The woman on the yoga video dropped into a squat, tailbone arcing downwards, and I tried to do the same. I felt the shake through my body, after months of barely moving, of curling into my body as I tried to sleep, I had lost the strength I’d once had. The woman said, “repeat to yourself: I am strong. I am strong. I am strong.” I tried to do it, but knew it was a lie. I wanted to lay down, let myself crush inwards. I swallowed back a moment of nausea, that swooping whoosh that tickled the back of my throat. The doctors had said I needed to do this. I needed to work my body back to safety. Or, as they told me, to “caution.” Because I might never be completely safe again.
A lot of people from my town got root sickness. That’s what they started calling it, but I never thought of as roots; I saw it as vines, creeping tendrils in our blood streams. The doctors pointed out how it looked on my MRI. A web of darkness extending through my body. “It’s almost pretty,” I said.
My doctor nodded. “Everyone’s pattern is different. I’ve always thought someone should do art with the scans.”
I could feel it moving beneath my skin. It seemed excited. As if it could hear us talking. “What’s the most beautiful one you’ve ever seen?” I asked.
The doctor continued to stare at my scans. “There was a boy whose looked like shooting stars.” He pointed at my scan, at the center of the web, where it looped around my heart. “Yours kind of looks like the swirls on a seashell.”
My husband walked into the room, glancing at the yoga video and then at me, where I still squatted, my whole body trembling. “You can take a break, babe.”
I shook my head. I couldn’t speak or I’d throw up. I just had to hold the pose a little longer.
He walked over and stood behind me, opening his arms wide so that they hovered on either side of me. Not touching, just there in case I needed to fall.
There was a fifty-fifty survival rate for the disease. Exactly fifty-fifty, as if it was determined literally by some goddess of Fate who flipped a coin through the air. The doctors told me this, and said, “what you have to do is fight it.”
But fighting is easy to watch and ask for, if you’re not the one fighting. If every day, you don’t wake up feeling like you’re not quite yourself, like your body is rebelling against you. There was something new every morning, some other symptom to try to control.
My husband would hold back my hair when I circled my body around the toilet, vomiting any food I’d managed to keep down from the day before—when I hadn’t been nauseous, had just been so aching that even eating felt like torture.
At some points, I fought because I couldn’t bring myself to not fight, but not because I wanted to. There were so many things I had wanted to do in my life, and then there weren’t, there was only the feeling of not wanting.
After I was first diagnosed, my husband and I took a day trip to drive the back roads up one side of the state. It had always been something I loved, discovering the strangeness that existed where no one was looking. We stopped near a road where we had never been. I got out of the car and walked around. There were trees on either side of the road. I wondered if I ran into them and begged if they would withdraw their hold on my blood.
That wasn’t how it worked, of course. The root disease wasn’t really in the trees, people thought it came from the water, from something deep under the soil of our town. There had been the flood one year, when I was a child, and it had started appearing in people after that. The first person’s scan had looked like roots, the way it pushed down beneath the tree like tendrils that circled the man’s heart. That’s where it got the name. I wondered if he was the only one to get a tree. If every shape after was meant only for the one person it grew inside.
My husband had walked over to me, from where he had been standing on the road. He wrapped his arms around my waist, pressed his body into mine, he said, “you are so strong.”
On the hardest day, I thought about walking to the river. I thought it would be so easy to do. I had always liked the water.
Still, every time I went to the door, I’d think about my body, about the way my blood moved through my veins around the disease. I thought about how good it felt to stretch my arms out in the morning. I thought that I could try a little longer.
After they said it was gone, the doctor said, “but sometimes it comes back. You just have to keep being strong, keep fighting. Always be fighting.”
The woman on the yoga video slowly raised her body back up, edging her feet together, mountain pose. She said, “say it again: I am strong. I am strong. I am strong.”
I followed her lead, led my trembling body back to stillness. I tried the words out on my tongue. They came out, “I am. I am. I am.”