How to be hopeful: Lisa Taddeo on the thumb injury that cheered her up

After losing eight people she loved deeply in a decade, the author of Three Women was feeling hopeless. But there came a surprising respite from her hypochondria

I have no hope. When I say it out loud it makes other people very uncomfortable. My father was in a car accident. I slept in the hospital chapel. I prayed to the god of loop-pile carpet to let my father live. Even when the doctors told us they might have to amputate all his limbs, I prayed to God to give me his torso. Every night was a chance. Every new morning was a toothpick of glass to the eye. There is something called “bagging”, which means that someone dependent on machines to survive still needs occasional, sudden resuscitation – having air forced into the lungs. From an actual bag. Like a baker’s pastry tube. I hadn’t heard the term bagging before and I hope I never do again.

My mother died of lung cancer, died like a nightmare. Last breaths like a deer on the road, choking on its own blood. I saw a deer die like that one night. It had just been hit by a car and I prayed that it would live, that all of a sudden it would stop dying. In those final moments of my mother’s life, I took her hand and cradled it over my head as her body turned tombstone-grey. I was trying to force one more motherly touch. My sadness was profound and I watched my hope die with her. With the deer I was just normal sad. Which is what I imagine people with hope feel.

I have a level of hypochondria that other people don’t understand. Those with “hope”. Every dot or bump or tremor or throat pain or bone ache or eyelid flutter or numbness or dizziness I have felt in the past 10 years I have attributed to diseases I won’t name, because it is unkind to people who definitively have them to hear someone worry that they do. But I cannot stress enough that there is no pain or arm weakness or pinprick purple dot or neck spasm occurring on myself, my daughter or my husband (and a few others who I don’t want to know I am monitoring soundlessly but intensely) that I have not thought was deadly. I have lost eight people I loved deeply in the course of a decade. Hope is for the people who can walk their dogs and feel sunshine and pick up their dogshit. Wherein the latter is the least favourable part of their day.

Of course, there was a time I had hope. During the eight days my father was being “log rolled” and “bagged”, I managed a healthy amount of it; I hoped like I was an addict. But then I asked the nurses whether the blood that was being transfused into him was checked for diseases. And they acted as though I were crazy, as if he was so close to dead that nothing in the anonymous blood could be worse.

A few years later, I managed a little hope when I was watching the numbers on my mother’s machine fall to dismal spots. They would rise in dribbles and I found I still had hope left in my ribs. And then the numbers fell for good.

The other evening, I was having dinner with relative strangers and talking about my hypochondria. They reacted the way people do, which is to say, as though I were a dumb curiosity. It’s fine. I’m used to it.

I was telling them about the things I had found on my body, the warts on the soul and the tangible lumps and how I realised they were both the same. But then I remembered how a few months earlier there had been a bump on the inside of my thumb and it looked like a gentle skin cancer, and then the next morning it grew bigger, aggressive.

I agonised over it. I showed people who didn’t know or care. A lawyer friend. A car mechanic. An uninterested doctor.

Anyway. After a few days I was holding my phone and searching “thumb, bump, lump, painless, dry”, and I looked at the way I was holding my phone, I looked at the way the spot on my thumb was rubbing up against the side of my phone. I looked, and I saw it for what it was. A callus, from Googling diseases; a callus of spending so much time feeling hopeless. Not that I didn’t think that there might still be a thumb situation, but that, hey, there was hope. And that I might one day be able to talk myself out of thinking there wasn’t any.

Three Women by Lisa Taddeo is published by Bloomsbury (£16.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p over £15

Lisa Taddeo

The GuardianTramp

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