Galata Bridge, crossing over the Bosphorus, you are either on your
way to Asia or to Europe, east or west. High over the city, you feel
this sensation of being in two places at once. Which makes its own
kind of sense, when you recall the old saying that all Istanbullus
have two throats (Bosphorus and throat are the same word, boğaz,
in Turkish). For we all belong to ourselves, and to where we live.
It is a dual city where the past and present, where East and West, ancient and modern, exist side by side. All of these elements, and its people, are connected by that thin, esophagus-like strand of waterway that you pass over on the Galata Bridge, that gives breath and life to the city.
My whole life has been a case study in dualism, a battle between being “here” and being “there,” the physical present versus off in my head somewhere. Perhaps the reason I’ve always felt at home in Istanbul is because the city seems to be in sync with that essential part of me. For me, being here means being present, in the moment. İt means being a husband and father, it means being fifty. Being there means off in the world of my imagination, in dreams, in Prague, in California, in the past. A philosopher could posit that both worlds exist, but such discussions, while valid for coffee shop chats, usually make for exasperated spouses, I find.
Just like the city, these forces usually coexist amiably, at times symbiotic at other times commensal. In other words, in a single day I can write a story about Prague in my office on the European side of Istanbul in the morning, teach classes in the afternoon and in the evenings, go back across the bridge to our flat on the Asian side, home to my wife and son. All goes well if it’s a good day. I can be “here” and “there” at once.
In fact, you could say that being a father and husband makes me a better teacher, and vice versa, and that being all of these things affect my writing, whenever I have time for it.
But those are the good days.
Then you have the times like last week, when our son Leo got ill. He came down with a fever and persistent cough. He had difficulty breathing. We took him to a nearby hospital. It wasn’t Covid, thankfully, but rather a respiratory viral infection common in babies and young children. Still, the doctors wanted him to stay in the hospital for a few days so that his condition could be monitored.
For inexperienced parents, it is a frightening situation, to see your healthy, buoyant child suddenly so fragile, to see him breathing through a respirator. It really knocks you over. It makes you “here,” alright. Suddenly everything else is remote, far away. My wife naturally was distraught, blaming herself, and I could tell she felt really alone. I tried to reassure her, that everything was going to be OK. But of course, how could I know that? In those moments, you feel really inadequate, and I found myself wishing my wife had someone “here” who was better and stronger than myself. In those moments, the world of “there,” (being a writer, teacher, Prague, California, etc) doesn’t seem to be of any value or help at all. There is only “here,” the white, cold corridors of the hospital, the sound of medical staff busy with their routine work (for them, all of this sickness and pain and worry is just another day at work, you realize), the sight of your wife’s tired, sleepless face and your son’s little body covered in a rash that the doctors say is a sign of his still-developing immune system fighting the virus.
“Why don’t you ask the doctor?” my wife chided, more than once when I asked her about this or that related to Leo’s condition. “You need to ask questions, too! I can’t think of everything!”
I called in to work to arrange a substitute, and stayed with my wife and son at the hospital that first night and the next day. Özge’s mother heroically arranged for an overnight bus and arrived early that next morning ready to assist. Talk about a godsend. Her mother immediately took hold of the situation, assisted Özge a lot more assuredly and practically than I had (having raised two daughters, I guess she has the experience, bless her).
By Sunday, Leo had improved enough that the doctor said we could take him home. At home, he was fine the first couple days, but by the weekend, the fevers and coughing were back, even worse than before. Özge’s mother was still with us, so in the middle of the night on Saturday we bundled Leo into a taxi and rushed back to the same hospital. It was like a nightmare, like being back in prison a week after you’d been let out on parole. You just didn’t think (or hope) you would see the inside of this place again anytime soon. And yet there we were. There our son was in the hospital bed, there I was holding the respirator tube to his face so that he could get adequate levels of oxygen.
It was another virus, the doctor (a different one this time) announced the following morning, after tests were taken. He had beaten the first virus, but most likely picked up the second virus at the hospital during his previous stay the week before. It was rather dispiriting to hear that. Aren’t hospitals supposed to be places where you go to get well, not sicker? Again, the analogy of prisons crept into our battered heads (the idea that prisons often turn out to be places where people get worse rather than better, I mean).
Fortunately, it was yet another routine viral infection, treatable with antibiotics and the respirator. We were at the hospital about five days. At the university we were on term break, so there was no need to worry about work. The rest of normal life, the world of “there,” was on hold. “Here” consisted once again of the hospital, with which you find yourself becoming depressingly familiar. You know where everything is, the café, the restrooms, the whole layout of the place. You do not wish to be overly familiar with hospitals. Going out to the parking lot for some fresh air, you pass some orderlies bringing in a man on a stretcher. He is still wearing his street clothes and looks shattered, a broken leg perhaps. As you pass, your eyes meet for a second and you see a glint, a flicker in the man’s eye, and it occurs to you that he wishes very much to be you, standing and walking around, and you realize you are very lucky not to be him laid out on that gurney. The difference between the sick and the well is sudden, revealing and profound indeed, and I thought again about our little boy upstairs.
Outside, out “there,” the city looks grey and dreary, wind-lashed by the first winter storms of the year. You look out the hermetically sealed windows of the hospital (Geez, would it really hurt to be able to open the windows? To let in a bit of fresh air now and again? No wonder our son picked up a second virus!) and wonder when all of this will be over. In the wet streets, cars, taxis, buses whisked by. People, clutching umbrellas, their coats pulled to against the rain and cold biting winds, trudged wearily to the metro, their thoughts clouded no doubt by feelings of “there,” wishing it was summer and they were at the beaches of Bodrum or Marmaris. The country’s inflation rate rose up and up, as impersonal as the medical machines that monitor breathing and heart rate … the mechanized forces at work in and around our lives beating on endlessly.
By Thursday morning, Leo was much better. He had not had any fevers for two or three days, the rash was gone and the cough was much less frequent. He was again free to go. “Home!” he said, one of the English words he has learned. “Home! Home!” The poor little guy. He was tired of the hospital too, and missed his toys, his regular routine. My wife looked much better too, for with Leo’s improving condition she had been able to sleep more and with less worry.
Back home, we kept Leo on his prescribed medication and he is pretty much back to normal, just in time for his second birthday. Alas, Özge’s mother got sick and was bed-ridden for a day or two, some bug she had picked up from the hospital (what a surprise!), but fortunately she is fine now.
And here we are, back at the office. The second term has begun, new students, new classes. Life goes on. Writing this, I chuckle as I realize that I am not “here,” (at the school, preparing for classes) but rather once again, “there,” back at the hospital, keeping an anxious vigil over our son. I am on the metro bus crossing the Galata Bridge, looking out at the shining waters of the Bosphorus, pondering the predicament of the lira, plunging further against the dollar. I am thinking of Leo’s birthday, which is today. He is two. When he woke up, I wished him happy birthday and he just said, “A wok dok dee!” in his Leo language. What a beautiful boy he is, both here and there, and everywhere. And my wife, and her mother – they are my heroes.
James Tressler, a former Lost Coast resident, is a writer and teacher in Istanbul, or somewhere.