There was a day in 1994 when red sand from the Sahara fell noiselessly from the sky over Budapest, covering everything with a fine powder, orangey-red, Martian.
It felt supernatural. The Sahara was more than 2,000 miles from Central Europe. The red sand coated everything like a dusting of flour, the little dumpling-shape Soviet-era cars, windows of dress shops, cobblestones.
Budapest was a filthy city to begin with, then, a grimy, polluted city choking with diesel fumes and plumes from more cigarettes than you’d believe had ever been sold in the history of mankind. The cigarette smoke was so thick in the basement bars and dance clubs — crowded with university students, young poets with Rimbaud hair, artists with handknit scarves, filmmakers whose watery blue eyes matched their watery blue windbreakers, expat girls from the States on a late-20th-century jag — that you could lean against the smoke and it would stand you up. We smoked Pall Malls, Peter Stuyvesants, Helikons, cheap Symphonias, Sopianae blues.
The red dust of the Sahara carried in on a windstorm was both a miracle and strangely right on time: In those novelty-seeking years of my 20s, I was always on the lookout for a portent, and the sky could be expected to perform miraculous shows of color. (Another time, the sky over Pest turned green above the Western Railway Station as I was perambulating to a chocolate shop to buy cherries in brandy. The firmament turned green, just before a thunderstorm, creating a green dome. When you are young these events seem to carry some significance, and these visions have stayed with me.) I do tend to look skyward.
The Saharan skyfall was on my mind last month when we were visited by the first heavy haze from the Canadian wildfires. I know the date the air first filled with Canadian smoke here in East Hampton: Saturday, June 3. I had been sitting in my kitchen, failing to negotiate peace between the cat and the dog and inputting corrections on proofs of pages from the next issue of East magazine, when I suddenly became aware that something was burning. “Teddy,” I shouted to my son, “what is burning?”
Teddy, reclining in the living room, obviously did not know what was burning. We rushed around the house, checking light fixtures, the stove, the basement. I was wearing one of my Indian cotton caftans, of the sort that other moms look chic in as they do their organic-vegetable shopping at Amber Waves but that, on me (in my opinion) look muumuu-like and shouldn’t leave the house. But I ran out into the yard in my muumuu, instructing Teddy to race over to the barn and make sure it wasn’t burning, while I ran halfway down the lane to make sure the Star office wasn’t on fire.
Of course, as we all know — and talk about Old News, and I hope you’ll continue on reading this despite the introduction of month-old headlines — it wasn’t a neighbor’s house burning, it was the wildfires in Canada bringing us strange skies.
But there was an uncanny element to the Canadian wildfires, for me, personally: The wildfires on that first weekend in June weren’t just any wildfires in Canada, they were fires, specifically, in the small lobstering town where I lived for six years, and where I served in the fire department as the captain of a pumper truck: Shelburne, Nova Scotia. The smoke inside my East Hampton kitchen and creeping over the entire East End of Long Island on the weekend of June 3 was smoke from the firs and rooftops of Shelburne County. It was my old brothers in arms-and-hoses — Daryl, Allen, Sean, Footie, Steve, all of the crew I’d known and loved so well — who were smack-dab in the worst of it, at the epicenter, fighting to save houses where friends lived.
Some strange portent from the sky.
It was right after that, on June 6, that I fell down deep into a hole. I fell down into a deep, dank, dark, foul well from which I seem to have only just climbed back out, into the dazzling sunlight. By which I mean I got super-sick and kind of nearly died, and had a monthlong odyssey of I.C.U., operations, transfusions, bad smells, tears, gowns, tubes, catheters, trays of Cozy Shack pudding, bags of fluid. I hate the words “bag” and “fluid.”
Medical talk is boring and no one wants the disgusting details, but to try to keep it short, on June 6, I was writing my “Shipwreck Rose” column about exotic things carried on the high wind — Saharan dust and Canadian smoke carrying the message aloft that the globe is smaller and stranger than we know, and less reliably divided by human borders — when I realized I had something badly wrong with my stomach, got in my Honda, and drove myself to Stony Brook Southampton Hospital.
I texted my editor that I’d finish my column in the emergency room waiting room (!). I did not finish my column, but was hustled pronto into a surgery that lasted four or five hours. June is a sweltering, feverish confusion — a collection of extremely sharp memories, snapshot moments and clear details, swimming like chunks in a stew of bad dreams. The first week was semi-hallucinatory. I took a dislike to a certain hand-sanitizer dispenser on the wall of my second room, on Floor 2 North, which in my frightened imagination took on the aspect of a gremlin in a black bib-front tuxedo. I had dark visions of the military-industrial-medical complex as a great, churning machine, and lingered for hours on thoughts of the soldiers of World War I dying with abdominal sepsis. I lay there pretending the breeze from a small table fan was the wind blowing gently over the fields at the farm where I work, ruffling the wildflowers and tops of the garlic scapes, willing myself to get back into the sunshine and fields again.
In mid-June, there was a week in which we mistakenly thought I was out of the woods, but there was a setback having to do with foul infection in the abdominal cavity (about which, I promise, you do not want to know more) and back I went, into a third room, on Floor 3 North.
I lost the entire month of June. I completely missed the strawberries! Not a single Wainscott strawberry did I eat in the year 2023. I missed Strawberry Shortcake Saturday at the Old Whalers Church. I missed the orange sky over Manhattan. I missed my niece’s graduation (Phi Beta Kappa) from Dartmouth. I missed the Ladies Village Improvement Society Fair.
Now it’s July 3, and I am home with intravenous antibiotics, feeling good, knock on wood. I knock on wood six and seven times a day. I have started compiling a list of all the people I need to write thank-you notes to, at the hospital and at home. It is a long list. I need more stationery; my stock of good note cards from Mrs. John L. Strong is growing thin. My kids and I have been carried aloft — saved — by a whole community.
A few weeks ago, I lay there in my hospital bed thinking of the various entertaining ways in which I could tell the story of my illness here in my newspaper column. Not because I want to talk about this illness — indeed, I don’t want to dwell on it at all — but because I don’t have any other thoughts in my head at the moment, and columns must be written. This is the first work I’ve done in a month. I could tell it as a grim story (“way down in the hole,” with a gremlin on the wall) or I could spin it with humor. The title for this column if I went the funny-story route was going to be: “How to Lose 35 Pounds in 10 Days.”
Unfortunately, that comical newspaper-column headline was wishful thinking. It turns out it’s very possible to live off an IV for a week, consume nothing but small spoonfuls of yogurt and applesauce for another week or two, yet somehow leave the hospital the same muumuu size you were when you went into it. It’s a mystery, goddamn it.