A few mornings a month I wake to a familiar throbbing at the base of my skull. I toss and turn, sometimes writhe, until I peel back the covers and go in search of ibuprofen. Four pills, lots of water and an hour or so later and things start to feel close to normal. Most mornings I catch these headaches in time. But some mornings I don’t and they morph into a full-blown migraine, which can mean days of shielding my eyes from light and my ears from a thousand tiny noises.
It’s been five years since the first of these headaches sent me to the emergency room on a June night. I’d spent the day in dark rooms, first at my house then at an urgent care center hooked up to an IV receiving fluids. The doctor thought I might be dehydrated. She thought I was having a migraine. But when she asked me to sit up and bend my neck forward and I couldn’t, she had a nagging suspicion.
“But you haven’t had a fever…” she said, thinking out loud. “Take this and go to bed. If you wake up with a fever or you still have this headache, go straight to the ER.”
I didn’t quite understand the urgency. I just knew my head was pounding. I did as she said and woke up a few hours later with a fever and a relentless headache. I found my husband outside with our two tiny daughters. Eliza was three and it was Lucille’s first birthday. I had bought her red shoes and made cupcakes a few days before. I told him I was going to the hospital, that I thought something was really wrong. We both knew it wasn’t the best idea for me to drive the 25 minutes to the hospital alone but we didn’t think we had another choice. So he stayed home and I set off for town.
It was the first warm night in Montana that year. The sun cast long shadows and it occurred to me that it was finally summer. I turned left onto the main road that was ripped up due to construction. The throbbing where my skull met my spine matched the jackhammer that was breaking up sections of road as I drove past.
As I drove, Seth called the urgent care center where I’d spent the better part of the day.
“She has meningitis,” the doctor said. “She needs to go to the ER. I’ll call them and tell them she’s on her way.”
I walked through the sliding doors of the emergency room and told the receptionist my name and that my doctor thought I had meningitis on her recommendation.
“I’ll wait in my car,” I said. “I can’t handle the loud TV in the waiting room or the fan.”
“Honey, if you think you have meningitis, you’re not going back to your car or to the waiting room. We knew you were coming, follow me.”
She took me to a dimly lit room with a bed covered in white sheets. I collapsed onto the bed, hopeful that somewhere in this hospital, there was a drug that could quiet my excruciating headache.
A doctor came in and said he knew Carol, the urgent care doctor who’d sent me to the hospital.
“She’s a great doctor,” he said. “We need to do a spinal tap.”
As I leaned over a table, this doctor put a needle in my spine and the fluid he pulled out was cloudy. Not a good sign, he said.
“That wasn’t too bad, I hope,” he said of the puncture. “Probably just like an epidural when you had your babies.”
By this time my husband had come to the hospital and was standing in the room with our one-year-old. Somehow I was able to mumble to the doctor that I’d had natural births, no drugs, no spinal punctures.
“That’s badass,” he said.
I remember thinking through the fog of the pain medicine that was finally starting to kick in, that even natural birth didn’t hurt as bad this headache. I didn’t know humans could survive pain as bad as this.
A few minutes later, lab reports confirmed meningitis and things went black. I was admitted to the hospital and drug after drug slid though my IV and into my arm to save my life. I was in the hospital for four days during which time doctors cultured my spinal fluid and realized I had bacterial meningitis. The tone in my hospital room turned more serious after that. One doctor ordered tests to make sure my hearing was intact and another inspected my children to make sure they showed no signs of this illness. Thankfully, my daughters were fine. But still, the doctors were curious and they quizzed me about dental work, about trauma to my head, about anything that might have given them a clue as to how I might have gotten meningitis. And they never figured it out. It was a fluke, a non-explanation that never rested well with any of us.
I came home from the hospital with a bag full of syringes and 10 days worth of medicine that I was to inject twice a day. The drugs were powerful and left me feeling weak, nauseous and exhausted.
The next three months were the hardest of my life. My body was fragile, my emotions were raw, and my girls were so little. Some days I couldn’t push back the thought that we were potentially hours away from them growing up without me. It took a long time to untangle that and even longer to make peace with it.
This year, in late June, as the sun tilted toward a Montana summer, my daughter Lucille turned six. She dressed as Hermione Granger from the Harry Potter books and cast spells on her eight-year-old sister with her new light up wand. That day, I thought only of her birthday. It was a few days later that I remembered it had been five years since I had meningitis. It was the first of her birthdays since getting sick that I didn’t think of it at least once, that the memory of it all wasn’t so close to the surface.
These days, when I wake up with a dull ache at the back of my skull, I don’t worry, as I did once, that meningitis has come back. But the fact that my headaches are reminiscent of the one I had five years ago isn’t lost on me. My doctor’s say it’s muscle memory but I think it’s something deeper than that. Tucked somewhere between trauma and the clear, bright realizations that come from it, these headaches remind me that I could have died but I didn’t. They remind me that I’m still here and that my daughters are still beautiful. Because of meningitis, I carry these things with me every day.