Let me get this out of the way up front: yes, this is a story about a movie. Not just one, even though it is just about one, really, but also all of them, theoretically. That said, I’m barely going to talk about the movie itself concretely. In fact, I’m going to – as per normal – talk mostly about me. Why? Because I’m good at it, and I’m a solipsist, and because I have to in order to get my point across. And it’s going to take a WHILE. So…bear with me. Or don’t! Giving you a chance to cut and run now. This is gonna go about 3700 words. I’m not fucking around.
Still here? OK, neat!
I was damn excited to see THE BIG SICK. Kumail Nanjiani? Yes. Holly Hunter? YES. Ray Romano???? At some point, I’m going to have to do a whole thing about how Ray Romano’s evolution into one of my favorite actors is a wicked twist of Shyamalanic proportions. Anyway: rave reviews from friends, this ridiculous cast (including, obviously, Zoe Kazan, who I was pathetically less familiar with before the movie), and the promise of a pretty dark comedy that I had a very, very personal connection to? It’s like they made a movie just for Geoff!
And boy, did they. Just not in the way that I was expecting. At all. Like…one day, I’m going to find THE BIG SICK probably the best comedy of 2017. But for the moment, I have no idea when I’ll even be able to watch it again. And that’s a GOOD thing. The BEST thing. Because if you take nothing else away from this overlong, rambling, self-serving odyssey, take at least this: movies don’t have to be *just* entertainment. Don’t ever pretend that they’re only distractions, only ephemeral, only “content” designed to generate money and nothing else. Don’t ever pretend that they can’t change the way you see the world, the way you see yourself, or the way you see others.
Don’t EVER pretend that movies don’t matter.
In the early Spring of my Junior year of college, I woke up one morning feeling odd. My legs were asleep. And I got up and moved about and did all the normal human things I needed to do to get to class, but I didn’t feel…humanly normal. The pins and needles didn’t subside. I could feel my feet and my knees disagreeing with each other as I walked. But I told myself it’d go away. Got through one class – it didn’t. Got through another class – it didn’t. In fact, as I drove home late that afternoon, it didn’t go away so much that I actually realized I shouldn’t be driving, as I couldn’t press either the gas or brake pedals as hard as I intended.
As I got into my apartment, I started getting sick to my stomach, knowing I was going to fail at my ritual. We had an eight-foot ceiling, and every day I got home from class, I jumped up and touched it. Why? I don’t know, because I could, and it was easy. It’s something short people do to make us feel better about not being able to fucking dunk, OK? Let me have my thing.
As suspected, I couldn’t jump and touch the ceiling. And to be even clearer: I couldn’t jump AT ALL.
The rest of that day is a blur. I had three roommates, and I know I must have seen them at some point. I must have said something about what was happening. But I can’t recall it. I also can’t recall phoning my father to tell him that something was seriously wrong, but I know I did, and I know he could tell I was terrified, because he talks about making the three-hour drive down to Virginia in two hours and fifteen minutes like he once piloted a space shuttle through the eye of a hurricane. I kind of remember getting into his car, and I kind of remember driving back to Pennsylvania. I don’t remember him putting me on the couch in his basement (it was the most comfortable couch), and I do remember him telling me we were going to the hospital some time later.
I remember everything that happened immediately after that pretty fucking clearly. Because that was the first time I was aware my legs no longer worked.
I know my dad was on his way down to help me, but I was determined to “beat” whatever was happening and get up to the first floor kitchen by myself. My dad found me several agonizing minutes later, ripping my elbows to shreds, trying to drag my useless lower half up the stairs. My feet were there, but they weren’t…there.
The next 24 hours or so? Another blur. Went to the ER, which immediately sent me to get an MRI. MRI showed severe swelling on my brain and spinal cord. Why? Good question! Treatment? Hey, maybe! They admitted me to the hospital, pumped me full of steroids to stop the inflammation and some other stuff that I can’t recall the names of as a “just in case”, and extracted enough blood to send a hungry vampire into a delightful nonischemic priapism. I also got a spinal tap. On one hand, it was as good a time as any for one of those, because I was officially paralyzed from the chest down at this point, so my lumbar region was out-to-lunch numb. All the same, when they actually stuck the needle in – and I have no idea if this was psychosomatic or an actual physical impulse – an electrical charge went through my skull that made my eyes feel like they were melting, and I screamed like a bratty toddler.
Which was appropriate, because the hospital was full to the brim and they’d stuck me in the Children’s Wing. I don’t feel bad about a lot in my life, but I’ve stayed up entire nights ever since terrified that some poor kid with a heart condition or lupus or whatever heard me lose my shit from down the hall and had nightmares on top of his or her regular nightmares.
It went on like that for some time – me laying there, 66% immobile, waiting for news, letting them suck the blood out of me, hearing about inconclusive or negative labs, laying there, waiting around some more. My doctors were great. I remember specifically my Infectious Diseases doctor – whose name I’m embarrassed to have forgotten – was this West African guy who was chill enough to have invented Reggae, and man, was he smooth. “I’m pretty smart,” he told me at the outset, “so one way or another, we’re going to figure this out.” And he said it in such a cool, matter-of-fact way in that dazzlingly charming accent that I COMPLETELY disregarded the fact that he never mentioned whether or not I was going to walk again, let alone survive. I was just like, “Dude has it. I’m in good shape.” Meanwhile he was probably thinking, “Man, if this kid borks it I am going to learn a TON from the autopsy.”
Mostly I remember my dad. Now, real quick, I’m going to offer a pathetic apology to my mother. I’m sorry about this next bit, Mom. You were there early and often, and you were supportive and wonderful, and I don’t want to make it seem for a second like you weren’t a part of holding me together. You was a HUGE part of it. But, for the life of me, from my time actually in the hospital…I only remember you being there in bits and pieces. Why that is I don’t think I’ll ever be sure, but I think it has *something* to do with a conversation my dad and I had on Day Two.
I was hemming and hawing about something related to, you know, being paralyzed. There weren’t a ton of answers early, and mostly I was just mouthing off because I’m an asshole with a vastly outsized ego and I think I kept trying to tell people, “If they’d just let me WORK with them, for Christ’s sake, we could probably figure this out quicker.” I mean, if anyone ever built a statue to impotent (literally, my penis didn’t work at this time either, though having never been impressive before or since, it’s not like the world had temporarily lost an object of note), misdirected dipshit anger, a bronze of Geoff In Hospital Bed would work beautifully. So my father, who somehow had infinite patience with me for the first time since I was in elementary school, shut me down.
“Why are you bothering to worry about all this?”
THAT was a little stunning. I just looked at him.
“Can you get up and walk down to the lab? Poke around and find some answers? Would you even know what to look for? Would you know what to do if you DID know what to look for? You think you’re smarter than these doctors? You think your zero years of medical school training and zero years of doctoring can help them? What is it, exactly, that you can do right now that you’re so worried about getting it done?”
I looked at him some more. It was the only action I’d performed adequately in days.
“It’s out of your control. Completely. You can’t do a goddamned thing right now about your legs not working. So why are you sitting there worrying about it? Why don’t you just relax and wait until something comes along that you SHOULD worry about?”
I spent more than a month in the hospital. I never worried about a single thing for a single second after that. Because Dad was right. I was no longer captain of my own ship. I just had to sit back, breathe a bit, and hope the boat eventually sailed back to me. Splashing around in the ocean was pointless.
Not long after that, we got answers. I had something called transverse myelitis. Long story short (which, in a piece this babblingly protracted, is a REALLY fucking smug claim to make): your nerves are lined with a fatty sheath called myelin that helps bounce the signals from your brain to your body parts. But a virus had recently invaded my spinal column and infected the fluid, and that infection destroyed all the myelin in my nerves from my chest down. So no signals were getting from my brain to anywhere past my nipples. And let me tell you something: you haven’t really lived until your nipples have become a corporeal line of demarcation.
Soon after, they pinpointed the culprit: CMV, a common virus that like 75% of the population has bumbling about inside them, but innocuously. I just happened to (probably) pick it up when I’d had my tonsils out the month beforehand and my immune system was functioning on its low end. So they’d give me this medicine, and this medicine, and this treatment, and then give me an implant in my arm, and I’d go home and do chemotherapy for three weeks through that, and then they’d take it out, and I’d do a little physical therapy, and I’d be back to normal in like six months or a year.
That was it. I was going to be OK.
Six months later? I was. Everything came back – some stuff only like 95%, but overall, I’m not going to complain about it. Yeah, sports were no longer a real option. My knees and my feet never renegotiated their contract, and I can’t move like I used to, and goddamnit, does it make me angry trying to navigate that. Tennis is the worst. I had to learn all new mechanics, and I was never that good to begin with, but I fucking suck now. That in mind, if my biggest problem after all the suspended motion is not being able to hit a ball with a stick…I think I’ll take it.
Fast-forward to my senior year of college, and I’m back to normal. Early in the Fall I head up to Pennsylvania for my final check-in with my neurologist. From him I get a clean bill of health and a total lack of concern, and, hey, rock on. It’s over, I’m told – the vast majority of transverse myelitis cases are monophasic, meaning they never reoccur. Time to put it all behind me. And yet, as I’m about to leave, I stop and I ask him something I’d never thought to ask him before. I guess because I was busy being So Unworried About Things Out of My Control (TM) back in the hospital.
“Hey doc, just out of curiosity…how bad was my case? Like, on a scale of one to ten.” He sort of thought over it for a minute, almost like he was going over a complex chart in his head. The more he fussed silently over it, the more I felt I’d conquered a veritable world-destroyer of a malady. Like, I St. George’d the shit out of that shit.
I am, naturally, completely fucking insulted.
“Yeah, if you think about it. Most of my patients are permanently paralyzed to one degree or another. Some have to live out the rest of their lives on a ventilator because we don’t discover the source before it spreads to the point the myelin never regenerates. I’ve had two patients die.”
I’m conscious in this moment that I’ve dropped my backpack on the floor.
“How close was I…”
He nods at me, knowing what I was going to ask before I did. “Your dad never said anything, huh?”
“Never said anything about what,” I think but don’t ask. I just stand there. For all intents and purposes, I was paralyzed again.
“If you’d gotten to the hospital eight hours later, you never would have walked again. Another eight hours after that? A machine would be doing your breathing for you right now.”
That was sixteen years ago. And until this Spring, I didn’t remember a single second of the rest of that day.
There was some point during my screening of THE BIG SICK where I realized I wasn’t “enjoying” the movie like I was sure I was going to. And, you know, what the fuck? It was about me! I mean, I was never a girl and never in a coma, but I was super-duper sick in the hospital with my family milling about and no one was sure what was going on. I can relate! And hey, co-writer and former coma-haver Emily Gordon clearly survived, because the movie exists, so…happy ending! And I’m laughing! A lot! So why are my feet bouncing uncontrollably and why am I chewing my finger the hell off and why am I having a goddamned panic attack!?!?!?
Let’s get back to Ray Romano for a second. Ray Romano is not, in actuality, much like my dad – at least in character, in this movie. He’s guarded and insular and deliberate. My father is talkative and outgoing and gregarious and, at times, obnoxiously so. Except, when I was in the hospital…he wasn’t so much himself. He was…guarded. And insular. And deliberate. Now, he was always *there* – and I do mean always. The dude rarely went home and was around for every consultation, major or minor, and always made sure he knew at least as much about what was going on as every nurse or doctor or orderly that walked into my room, to the point – and I wish to Christ I was making this up – he once got in an argument with some poor bastard about whether or not I was saddled with the right catheter. But he was quieter. Not distant, but…sometimes detached, even if just a bit?
As I watched Romano’s Terry gruff and grumble his way through THE BIG SICK, trying to hold it together and make sense of a world that he felt was slowly abandoning the only person he was put on Earth to protect, I realized I was watching my own father sputter and flail right in front of my eyes.
And I thought I had come to watch a movie about ME.
At one point – and I’m honestly afraid to go back and discover exactly which scene – Terry is trying to gather as much information from one of Emily’s doctors as he can, and he’s asking every question he can think of. And most of the questions he can think of are: the worst questions. Because you have to know. You just have to. And it was during this scene that I felt the most insane punch in my stomach and honest to God felt like I was going to puke on my shoes in the middle of a packed-t0-the-gills movie theater. Because all of a sudden, I was standing back in my neurologist’s office.
“Your dad never said anything, huh?”
I was so focused that afternoon on thinking over and over and over about what could have happened to me – but didn’t – that I never once stepped out of my own stupid head for just a minute to consider what HAD happened to my dad. Because, just like Terry – and unlike me – he DID ask the worst questions. For hours, the doctors didn’t know what was wrong with me, how to treat it, or if they even could; so for hours, my father didn’t know if I was going to live or die. For days, they didn’t know if they could contain what was happening; so for days, my dad didn’t know if I was going to get better or worse. For a week, they didn’t know what my long term prognosis would be; so for a a week, my dad didn’t know if I’d be able to function on my own anymore. All he could do was sit there with me. And not know with them.
Later, in the car on the way home from Century City, I was a mess. I honestly had no clue how poorly I’d processed and how casually I’d bundled up and childishly buried that entire ordeal. And I couldn’t figure out why I kept circling back to the speech Dad gave me in the hospital when I was spinning out, frustrated and angry and helpless and immobile. And then I realized: he’d tricked me.
He needed to tell me something that he couldn’t tell me because I couldn’t listen. So he took the fabric of the words he needed to say, cut it up into pieces and sewed the bits together into a message now tailored for my ears to hear so that my brain could understand it. And he wasn’t teaching me about The Things I Could Control and the Things I Couldn’t (TM).
He was promising me, “I’m going to be scared for you now. So you don’t have to be.”
About forty microseconds after realizing that, I remembered what happened that day that I left my neurologist’s office. shaken, having been rated a Three out of Ten. I walked in the door to my dad’s house, found him snoring on the couch (he has legitimate low-grade narcolepsy and I have never seen another human post up for a nap like he does – it’s a minor Wonder of the World), and headed up to my room to sulk for an hour. Not about what HAD happened to me, but what COULD HAVE happened to me. I sulked about a bullet dodged. I sulked about missing seven weeks of Spring Semester. I sulked about how annoying it was that I now sucked at tennis.
What didn’t happen? Me thanking my father. For everything. For anything. It’s since become one of the biggest regrets of my life.
But here’s the silver lining: that’s where THE BIG SICK comes in. Because of it, I get to atone for that regret before it’s too late. Because Emily and Kumail put their lives on film and did it with feeling and gravity and, my God, heart. And they got career-best work from Michael Showalter and Ray Romano and Holly Hunter and Zoe Kazan, and the combination of all of it helped me realize something I’d been blind to for goddamned near half my life. It was a movie that was supposed to make laugh – and it did. But it ended up being a movie that made me better.
How do you thank a bunch of strangers for something like that in any meaningful manner? I don’t know if you can. So I have to hope that if any of them ever read this, the following suffices in lieu of any lame superlatives I could clumsily offer:
The doctors and nurses treated me and healed me, and there’s nothing I could do to repay them properly. They’re the reason I’m able to use my hands to type this, the reason I’m able to walk my dogs every morning, the reason I’m able to get myself off the floor after I fall down laughing at something. They’re the reason my post-sickness has been an infinitely lovelier and more worthwhile experience than my pre-sickness. And for that I’ll be forever grateful. They saved my body.
But my father saved my life.
I’m sorry it took me so long to say this, but: thank you, Pop. Thank you for being scared so that I didn’t have to be.
My father and I are very different people who live very different lives and see the world in very different ways. Sometimes, it’s incredibly hard to relate, try as we might. Sometimes it’s hard to see eye-to-eye. Sometimes talking fails. Sometimes…there’s just nothing to say.
But sometimes? Rapidly-moving pictures projected on a big screen in a dark room with dozens of strangers show you what you couldn’t see, and say what you couldn’t articulate. And you feel closer to someone in that moment, twenty-five hundred miles away, than you did when you were three feet from them in a hospital room. And you understand them better than you ever hoped to. And you appreciate them more than you ever realized. And you love them more than you ever thought possible.
Don’t ever pretend that movies don’t matter.