As a young man I read Stephen R. Donaldson’s Thomas Convenent series. Convenant, a leprosy victim, experiences brief, periodic meetings with a character he refers to as the harbinger. These events always presage his transition from an ill, socially isolated man in the mundane world into a healthy anti-hero catapulted into The Land, a place of magic and mystery.
I’ve seen these creatures in my own life; the shapes of men, silent and strange. The harbinger, he’s an outsider’s outsider, alone on the path, even when in a crowd.
I encountered another one today and the experience has left me a bit shaken.
The first time I ever saw a harbinger I was in my mid twenties. My brother was getting married, I was in town for the wedding, and we were playing pool in the hotel bar. I’d recently come to the realization that I couldn’t drink like other people, so I’d given it up entirely.
There was another fellow in the bar – my height, my weight, same curl to his hair, same blue eyes. He was playing a slow game of pool, and having a drink with a friend. Or so I thought … until I looked closer. He’d take a shot, then go sit and sip a drink. He’d take another shot, then sit down in front of the other drink and sip from it. He was carrying on a low volume, very intense conversation … with no one at all. The message was clear; go back to living the way you were and this is your final destination.
They’ve come and gone over the years, these nameless, faceless messengers. The feeling is always the same – like the girl in Michael Jackson’s Thriller video. I see them and the world slows and then recedes. I can’t not watch for the impending transmission.
Today I was sitting in my favorite coffee shop, a place I’ve been visting for a couple of years, and it’s a proper sort of caffeine dispensary. No two chairs alike, battered wood floors, and people who know each other coming and going.
One of the people there was a man who seems to be in his fifties. He was dirty, but not that dirty. He does not smell. I’ve never heard him speak and he doesn’t make eye contact with others. I make him to be disabled, perhaps in the care of a relative, and he busies himself by lounging in the cafe. Come to think of it, I don’t see him reading, either.
He was someone once, a man with a college degree, a job, and a family. Some misfortune swept that all away, and now he walks alone, even when the shop is full of life and light and chatter. I’ve met others in this situation, not harbingers, just men who’ve somehow … slipped.
This one, he’s a trailblazer, and I worry that I’m just a step behind him. I nearly died in the spring of 2008, a kidney stone occluding my left kidney was causing spikes in my blood pressure, and this stretched a tiny berry aneurysm in my speech center, leaving me able to move about and otherwise seeming normal, but with aphasia.
The aneurysm didn’t rupture and once the stone passed the troubles seemed to be over. I could always tell in advance when it was coming – my writing would degrade before the verbal impairment became obvious. I could still type and compose, but I’d make curious mistakes, getting the first letter of the word I intended … but typing something completely incorrect for the given context.
This whole situation was complicated by a tick borne illness I’d picked up the previous summer. It might have been Lyme, might have been tularemia; the diagnostics aren’t good even when you have a skilled doctor who knows to look for these things. I most certainly have Lyme now, thanks to a tick bite at Chapel Falls in Massachusetts four days after I got the initial diagnosis.
Lyme attacks the weakest places. They give me Tramadol now for the whiplash that has troubled me these last fifteen years. I had congenital hip dysplasia when I was born and this was corrected by my spending the first six months of my life in a series of half body casts. You’d never notice it just hanging around with me but my right hip is different than my left. At my physical peak I could have easily provided a man my height with a jaw breaking wheel kick using my left leg, but my right was never so flexible. Now the Lyme makes itself known; I limp and that joint pops and pains me constantly.
The periodic bruising of my speech center undoubtedly left some scaring; just the sort of place where Lyme would like to linger. What I am noticing now is that I’m getting wrong words again … but my blood pressure is fine. You don’t see this, because I proof each paragraph after I write it, but it’s happening a couple of times a day. Attendant with this is the shaking of my previously steady hands. I’m in my early forties, but Lyme took me to my mid sixties in a matter of a few months.
So, I have a chronic neurodegenerative condition, one that has its very own lobby to Congress in the form of the loathesome, yet aptly named Infectious Disease Society of America. The disease has spread nationally, twisting and ruining the lives of tens of thousands as it goes, but the IDSA, whos leaders are at times on the payroll of insurance companies, insist that it only exists in New England and that it’s resolvable with just ten days of a simple antibiotic. Having been found out, their defense now is that there is ‘controversy’ – a 21st century code word for corruption operating under cover of junk science.
Back to the harbinger: I pondered for a moment who might be caring for him, and I realized I’ve never seen him have a cup of coffee or a snack. Wondering who might feed me, should I again slide to the point where my health makes me unable to work, I approached one of the baristas with the idea that I’d be providing lunch for him today. While I was waiting for a break in the flow of customers he slipped away … or perhaps he’d never been there in the first place.