud to him yet; all I could do was sob my body into uselessness.
“People often experience tingling during a healing,” Celia tells me. “It’s energy being activated.”
Breathe into it, I tell myself. Don’t be so afraid. Don’t knock her away this time. Celia’s hand is still on my shoulder, sending warmth that radiates all the way down to my hips.
“What is it you want to say to your mom?” she asks, and I want to say something loving and forgiving, but the words that come barreling out of me, straight from my gut, words I had never thought to say before, are “How dare you.”
“Yes,” says Celia, and the tears pour and the same words keep coming out of me, louder and stronger each time. People are walking by now–I can hear them on the grass–but I don’t care. I keep saying, over and over again, “How dare you. How Dare You. HOW DARE YOU!” and Celia keeps saying “Yes”, encouraging, the way the man I fell for said “Yes, baby, yes, baby, yes” when I started to come.
The words finally stop. I lie on the shawl breathing heavily, my entire body tingling now.
“It’s time to let her go,” Celia says quietly. “It’s time to return to your true nature.” She asks me to imagine I’m holding a knife, that I should use it to cut the invisible umbilical cord that still ties me to my mom. I start to plunge the knife toward my own belly–a hari kari of sorts–but then she clarifies that I should sweep it over the front of my body, slicing the knife above all the chakras. I feel an especially deep tug as my hand travels over my pelvis, severing my mother from places she never should have been.
When I am ready, Celia helps me up and hugs me back into the world.
“Thank you,” I tell her, but the words don’t feel strong enough. How can you thank someone for softening the board over your heart? For helping release a burden you’ve carried all your life? For resurfacing just when you need her? For saving you again, almost 24 years after she saved you the first time?
I don’t have the same youthful hubris I did when I thought three aphorisms would spare me from sadness. I know I am not healed forever, absolved from pain for the rest of my life; I know I will still grieve for my mom, that my heart will still try to protect itself. Still, I feel both lighter and more grounded than I have in a very long time, more clear inside my body. And when I turn my head, I am stunned by the ocean; it looks more beautiful than ever, specks of my mom glinting in the waves.
Gayle Brandeis grew up in the Chicago area and has been writing poems and stories since she was four years old. She is the author of Fruitflesh: Seeds of Inspiration for Women Who Write (HarperOne), Dictionary Poems (Pudding House Publications), the novels The Book of Dead Birds(HarperCollins), which won Barbara Kingsolver’s Bellwether Prize for Fiction in Support of a Literature of Social Change, Self Storage (Ballantine) and Delta Girls (Ballantine), and her first novel for young readers, My Life with the Lincolns (Holt). She released The Book of Live Wires, the sequel to The Book of Dead Birds, as an e-book in 2011.
Gayle’s poetry, fiction and essays have appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies (such as Salon.com, The Nation, and The Mississippi Review) and have received several awards, including the QPB/Story Magazine Short Story Award, a Barbara Mandigo Kelley Peace Poetry Award, and a grant from the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund. Her essay on the meaning of liberty was one of three included in the Statue of Liberty’s Centennial time capsule in 1986, when she was 18. In 2004, the Writer Magazine honored Gayle with a Writer Who Makes a Difference Award.
Gayle teaches in the MFA Program in Creative Writing at Antioch University and lives in Riverside, CA, where she is mom to two adult kids and a toddler.
Jen Pastiloff will be up next in Vancouver (Jan 17th) and London (Feb 14th) with her Manifestation Workshop: On Being Human. Click here to book any workshop.