One week before I was due to fly to Bali, I found myself queuing in the carpark of a radiology clinic, watching in disbelief as the drivers around me gave up and turned their engines off, abandoning their cars. Somewhere upstairs, an MRI machine waited for me. It was an appointment I couldn’t miss. And yet miss it I would, unless I worked out how to extract my car and miraculously find another park. A circuit around the block revealed it would be a ten-minute walk, at least. Impossible. That I was going to miss my appointment because I couldn’t manage a short walk from my car to the front door felt especially cruel.
But this was my life. For nine long months, I’d been on bedrest. Breathing had become like trying to suck in air in a room full of smoke. On bad days, just walking down my hallway felt as though someone pressed their fist against my chest. My heart hammered with the slightest exertion. I woke multiple times a night with pain like hot glass between my ribs. And I was exhausted.
I was not only exhausted by my physical challenges but by the thoughts that had plagued me since my first hospital visit months before. Would I die? Why was this happening to me? Was I going to have to live this way forever – and how long would forever be, anyway? Since that first, frightening hospital stay, I’d run the gauntlet of emotions in an embarrassingly stereotypical fashion. I’d seen my share of denial, anger, and bargaining. By the time I found myself in that carpark under the MRI clinic, I’d run out of feelings. People constantly asked me how I was, how I felt, so I had plenty of time to wonder at myself, looking for the answer. I could come up with only one word: Empty.
I found a park, almost weeping with relief when a young mother pointed at her car and made the ‘steering wheel’ action with her hands. Inside, they informed me I needed a cannula for the scan. I hadn’t expected a needle. My hands were still swollen and blue from a hospital visit the week before; my underwear hid a tender knot of purple where a catheter had been inserted into a vein through my groin. I’d always prided myself on my lack of fear when it came to needles. Blood tests had never been a problem for me. I even watched. But when the receptionist told me about the surprise cannula that morning, I felt brittle, like the slightest breeze could turn me to dust. It was all I could do not to slump to the floor and cry.
Our month in Bali had been booked almost a year ago, before any of us could conceive of me being sick. Back then, it had been a response to the craziness of the Christmas season. I’d had enough of ferrying children around, of shops and traffic, of never seeing each other for longer than the time it took to pick up a phone and disappear into our respective bedrooms. It was intended to be an escape from our lives. I’d booked the tickets on sale and tucked the trip away in the back of my mind. Every now and again I’d allow myself to dream about it. Maybe my husband could take our daughter up the slopes of Mount Batur to see the sunrise. We’d finally explore the northern part of the island. I imagined myself taking a yoga class every day, my muscles lengthening; the sun turning my skin the colour of a chestnut. But when I got sick, I refused to imagine the trip any longer. Instead, I moved from appointment to appointment. I lost my shyness when it came to stripping to the waist for an ECG. I tracked my heart rate and blood pressure with military precision, all while trying not to allow my illness to define me. It defined me anyway.
I left the scan weak and teary, embarrassed at myself. And when the day of our departure finally arrived, I was indifferent. I even slept well the night before, unmolested by pre-travel nerves. My husband pushed me around the airport in a wheelchair while I pretended not to notice the stares. By the time we arrived in Denpasar, I couldn’t summon any feelings at all, other than the low hum of anxiety I’d been carrying with me ever since I decided to chance a trip to a small island with a serious cardiac issue. Illogically, I messaged my best friend and said I’d changed my mind about the whole thing.
Bali. Frog-green, violent pinks, smoke and incense. Roosters crowing at 5am. Motorbikes whipping down narrow lanes. As numb as I was, I couldn’t hide from my senses. Travellers were everywhere – barefooted, long-haired, their wrists a tangle of bracelets. Flaunting their freedom. I couldn’t join them for yoga. But I could follow them into the raw vegan restaurants that had popped up all over Ubud since my last visit. What choice did I have but to toss out my dreams of spending the month in a state of spontaneity and freedom? My body wouldn’t allow it. I decided to focus on the one thing I had to do anyway: Eat.
So while my family explored markets and waterfalls, wandered after dark, arrived home sweaty and ebullient, I stayed at the house we’d rented and read about food. I looked for places that would nourish me; I scoured good and bad reviews. I insisted we go to Canggu to try a vegan restaurant someone on a forum had recommended. I ate salads with cashew cheese flakes and pancakes with coconut whip. I ate coconut ice cream for breakfast, I devoured sushi made from cauliflower and ferments, raw lasagna, miso soup. I looked forward to each meal as if it were a gift. In my regular life, I only ate because my medication demanded I take it with food and I was too scared to ignore it. At home, I survived on crackers and toast. But in Bali, for the first time in my life and not a moment too soon, I discovered I had an appetite.
As the days wore on and I kept eating, I noticed the anxiety I’d brought with me from Australia had grown quiet. Some nights, I slept for long hours without waking, something that hadn’t happened in months. My supply of energy lasted longer. I wasn’t better; my symptoms still plagued me by the minute. And yet I was better. I wanted to eat. The planning, the research, the pride in choosing a restaurant and seeing my family’s delight when they tasted their meals – it gave me a sense of achievement I’d sorely missed during my months of bedrest. I couldn’t do much, but I could eat. Somehow, food became the thing that saved the trip. Made the trip. And it saved me.
It wasn’t what I’d envisioned when I’d booked our tickets all those months before. But then, neither was my life. The simple act of eating taught me to accept and even embrace whatever the day presented me with. I left the island without having explored much further than the small village we lived in. I still couldn’t touch my toes. But I was changed nonetheless. I was no longer empty.
I was full.