The procedure was experimental. Well, maybe experimental isn’t the right word. Unproven. It had been proven now though, all thanks to my agreement to be a case study, but there’ve been some complications. No, side-effects is probably a better word. Oh man, I never used to care about words.
I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis on my thirtieth birthday. Literally on the day. I blew out the candles of my birthday cake in the hospital cafeteria and let me tell you they are not exactly festive places.
Sclerosis, if you’re Greek’s a bit rusty — and mine used to be non-existent — means scars. The multiple scarring the name refers to takes place within the central nervous system. On the nerve cells themselves. The protective coating that surrounds the neurons actually shears away. The hard truth is there is currently no known cure.
When I found out the reason I’d been having trouble holding cups lately, not to mention my bladder, was due to multiple sclerosis the doctor also told me that it affects roughly three times as many women as men; as though knowing I shared this disease with all my fellow double X chromosome sisters was somehow comforting. It wasn’t. It just further proved we get the rougher end of the deal. When he mentioned that there was a more radical treatment available though, that got my attention.
That’s what my procedure was, a treatment. Not like a mad scientist harnessing lightning from the sky kind of treatment, but still, it was a bit out there.
Look, I’ve never exactly been a model student, or employee, or person, really. I’ve had a few scraps with the law and done some things I’m not proud of, and maybe haven’t achieved a whole lot, but that didn’t mean I was ready to roll over and let this disease have my body. So, when the Doc said ‘stem cell transplant’ I said ‘sure, I’m up for it’, without really bothering to think it through. Honestly, to my non-medical school trained brain it seemed pretty straight forward. You have these stem cells, which are kind of a blank slate capable of turning into any other type of cell, repairing or replacing damaged cells in the process. So, a donor offers them up for whatever reason, my crappy nerve cells get repaired or replaced, and I’m free to spend my thirty first birthday not in a hospital. Simple.
Maybe simple’s not the right word. Straight-forward. Anyway, not so straight-forward, it turns out. Although even the doctor’s didn’t know that.
My donor’s name was Rupert Hellings. The hospital insisted I meet with him beforehand. Personally, I would have preferred to have taken his stem cells and been on my way, but he was a nice enough guy. Bit older, real academic type. Professor of linguistics at the University of Melbourne, whatever that entails. His wife had had multiple sclerosis and, while it wasn’t what killed her, he said he wanted to help others avoid what she had gone through. Like I said, nice guy; although he had this habit of always cracking his knuckles, drove me crazy.
Anyway, the procedure went fine. Stem cells were transplanted and I stopped having issues with vertigo and motor control. For all intents and purposes I didn’t have multiple sclerosis anymore. Good, right?
Then it started. The side-effects. Little things to begin with. Like I started correcting people’s speech. ‘It’s Holly and I, not me and Holly.’ Things like that. I just couldn’t stop myself. I would hear someone say something incorrect and I would have to correct them. I’ve never been that type of girl, and my friends aren’t the kind of people that like being corrected, or who have much of a grasp on the nuances of language. Basically, I was correcting them a lot. Like, constantly. They stopped inviting me to things, and I could hardly blame them. I was getting fed up with it too.
Then it got worse. I would see a word, just any normal word, written on a sign or a poster and I wouldn’t be able to stop thinking about it. I would become captivated with it. No, not captivated. Obsessed. I would think about the different sounds that made up the word. How it could be used in different contexts. I would begin to wonder about the history of the word and have to look it up, which would inevitably lead me to some new word I would become obsessed over. It was weird, it was wrong, it wasn’t me.
When I started cracking my knuckles, it all fell into place. I realised I was cracking them whenever I was lost in thought, usually over some word or another. Like I said, cracking knuckles drove me crazy, but for some reason doing it now felt right. Then I thought of the only other person I knew who cracked their knuckles in that way, the only other person who was likely to get obsessed over words, and my gut dropped.
What could I do? I knew what what would happen if I went back to the hospital. They would be fascinated by the whole thing. The idea that a stem cell recipient might take on the personality traits of the donor? C’mon, I wouldn’t be leaving that hospital anytime soon. They’d want to do so many tests and experiments on me that every birthday for the next thirty years would likely be spent in that hospital cafeteria. I decided instead to pay my donor a visit.
+ + + +
He was sitting at his desk when I stormed into his office. Universities, it turns out, are pretty easy places to just walk into. He looked up in shock, then pleased recognition at the sight of me. He didn’t stay pleased for long.
‘You’ve infected me,’ I yelled.
‘What?’ he asked.
‘Your knuckle cracking, your word fetish. I’ve got all of them.’ I realise I probably could have been a bit clearer in my language but to be honest I was furious and scared. My body was being taken over. To his credit he figured it out pretty quickly.
‘Wait. Are you saying you’ve somehow taken on some of my mannerisms through the stem cell transplant?’ He asked. Smart guy.
‘That’s exactly what I’m saying and I want you to undo it right now!’
He ignored this statement, too caught up in the implications of what I was saying. He stood and started pacing around the room.
‘That’s amazing. My traits are expressing in you. Part of me is in you,’ he said thinking it through. ‘If its existence can be proven then…’
‘Then you and I would never leave a hospital or laboratory ever again,’ I finished for him. That got his attention.
‘Yes. Yes, I suppose you’re right,’ He returned to his seat. ‘This is all a lot to take in.’
‘You think? Try being on the other end of it!’
‘Right. Tell me, what is it exactly you’ve been experiencing?’
‘Words, man. I can’t stop thinking about words. I’m bloody fascinated by them. Like, right now, I can’t stop thinking about the word fascinated. Why do we use it? What’s its history?’
‘Oh, well that’s very interesting actually-’
‘Stop,’ I say. ‘I don’t want to hear it. Well, I do, but not right now. The point is you need to think of a way to get you out of me.’
‘I- I don’t think I can. My stem cells aren’t even my stem cells anymore. They’re your nerve cells. Even if we did go to the hospital I doubt they could reverse it. They wouldn’t know which neurons had been altered, and from the sounds of it it’s affecting your whole central nervous system, all the way up to your brain. I’m sorry but I think you’re stuck like this.’ He gave a tight lipped smile and raised his eyebrows apologetically. It didn’t do a whole lot to comfort me.
I collapsed into the chair opposite him and put my head in my hands. Was it even my head anymore? It didn’t feel like it.
‘You know, it might not be all bad,’ he said.
‘What do you mean?’ I asked, not really caring for whatever pleasantry, no, platitude, he was about to give me.
‘Well, you said you were fascinated by words, even wanted to hear the history of the word fascinated. I take it that means you’re getting at least some level of enjoyment from the study of language?’
‘Yes,’ I said, feeling ruefull, because the truth was he was right. It had alienated me from my friends and made me feel less like myself, but I had also never had such purpose before.
‘Okay. Good. Well, you could always apply to study here. I run the Bachelor’s Degree in Linguistics. I could ensure you get a place next semester.’
Me, study? I had certainly never thought of that before.
‘And you would teach me about words?’ I asked.
‘I would,’ he said, smiling.
+ + + +
I took the professor up on his offer. I mean, what else was I going to do? Part of me feels like I’m almost his daughter now, anyway. No, daughter’s not right. Clone. Either way, I decided I’ve just got to be up for it, see where it takes me. Or, at least I think I did.
Thanks for reading