Fire Ants: The Slings (and Stings and Bites) of Outrageous Fortune
“Fate is not satisfied with inflicting one calamity.”
Publilius Syrus, Sentences, c. 50 BC
“Why’s everybody always pickin’ on me?”
The Coasters, “Charlie Brown,” 1959
There goes the weekend. That thought is a refrain, rolling through my mind between the verses of this Friday evening: between dancing across the street and back, sandals torn off flaming feet, desperate for a neighbor to take me to the hospital; and lying on a gurney as emergency room nurses shove needles into my thigh and play pin-the-electrode-on-the-patient; and hearing the heart monitor’s reassuring beeps and a doctor’s approving, “Seventy-eight. I can live with that”; and finally drifting in and out of sleep, plied by a cheery nurse feeding me a steady diet of Benadryl.
I was being a good Catholic—no, an exceptional Catholic. I’d gone to First Friday Mass, but ducked out before Eucharistic Adoration. I had a lot of work still to do, having blown half the day driving 50 miles to check out a rent house in Basile. I’d moved to Southwest Louisiana nine months before and already was looking to move up from the bayou to the prairie.
But the Church teaches that we show devotion not only with prayer but also by acts of charity (it’s right there in the Baltimore Catechism, Part II, question 196: “always be ready to do good deeds, even when they are not commanded”) and God found—no, arranged—one for me. (He’s good at that.) As I slipped out, a woman approached from the parking lot carrying a set of jumper cables. I obliged, a happy tool of Providence. (Jump-starting. How ironic. One might even say, prophetic.) I pulled my car around to face hers and planted one foot on the grassy median between them to attach the clamps.
I never saw the anthill. Not even a hill, not like the pyramids that rise from the roadsides and pastures around here. This mound was no bigger than the jambalaya serving we scoop up at St. Francis Diner. But be it ever so humble, an ant’s home is his castle. The dozen or so critters I swatted off my foot were only defending theirs, playing their own part in this O. Henry tale.
This being my first run-in with Louisiana’s infamous fire ants, I probably would have gone home and applied a trusty homemade remedy, slathering my foot with a baking soda-and-water paste. My foot, my legs, my arms, my face . . . And that’s how they would have found me, when they found me, caked in a white crust like the victim of a frosting explosion at Danna’s Bakery. Keeled over from anaphylaxis-induced cardiac arrest, passed into the great beyond swearing imprecations against fire ants with my dying breath.
Except for a happy accident. Years ago, I plunged my hand into a bucket of water to squeeze out a sponge and squeezed a wasp near to death. The wasp did what wasps do. Within half an hour, it became graphically apparent that not even an ocean of Calamine lotion would ease the swelling that transformed me into the Elephant Man. The only time she’d seen a worse reaction, the emergency room nurse told me later, the patient had a heart attack. Turns out I was allergic to wasps, and time has proved, to all biting, stinging, venomous creatures that do crawl and fly upon the earth.
So when the ants attacked, I suspected things might get ugly. At home, I popped two Benadryl and awaited the signs. The ears began to itch; hives rose on my thighs like a mole burrowing beneath my skin.
I dashed outside, desperate for a neighbor to take me to the hospital. I banged on doors, danced across the street, stopping to tear sandals from my flaming feet. I felt like Wee Willy Winky. (“Wee Willy Winky runs through the town . . . rapping at the windows, crying at the locks.”)
I found a rescuer behind door number three. Coincidentally—or not—it was a couple I’d met just a few weeks earlier when I dropped off some of their mail that had been delivered accidentally—or not—to my address. They recognized this disheveled, panicked, furiously scratching lady as their neighbor and wasted no time.
I was the only patient at Dautrive Hospital emergency room admitting. That, I hoped, explained the personal attention. One nurse escorted me to a gurney; another took my medical history. Surprisingly, I was able to give it. Last time my lips had swollen until I could see them under my nose.
“I think I’m going to pass out,” I murmured.
“Lie back, honey,” the nurse ordered with a forceful thrust to my shoulder.
Now began a flurry of excitement. A nurse began artfully plastering electrodes to my chest and fingertips. A monitor began beeping somewhere behind me. A doctor appeared, watchful as unseen hands guided a needle into my thigh. I tensed at the stabbing. Then my head exploded with crashing waves of pain.
“I have a killer headache.”
“That’s normal,” the doctor reassured. He stared in the direction of the beeps and finally nodded approvingly. “Seventy-eight. I can live with that.” On learning I lived alone, he decided I should stay overnight. I readily agreed.
Two more nurses appeared, one with a hospital gown, the other with a pair of scissors. “I’m afraid we’ll have to cut off your shirt,” said the scissor wielder. “We can’t unhook you.”
My face must have told her how attached I was to the old thing, a V-neck with tiny red and purple flowers.
“We’ll cut along the seams,” she said. “You can sew it up later.”
I smiled and nodded. Even better. It needed taking in.
I spent the next 15 hours drifting in and out of sleep, plied by a cheery nurse feeding me a steady diet of Benadryl. Worries about work and anxious friends and family evaporated in an antihistamine daze. I thought of this—to the extent that I was capable of thinking—as an all-expenses-paid weekend getaway (80 percent of all usual and customary expenses, that is, as noted on page 7 of my insurance policy).
All of that is back story to me. It only sets the stage. The real drama is the question: Why? Why did God transform my generous act into a near-deadly event? As Saint Therese of Avila is said to have said, “If this is how you treat your friends, God, it’s no wonder you have so few.”
As the Benadryl daze lingers into dawn, the Catholic saw returns: “Offer it up.” The nuns used to say that—still do. To me, it’s the coolest thing about being Catholic. It’s this view of suffering as a remedy. Not just a necessary evil, not a punishment for Adam and Eve blowing their diet, not even a divine teaching aid or strength training for the soul. In the paradoxical reasoning of Church theology, suffering heals.
Call it the spiritual version of the law of conservation, which says that energy is neither created nor destroyed, only recycled, changed from one form to another. The energy from the sun that the corn plant absorbed yesterday is stored in the kernel that grows today and released as you work off that bowl of grits tomorrow.
In the same way, Catholics believe that suffering is part of the spiritual energy that binds human being to each other. Cosmic calories, if you will: sometimes you have a cheesecake’s worth; other times, a rice cake. I can lighten someone else’s share by graciously enduring my own: by smiling through the pain, by comforting someone else when I feel I need it more.
Nonsense, you say? Mystical wishful thinking, a fairy story told to explain away a hideous wart on the face of the All-Loving One? Look at the parallels in everyday life. If I help a neighbor shovel snow off a sidewalk, then neither of us ruptures a disk and our mail carrier has dry feet. If enough people send a few dollars to say, Doctors Without Borders, a child in Ethiopia might live to become the doctor who saves many other lives—and maybe discovers an antitoxin for fire ants.
fire ant allergy, fire ant bites, anaphylaxis, Catholic theology