Following New Year’s celebrations in Door County, I celebrated by going to bed early and watching a movie. The next morning I woke up feverish, the first day of what would be a four-week journey through bacterial and viral mysteries. Maybe it was the flu. Maybe not.
“You know, if we were living a hundred and fifty years ago, I’d probably be dead,” I declared deep into the second week when the unnamed illness turned into a sinus infection, an ear infection and swollen tonsils. My husband, who leans toward the “soldier on” philosophy of empathy, agreed and encouraged me to make a doctor appointment.
While sick I read my way through all the non-Ken Follett novels I had received as holiday gifts. Fever and a constant headache placed Follett’s thousand page volumes in the same category as learning a new language or understanding articles in The Economist. Marilynne Robinson, Maeve Binchy and Emma Straub filled my hours. Then I began Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven.
Back to that certainty that in the days before antibiotics, Tylenol and throat lozenges, I might have been a dead person. In the spirit of full disclosure, I think I told my husband if the crud took me in 2015, I wanted to be cremated.
In Door County, Wisconsin, where this story began, there is a joke that Peninsula State Park will one day be lined by memorial benches and ankle deep in the ashes of visitors and residents who cannot bear to spend eternity anywhere else.
I am perplexed about what is to be done with the ashes of loved ones. Urns behind glass in mausoleums give me an odd feeling. Urns on the bookshelves of friends make me wonder what happens when the Boomer generation passes and grandkids are left with an increasing number of urns holding their grandparents and their parents. I am aware of people carrying a small vial of a loved one’s ashes. My mother-in-law asked that hers be spread over her gardens. Four pounds of ash is not an insignificant amount of material.
With most of the world dying in Mandel’s book, the whole ashes disposal question is moot. When sick with the ever-changing illness, Station Eleven was not a good choice for passing the time. In the dark of my nights, Mandel’s quick killing Georgia flu seemed plausible. Two days and over two hundred pages into Station Eleven I closed my e-reader to ponder whether I would want to be a survivor of such a pandemic or die. After fifteen or thirty minutes of such wondering I knew I would not finish the book. Margaret Atwood, PD James, Cormac McCarthy and James Howard Kunstler have not bothered my sleep in worse times. But I wouldn’t sleep with Mandel’s story in my mind.
As a writer of speculative fiction, I’ve stewed for weeks about catastrophes that could alter the world. I write of things I fear might happen—nuclear missteps, military encounters, financial collapse, uncontrolled corporate growth. Mandel’s work is brilliant. Last week, fully healthy, I carried her book to the gym, set the elliptical machine on thirty minutes and read another forty pages. Over the next days I managed another forty. Close to the end, I walked away once more. To finish the book would be worse than my decision to watch Contagion while flying home from Paris. This year I’m piling up magazines, chick lit and historical fiction in case my flu shot is ineffective. Nothing stronger.