Some time in April, I signed up for “Mail Art,” an art swap organized by The Artclash Collective, which is based in Philadelphia. Participants receive four names with mailing addresses and you agree to send a piece of art (small, 2-D pieces that can easily fit into a standard envelope are the common choice, but there are no rules or restrictions) to each address that is paired with each Friday in May. You, in turn, get four pieces as well, but not from the people you’re assigned to. I chose to go the crochet route and got off the first two. And then this happened. So, the other two Mail Arts got put on the back burner, though believe you me I tried to get something off before schlepping it to the hospital. Naturally, in the hospital, even when there sure were more important things to be worrying about, I couldn’t stop fixating on the fact that I was a Mail Art flake. Sure it’s just mailing something to a complete stranger and I have a good “excuse”, but still, I said I’d do it and I didn’t and I hated this.

So I figured that along with whatever I managed to make and send once home and a little healthier, I would include something written on the hospital menus I was collecting. I hoarded every thing that was left in my room, “treasures” as I refer to anything I happen upon in life, in general. I contemplated making two collages for Mail Art, as I had found a bright red plastic tag on the floor that reads “Fire Door 20” on it, a few tourniquets left on my bed, the IV kit wrappers, though some of these seem a bit morbid and scary for sending-art-to-a-stranger purposes. I decide to stick with crochet as the “art,” in particular these flat Safety Cone magnets, and the menu as the sorry-this-is-late note. On each menu are my name, room number and either the box for “full fluid” (juice, pudding, jello, broth) or “soft regular” (mashed potatoes, chicken, rice, fruit, pasta) checked. Those little checked-off boxes speak volumes, no? Like Hemingway’s six-word-story, his self-proclaimed best work. “Kachmar. Infil 506. Full Fluid.” I can’t remember exactly what I wrote on the menus, but just a short something that probably nonchalantly began, “So, I just spent 10 days in the hospital and that is why your Mail Art is late….”

Around the same time, still in the hospital, I make another decision, much more life-altering than the devising of a mailable art project, but also one of setting things in motion, of traveling. During a crying meltdown, I say something to the effect of, “I can’t do this anymore. I want to go home” to my dad. Not home in the sense of getting out of the hospital, that’s a given. Home, meaning Pittsburgh. Home, meaning a place where I will feel more supported, less alone as I endure the very-much-alone state of existence that is poor health, more watched over, less helpless when I get bills and blood lab results. Home.

On the tenth day, I get discharged, the same day I start “promoting” the UC Success essay contest, after a long night of typing, often with one or two undamaged fingers, as my right hand has gone from being painful to being numb back to being painful, the site of the IV bleeding and leaking. Maybe because I keep trying to crochet and hold a pen and write emails with it? Hmm. Am I willing to get the Tethered post written at the expense of another bad IV insertion? To have to listen to a nurse say, “This is going to hurt. Don’t look. God I hate to stick it to you.” I consider asking my dad to type as I dictate, thinking of course of my beloved blind writers, Borges and Milton. But no, I still have a finger or two and a mind and that’s all I need. I keep typing, re-reading the original essay and deciphering my hospital notebook scribbles. The irony of that first line of my essay, “How can they do this to my hands?” The irony…

A college friend of mine, Elena, who now lives in Korea and I haven’t seen in 2 years, comes to my room as I am zippering up bags, eating my last hospital dinner. “Oh God Elena, of course we meet like this, of course!” We only became friends during the last semester or so of school, having previously thought that the other was “normal” and therefore, not “worth” being friends with. When we realize that “normal” is not a word to describe either of us, we become friends and regret all those lost weeks we could have been such. But ever since, we have rarely done anything normal together. Adventures with Alicia, taking her to “Name Night” at a bar, on the ONE day she happened to be in town and it was HER name (drink for free), introducing her to the beautiful wonder that is Canstruction, the nights spent running around New York City till 4am that don’t feel real at the time. So this place of reconnecting felt…appropriate.

Dad, Elena and I ride through my favorite Brooklyn neighborhoods back to Manhattan, windows opened on a sunny early evening, the mere ability to feel “weather” indescribable after ten days not being able to do so. The simple acts of putting on sunglasses and buckling a seatbelt, of looking at garbage cans overflowing and someone dropping their newspaper. And then the Brooklyn Bridge, that breathtaking mass of steel that never fails to tug on my heart every time I see it. Outside my apartment they are filming something, movie set apparatuses and artificial lights strewn about. I look at it all, not mad; on the contrary, happy that I am looking at it, at all. But I’m sure I look mad: sick, worn out, tired, bruised, bandaged, hospital bracelet on because I forgot to cut it off, spirit a little more defeated than before. A movie set guy says, “Welcome home. We’ll be outta here soon.” Thank you, and me too. And cut

The stairs take too long to climb, the written-in-marker “breathe the air” on one of the wall landings again feeling like a cruel joke. Every time I can’t walk well, can’t breathe, can’t make it to the top without sitting down, those words, probably written by an artist when Tribeca was cheap and filled with artists. I can’t breathe the air. When no one is around in my apartment, I put my head down and cry at my desk. I cry in the shower. Because of everything. Because I am in my apartment, I am at my desk, I am in the shower. But with the hospital doctors’ words, if such and such happens, you have to come back, never far from my thoughts. I don’t want to go back there. I can’t go back there. It’s never over, I will never ever win. I try opening the window and I can’t, my arm muscles tearing because of disuse. I have to ask my dad to do it, so I can climb outside onto the fire escape and see how much my plants have grown. Marigolds, basil, morning glories, an amaryllis I thought was dead, but was only dormant and now stands 8 inches high. I nap a lot, waves of exhaustion hitting me with a force that no buck-up mentality can override. I’m not better. And I do not look it, nor do I feel it.

A couple days later, follow-up doctor’s appointment made and moving-to Pittsburgh plans set in motion, I take my first real walk in three weeks, outside. My mom has called me with the news that the first issue of a yarn magazine I’m in has hit the glossy racks. Crochet Today, July/August, Stitchy S’mores. She reads excerpts to me, like where editor Brett Bara writes that my designs might just be her “favorite amigurumi ever.” I can’t wait until my issue comes in the mail, so I set out to pick one up at my neighborhood Barnes and Noble. Slowly but surely, I get there. Talk about coming full circle (again!): I designed a frowning marshmallow on a stick and a frowning s’more way back in the beginning of my crochet days, when I was really sick, and sick of all the smiling plush I’d see on Etsy. And, of course, I wrote about these in the essay.

The following week, I’m sitting in the doctor office lobby for, what, the 30th time in 5 years? The memories. The number of things I have crocheted, knitted, read, written while sitting here, the mindless television in the background, the other people who are always older than me, the gurgling of the water cooler, the sound of my nurse’s voice and her repeated “You’re pale again” as she straps on the blood pressure cuff, the vials of blood and the bandaids that later hurt, the phlebotomist I only had one time, who said, “Your face says you’ve done this too many times,” my facial expression I imagine saying exactly that. “I have.” I feel it every time and yet, don’t feel it at all. The tempest in my mind/Doth from my senses take all feeling.

I sit down in his office with my parents and he says, “Do you know that you were on the threshold?” It should hit me like a ton of bricks, the slightly poetic way of phrasing it like that. I smile a little, which is sick in hindsight. He says, “Ah, smiling, right,” so I undo the smile, look down, and say, “I know.” We go over my options, mom taking notes, and I tell him my New York-exit plan, which is essentially me finally listening to him after all these years, prioritizing health. But let’s face it, now I don’t have a choice: I have an immune system that cannot properly fight off infections but that could and would destroy my body if left to its own devices, that cannot properly respond to the powerful corticosteroids that try to eradicate inflammation, these corticosteroids all the while further suppressing my immune system. You know, the one that cannot afford to be suppressed. He says, “We could almost label you as steroid-resistant” and I say, “Quite an accomplishment.” (Steroid-resistance is somewhat rare). And yet, he is confident that a simple change in lifestyle (read: decrease in stress and work blah blah blah) could do medical wonders for me. I’m skeptical.

I give him the magazine, I tell him about the contest. Looking at my parents, “She’s very talented.” Looking at me, “You’re gonna be famous. When are you going to make me something?” I promise a double-sided (happy/sad) crochet colon if I win the contest, and some kind of book dedication or speech if the occasion ever arises. “Call me, you can always call me. And you can send me things here.” He mentions an old patient who sends him postcards from far-off places and I hope I can be that kind of patient some day, the one who doesn’t make doctor appointments, who writes postcards from far-off places instead. Goodbyes for now, thank you’s for ever. Shivers as I walk past the ER, warmth as I think about going home.

I’ve been in Pittsburgh for just over ten days, days still dotted by naps and feeling crappy and pills, but making progress in the healing direction. When I’m not “busy” being sick and sleepy, I’m back to, well, trying to do everything. Pittsburgh is like a new frontier to explore and comfortably familiar at the same time. Cleaning out my room, tossing old childhood things, reading the journals I kept religiously from the time I was 6. Diving head first into the DIY/craft scene, gardening, cooking, berry-picking, crocheting, making lists, painting my nails with ease. Not covering up one eye.

Two days ago, via FedEx: “Your entry has been deemed a Grand Prize winner.” I win the contest, those three little paragraphs that attempted to sum up so much back and forth, the ups and downs, the sometimes traumatic and sometimes celebratory nature of these 5+ years, the roller coaster ride consisting of both excitement and terror that always ends in stillness and numbness. A frowning marshmallow, a safety cone, a silver-lined cloud. Simple constructions. Complex meanings, to me at least. The contest feels like the perfect culmination, it and the hospital prompting me to finally honestly write more about everything here, rather than in a journal, or worse, keeping the thoughts hostage in my head.

In addition to that glorious piece of mail, I received another forwarded from New York: a hand-written letter with splatters of art from one of my post-hospital Mail Art recipients. Some excerpts from his letter:

dear Alicia–your safety cone arrived safely (!) here in Philadelphia on Wednesday…your knitted art was a fun surprise…collage seems to be the most popular form of mail art and the other 2 pieces I got were cut/glued collections of paper. And don’t get me wrong, they were great but I never expected to get something made of a magnet and threads. The photo of the “congregation of cones” you included was very cute.The hospital menu reminded me of my own (5 day) stay in a hospital…I’m vegan and the food prep people would never seem to get the “no eggs, dairy, or meat” request right. The food cart worker was a little church lady with a hairnet. She’d hum loudly as she walked down the hall. I’d hear her loudening hum and would be gripped with fear wondering, “what food I can’t/won’t eat is about to arrive?” I hope the net result of your 10 day hospital stay was positive.

I am stunned and elated, the letter concluding with a penpal/artpal request and this amazing sentence: “I hope you have a good summer full of beautiful sight, sound, and creativity.

That is exactly what I want.