After using the wrong drill bit a few times Colm and I had managed to hang a plywood board to the wall of his garage. Colm never parked his car in the garage. The space was occupied by the miscellaneous collections of an ordinary Irish family in Dundalk. There was football gear for the daughters, swimming gear for dips in the cold ocean, and a trailer as a substitute for the bed of a pickup.
Colm was my father’s cousin but I referred to him as my uncle and his daughters as my cousins. His accent was so thick it took me days to adjust to it, and even after a week I still needed his words to take a few laps around my brain before I could suss out what he was saying.
“What do you want to do with the hoover?” Colm asked.
I stood back and assessed the wall.
“Let’s put it all the way to the left. The outlet is there. It makes more sense to put it beside the outlet then running the wire over everything.”
“You want to hang it?” Colm held out the wall attachment.
My stomach tightened and snatched my breath momentarily.
“You need to go to the doctor, Tommy.”
I waved Colm off.
The pain was there, but sat like a car idling.
I picked up the vacuum to see where to hang it, then screwed the hanger in place, setting the wire from the outlet beneath the hanger so when Colm hung the vacuum it would charge automatically.
“Do the honor,” I said.
Colm hung the vacuum and a little red light went on to notify us it was charging.
I put a hand to my stomach. I had that anxious feeling of waking up in the middle of the night just before getting a charley horse. For a minute I was in a daze, concentrating on the building pressure.
“You can’t hang the hose above the outlet, Colm!”
“Well, why not, Margaret?”
Margaret, my aunt, stood in the doorway. She had short blond hair, high cheekbones, large blue eyes, and was perpetually moved by a hurricane of energy.
“Do you I really need to tell you why?”
Colm was on his knees, holding a wound hose against the bottom left corner of the plywood – directly beside the electrical outlet which the vacuum was plugged into.
“The only other spigot is on the other side of the doorway. If we screw it in there we won’t have enough hose to reach the front yard,” Colm argued.
“Well then buy more hose and run the hose over the doorway. For God’s sake, Colm, what if there’s a leak?”
The gas in my gut was reaching a tipping point.
“Are you alright, Tommy?”
It was Colm.
I was squeezing the back of a chair.
“Yeah,” I managed through clenched teeth. “Just the stomach-”
Then it was there.
The gas in my gut seemed to explode. Immediately pain took over everything. A spasm rippled outward from my stomach to my fingertips. I dropped to my knees, then to my side. I writhed in search of some position of relief. My stomach was being stabbed by a hundred knives. My breath was caught in my chest. My muscles were bound unbearably tight.
For a minute or two the pain went on – building and multiplying until I couldn’t see anything, couldn’t hear anything, until there was only pain and the feeling of cool concrete on my back.
Then by the smallest margin the pain receded. The agony went from a ten to a nine. My muscles loosened just slightly.
As the pain departed I regained my senses.
I could feel my fingernails digging into my stomach.
I could see Colm and Margaret over me.
Once I had some strength I drug myself against the garage wall.
“We’re going to the doctor, Tommy.”
I gave a meek thumbs up.
Once I was as capable, Colm and I drove to the doctor. It was night but the local clinic was still open. The doctor was from somewhere in Africa and his accent was as thick as Colm’s and just as difficult to understand. He yelled everything and his office smelled like Home Depot. My stomach was calm as it usually was after a spasm.
“Tell me what’s happening young man.”
I felt like a child sitting on the doctor’s bed with my feet dangling below.
“I’ve been getting stomach cramps. I’ve been getting them for about two months now, but they’re getting worse and worse. At first they’d only last a minute and weren’t anything I couldn’t bear. Now they’re terrible. I nearly passed out from one fifteen minutes ago.”
The doctor was taking notes on a tiny notepad and rubbing his chin with his other hand. “Have you tried anything?”
“I saw a doctor in the States and he gave me stuff for irritable bowel but it didn’t do anything. Now I’ve been taking fiber and anti-gas stuff.”
“Do you remember what you took for irritable bowel?”
“Uh, no. They were little white pills, coated smooth. I’m sorry, I’m not sure.”
“I usually don’t get the cramps in the morning but as the day goes on I get more and more bloated and the cramps become more frequent.”
“And do you get them at night?”
“Lay down and pull up your shirt for me.”
I did and the doctor pressed into my stomach two hands at a time.
“You’re very bloated.” He pressed around on my stomach a bit more. “No pain when I do this?”
The doctor sat down and leaned back with his hands over his belly. I sat up and pulled my shirt down.
“It certainly seems like you have irritable bowel. I get it myself. There are some new medications for it though and it doesn’t sound like you’ve tried everything.”
“It’s treatable? From what I’ve read you can have it your entire life.”
“For some people it is, others it isn’t. But there’s a new probiotic that’s suppose to be very effective. Here.” The doctor picked up a single sealed straw from his desk and handed it to me. “The inside is coated with the bacteria so you just drink something with it and you’ll get the bacteria. I’ve been using them for a month now. Seems to be helping.”
I left with two prescriptions. I was hopeful about the probiotics. If I needed a prescription for them I figured they had to be heavy duty. Lesser probiotics saved my dignity in Mexico, stronger ones might stop the cramping.
But time went on and I left Dundalk after a week and then I was in Northern Ireland and the cramps were coming at a pace of half a dozen a day. Sometimes I’d have a few hours without feeling bloated and I’d think to myself: maybe the probiotics are working. Deep down I knew they weren’t though.
A cramp would come, drop me to the ground like I’d been hit with a taser, and destroy my mild delusion.
Every hour of walking grew arduous. The fear of a cramp made the miles longer and kept me from getting into a rhythm. The slightest twitch of the stomach and I worried another cramp was coming.
I hadn’t even approached the the worst of it though. What I didn’t realize was that my immune system was turning on me. In a desperate attempt to fend of the virulent bacteria propagating inside me, my immune system would start attacking everything – good and bad bacteria alike.