Some time ago, I became allergic to everything. I’d always had a few mild allergies to a few foods, things like avocados and sunflower seeds, and I managed just fine (though Southern Californians are forever baffled by anyone who doesn’t eat avocado). Then the food allergies began to grow, in both number and severity, joined by what I surmised was a type of pollen-dust mites-airborne-something allergy that presented itself like a long-lingering cold. At some point, I became allergic to almost every raw fruit, vegetable, tree nut, or seed. Almost every, but not every; the uncertainty made every meal a gamble. Some cooked foods bothered me, too, and sometimes raw foods that had bothered me once didn’t do so again. The hay fever-or-whatever-it-was kept getting worse, too, waking me every hour of the night like a colicky newborn, to swaddle in a pile of damp tissues and nurse my own soggy head.
I mentioned the allergies to my obstetrician again on Monday morning. She told me allergy sufferers should feel better when pregnant, not worse. My own research suggested this was not necessarily true, but I didn’t want to press the point. Instead I went home and ordered a box of Breathe-Right strips that accomplished nothing except violently exfoliating a portion of my nose.
Then on Monday night, I ate a piece of toffee covered in crushed almonds and embarked on one of the most acutely unpleasant nights of my life. I’ll pause here and say, for any worried relatives reading, that I never once felt I was in serious danger. If I had, I would have gone to the hospital immediately, but at no time was I unable to breathe, talk, or swallow. Instead I suffered eight hours of mild but miserable symptoms: my eyes watered and burned; my nose streamed; my throat, my nostrils, my scalp, my gums, the insides of my ears, my entire skull itched.
Tuesday morning, I called my primary care doctor, the first step in the HMO obeisance necessary to see an allergist. My doctor ordered some blood tests and asked me a series of questions. First: When had all this started?
I have no idea. I had been operating under the assumption that this was all caused by pregnancy but now that I really think about it, had the allergies maybe come first? I think they were bothering me in the summer, or the early fall. I know I had some problems with sunflower seeds sometime before we moved into our new house. There was a skin reaction I had perhaps last winter. I remember discussing my worsening allergies over lunch with a friend I haven’t seen since my divorce five years ago.
This happens whenever I talk to a medical professional about any problem whatsoever. Back pain, toothache, itchy eyes, I can’t say whether I’ve felt something for weeks, months, or years. In fact I have almost no memory of anything in my past. Where I am feels like where I have always been.
Because I remember so little about my own life, I use my sister, my friends, and the ongoing text conversations between us all as a sort of outsourced memory. In the course of trying to figure out whether my present allergies preceded my pregnancy or followed it, I combed through old messages for words like “allergic,” “itchy” and “avocado.” In the process I found conversations on every topic going back fifteen years, with people I no longer know, in the voice of someone I know longer remember.
A few days before Christmas I was on a video chat with four friends I’ve known since elementary school, another site of outsourced memory. One of them asked me how things had been lately.
“Same old,” I said.
“Same old?” she repeated, laughing. “And you’re pregnant, and you’re in grad school…”
That’s true, two new things that weren’t true when the year began, but both feel old to me already. “Same old” is my way to move the conversation back to the other person, but also, every new thing is absorbed as it comes, into the same old present.
It was during that conversation, I remember, that I first noticed itchy hives forming on the backs of my hands. 6pm, December 23.
This is how I’ve spent this week: excavating the year that is ending, searching not for big lessons but small clues to a private and largely inconsequential puzzle. The last week of the year is reserved for excavation both public and private, in the form of highlight reels and Best Of lists and the solemn stock-taking that precedes hopeful resolutions. This year that excavation is both more painful and more necessary.
When I look back on my year, any year, I do so with a sort of neutral surprise. This year, when life has changed so dramatically for everyone, I can’t recall the person I was in January 2020. Recall, to remember, or recall, to call back.
In the early months of 2020, I wrote for several podcasts. I was teaching writing classes. I worked on Bernie Sanders’s campaign, texting, phone banking, and going door-to-door in North Hollywood, pushing Margaret in her stroller. I ran for local public office and won. I campaigned for a local school funding measure and lost. I managed Arthur’s baseball team, organizing snack schedules and uniform fittings. I made costumes for the elementary school talent show. I went to cafes and concerts and bar trivia nights. I was planning Zac’s birthday party. And all of these things just evaporated. The primary election was over, my contracts terminated, the school year suddenly curtailed.
Our family entered a year that was always only the present, an endless march of crises to avert and problems to solve. Every plan for the future was bracketed with whens and maybes; every plan for the future was a way of looking back. When will we go swimming again, or fly on a plane, or go to a wedding or an office party or a playground. When will we catch up on all the things we pushed off this year, all the dental cleanings and DMV trips, plans to work better and save more, last year’s resolutions long past due. What we wanted from the future was a do-over, our old year back again, not new possibilities but a way to recall the past.
And still, new things are accumulating, slowly, and with wounded caution. Whatever 2021 will be, it won’t be 2020, or 2019. Those years are gone forever, beyond our beckoning.