Status Update – For better or worse, in sickness and in health

There is something about the light in Lisbon, especially on the river. I don’t know what it is. Something about the light, and something about the air – both the wind and the smell of it. I have had two moments here so far when I thought I lost grasp of the city. The first time I left an overcrowded tram in Belem, it was grey and rainy and the air smelled like wet asphalt. Suddenly I felt – Berlin. It was strange. The crowded tram, the climatised air heavy with the scents of wet jackets and wet newspapers – it robbed me for a moment of my sense of orientation, time and space, even. The other moment was similar. A giant parking lot in front of a giant supermarket as they can be found at the outskirts of cities all over the world. Dusk, rain, wet asphalt. Car smell. Nothing Lisbon-specific. But the moments passed. The rainy season has begun and many of the former traits of Lisbon – in my limited experience with the city – have indeed changed. But it is still Lisbon, and the light and the air are still there. Only for the past few days I was not able to really see the city and only now, that I can again, do I realise how much this has troubed me.

It started maybe two weeks ago, I did not pay attention, but suddenly my feet and legs were asleep. Constantly. Nao faz mal, I thought, I could walk and everything and was convinced that it was merely a jammed nerve that would unjam itself sooner or later. I have so many things going wrong in my body I cannot keep track, and with one of them being a crooked hip and another a broken knee – I figured, well… whatever. But on Sunday, when I realised at work that I had difficulties walking and kept bumping into people or walls with my feet I decided to go to the hospital the next day just to have it checked. No big deal. I would have gone to the doctor if I had one, but I made my experiences with that plight when trying to get my stitches removed some months ago. Easier just to go to the emergency room, as a foreigner. But there suddenly everything went out of control. After describing my symptoms the first doctor I saw became quite serious and told me I had to go to the neurology department. No problem, I thought. But then came the bed. And the hospital gown. My clothes were taken from me and everything I carried was listed in detail and packed into plastic bags. This included both of my phones, my book and my music. And then the waiting began. I spent 15 hours alone in the basement waiting room of the emergency service for neurology with noone to speak to, nothing to read, and no possibility to inform anyone about my whereabouts. After six hours, a doctor came and made some tests, the same as before, then scheduled an MRI exam. After eight, I took the MRI. After ten hours, I woke up from a restless sleep to find a piece of paper placed on my bedside table. No doctor in sight. Of course I read it. A mass in the spine. Could be a tumor. The next hours were a nightmare, but weirdly enough a calm one. No crying, no rage. Just a feeling of: I knew it. I knew this would happen. Then again some sleep. At seven the doctor woke me. He didn’t think it was a tumor. He sent me to another hospital. From then on I just let go and let everything happen to me.

The funny thing about hospitals is that often you don’t even feel sick when you enter, but that quickly changes. In the emergency room suddenly I was not allowed to go to the bathroom alone or walk – just wheelchair. But I walked there all alone, mind you. And these things quickly go into your head. But the real ordeal only started in the new hospital, when they stuck a giant needle into my spine and extracted spinal fluid for tests. After this, the next three days are a blurry haze filled with crying, unbearable headaches, nausea, despair and anger. I think I have never cried so much in public, without giving a damn what people think. Crying to get what I want (mostly painkillers), crying to be noticed, crying just to cry. Weird for me, but I think good. In any case, the legs were still numb, the pain only a side effect from an exam, not part of the real problem. And noone seemed to know what was wrong with me. Now they do. The diagnosis is multiple sclerosis, which I know little about. I do not feel the need to do any online research. I feel I want to know as little as possible about it for now. What I know is: It is not deadly. It is not a tumor. It is not cancer. The rest will work itself out.

Of course my parents’ first reaction when they heard I was in the hospital (again…) was: enough now, come home. They couldn’t understand, and I couldn’t really explain to them, why the fact that I am in a strange country was not even an issue for me in this otherwise horrible situation. Yes, I had a hard time understanding the nurses at times and also the other patients around me, but somehow I never felt isolated or alone or wishing: If only I was at home. It felt and still feels normal. I am in Portugal, so of course when I get sick I will be sick in Portugal. I chose Portugal, in sickness and in health, so to speak. In the night in the basement of the emergency service, with the alleged tumor diagnosis in my hand, one of the first thoughts was: If they have to perform surgery on my open spine, I will have to go back to Germany. It is over. In this night, as always in nights like these, everything seemed clear, and everything seemed doomed. I felt I was being punished for trying to break out and make myself happy. That it was just not possible.

The official diagnosis, which I received yesterday, did not manage to throw me back into this mood. Yesterday was the first day I could sit up a little bit in my bed and see outside of the windows of my eight bed room , see the beautiful view of Lisbon, more specifically Baixa and Bairro Alto, and the river. I was with my friend Agneta. She spent the afternoon lying on the bed with me, looking outside, giggling like teenagers and making plans. “It’s gonna be good good good.” My major concern: I want to come back here. Her reaction: Then you will. Paciencia. That is what I need, and it is so strange to say, right now I have it. Maybe I am in a state of shock, still, but I cannot really recognise myself. So, either shock or I really changed. I am calm and relaxed, positive instead of negative, hopeful instead of full of despair. I accept the things that I cannot change anyway. Yes, this is an unexpected change, but change happens every day. And it could have been a bus running me over. Could still be, today, tomorrow. I want to be happy. As simple as that. When I look out of this window I am happy. So, do the math, Rebekka. But – calma. Espera! I am not naïve. I will go back to Berlin. I will see the doctors. I will maybe even take a job to pay the bills and fill my bank account for my next emigration phase. I call it base camp in my head. But this is all too far into the future to speculate about. Again, the bus… paciencia.

Yesterday night my room was like the setting of a pyjama party. Six women, from 23 to 78, giggling and talking in the dark until 1 o clock. I was watching Tatort, a German TV show, but heard them still and smiled widely in the dark. In the end, it is not that complicated, is it? I feel like we will all get sick (sorry). We all know it. Life is short, blabla. Laughing is good. That’s pretty much it.

I think the image in my parents’ head was me lying in a strange country in a broken down hospital all alone, with strangers hurrying by without paying attention and doctors poking me with weird instruments. I am exaggerating. I tried to explain them that I felt fully taken care of and surrounded by friends. What friends? From your house? Yes, from my house but mostly from my work. From your work? Your colleagues? Yes. Colleagues, they are in fact. And bosses. But I don’t know. The people I have met here are all so nice, I know it sounds so stupid. But really. The place I work at, Cruzes Credo Cafe, seems to be a magical place that throws together people who are just special and warm. Like Agneta, my friend from Latvia. Two months or so ago, she thought I was a spoilt rulefollowing German (but at least she also thought I was twenty!!!!!). Now she was with me on this day when I got the news that I have MS, and she made the day special and managed to make me laugh so much. In the end it felt like a beginning, not an end. Like an impetus for making plans. I will never forget that.

Thinking about the intensity of feelings I have developed for some of the people I met here, I pause again and again and cannot believe I have been here for only four and a half months. How can so many things happen in this short time, while it still feels like I have a normal everyday life and routine. It is not like every day is a crazy travel experience. But still four and a half months, let’s see:

Lived in hostel, partied a lot, swam in fountain, jumped off a bridge, moved into Casa Marvao, was robbed, met so many new people there, traveled to Berlin, came back, took a job, met many people there, first stitches of my life, new people moved into my house, my computer died, fell in love, computer alive again, hospital again, robbed again (my cellphone from the hospital bed).

Now my computer is all I own, pretty much, and I will probably be evicted from my house this coming Friday. But it’s all good. In this moment I feel only happy. I see the view. I feel calm. There is a feeling of security inside me. Lisbon will always be there. Maybe the Chinese will buy it… but it will not vanish.

So, this is for sure the most unstructured and maybe senseless post I have written, but I hope I could convey some of the confidence that I feel. Don’t worry too much, friends out there. I am fine. And in a hurry, because I can go home now, and there is so much to do. You can find me on Praca do Commercio, looking out on the river.

About juliamaja

With 28 I did the first non-linear thing in my life. After school, university and work without any interruptions, I quit my advertising job and moved to Lisbon to find out what I want. The result: I write for a living, whether in Berlin or Lisbon. I am happy. Let's see how it goes.
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2 Responses to Status Update – For better or worse, in sickness and in health

  1. Patrick says:

    Good decision not to check out MS on the Internet. The web is certainly not a reliable, encouraging source when dealing with illnesses, etc.
    Give me a call when you’re in Berlin and you feel like meeting up.
    0176-820 66 913
    Bon courage!

  2. mitch says:

    I miss sitting on benches, in restaurants, on beanbags, in fountains…all over Lisbon with you 🙂 …but am glad to hear Lisbon’s lost none of its charm, have a pastel for me!
    abração x

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