Sometime during the fourth year of production of A Life’s Work I recognized how long this film was going to take to complete and a joke was born: I’m making a film about people who may not complete their work in their lifetimes. Could I be a subject in my own film? (When I tell people about the film and how long I’ve been working on it, the joke often comes to them as well. “Will you finish the film in your lifetime?”)
At the start, I didn’t want to be in the film in any way. I figured my fingerprints were all over it so why should I stick my mug and voice in it, too? (I’ve softened on this stance, and my voice may be heard asking a question at a key moment, my figure may be somewhere in the shadows.)
There was a night, though, when I thought I would not only put myself in the film, but would star in it.
December 28, 2008. Childermas.* I woke up in the morning around the usual time but the room was spinning wildly. Imagine the worst drunk you’ve ever had and take that spinning and multiply it by 10. Like that. I found some relief when I laid on my left side, but otherwise, I was suffering from intense vertigo.
By the afternoon I felt stable enough to get out of bed and walk to the bathroom. I then went to my desk and visited WebMD. I entered my symptoms. Do I have to tell you the diagnosis? Brain tumor. Go to the emergency room.
I didn’t take it seriously, but I did think if I wasn’t feeling normal by the morning, I’d go to my doctor first thing.
I felt a little better as the day wore on, but not much. I was able to eat a bagel, to lay on the couch and listen to music. That night I managed to fall sleep. But WebMD had planted the anxiety. I woke up around three a.m. feeling nauseous and still vertiginous when I laid on my back.
I can’t have a brain tumor, I thought. I can’t. I have to finish this film. I have to finish the short story collection. I have to bike from Anzio to Trieste. (Italy, the route my father marched during WWII as a young man and where destiny, or at least the U.S. Army, brought him to my mother.)
I was quickly aware of what I wasn’t thinking. I didn’t think, I haven’t had children yet or I haven’t built my country house or I’ve never driven a Ferrari. My priorities were clear.
The next thought: If I have a brain tumor, I can include myself in the film. This would give it incredible tension and drama. Would he finish his film in his lifetime or would he die a horrible, painful death right there in front of the camera? Ca-ching! Academy Award! (posthumously)
I recognized how twisted this was and somehow managed to get a few more hours sleep.
I woke up feeling better, but not great. I went to my doctor and told him my symptoms. He had me do some hand eye coordination tests. “Don’t worry,” he said, “It’s just BPPV. Benign Paroxysmal Positional Vertigo.”
Benign is the key word here. He gave me a few exercises and I felt almost normal by the end of the day.
I’m happy and thankful I don’t have a brain tumor. I am. But once in a while I imagine the documentary I could have made if I did!
* Childermas: By orders of King Herod, the children of Bethlehem were massacred in an attempt to kill the baby Jesus. The Irish call this Cross Day and believe that anything begun on this day will turn out badly. In Belgium, Mexico, and Columbia children play April Fools type pranks on this day. Also known as Holy Innocents’ Day.