Green Hills Literary Lantern

Invasions

 

 

The December sun is shining in Seattle but to the west, over Bainbridge Island, rainclouds gather. My husband, Gene, is jogging. I’m relaxing in the kitchen, the Sunday Times in front of me. The phone rings. Caller ID lights up red: Seattle Police Department. Wrong number, I think as I answer.

 

A no-nonsense woman identifies herself as a member of the SPD and asks if my name is Susan Knox. “Yes,” I say dropping onto a kitchen stool. The only other time I answered a call like this was ten years earlier when a family member unexpectedly died.

 

“Is your husband Eugene Knox?” “Yes,” I answer. The SPD official goes on, “Your husband collapsed on the running path in Myrtle Edwards Park. He’s at Swedish Hospital’s emergency room in Ballard. You need to meet him there.” I run to my car and set out for the emergency room.

 

But that phone call is not what I want to tell you about right now.

 

I want to tell you about armyworms.

 

* * *

 

On another Sunday morning, in 1951, Daddy walked into our Ohio farmhouse after visiting the neighbors. He sank into a chair at our oak kitchen table. We gathered round—Mommy, me, and my younger brothers and sister. He ran his fingers through his thick brown hair, cleared his throat, and, instead of looking at us, lowered his eyes.

 

Armyworms tore through the Diltz farm last night,” he said, his voice cracking. “Their corn fields are gone.”

 

This is when I began to learn that there are some incidents in life we cannot plan for or protect against or resolve.

 

* * *

 

As I enter his hospital cubicle, Gene smiles. I know that particular smile. It’s the one he has when he pretends all is well and doesn’t want to worry me. “I’m ready to go home,” he says.

 

I kiss his cheek and sit on a straight chair next to his bed. He looks pale and vulnerable in the limp hospital gown. Under his bed is a brown paper bag labeled “Patient Belongings, E. Knox” written bold with a black Sharpie. The walls are pale yellow and the light is bright, with no privacy other than the canary-yellow cotton curtains with a repeating red design that surround his space. The metal rings jangle as the curtain is pulled aside. A doctor enters and stands at the foot of his bed, facing Gene and me. “You had a seizure. We ordered an MRI and it revealed a small brain tumor on the left side of your head. We need to admit you and do further tests.” Gene again tells me he wants to go home.

 

I am sometimes startled by loud noises, rattled by rowdy group conversations, or overreact to challenging comments, but in an emergency, I am calm and focused. Today is no exception. I convince Gene to follow the doctor’s advice, and we agree he should transfer to the University of Washington Medical Center. Gene is a university vice president, and I call the hospital’s head administrator to facilitate the move. Within half an hour he’s in an ambulance on his way to UW and soon thereafter, ensconced in a large private room. Tests are run that afternoon—a CAT scan and a spinal tap.

 

The next morning, Dr. Scanlon, department chair of neurosurgery, enters Gene’s room with a deployment of residents. He’s a solid, muscular man with short graying hair. He appears confident and in charge. His demeanor is reassuring, and something within me relaxes.

 

“You have a small tumor, about one centimeter long, on the left side of your head, above your ear. It’s near your speech center but positioned on the outer edge of the brain.” Dr. Scanlon says. “The CAT scan revealed no other tumors in your body, and there are no cancer cells in your spinal fluid. These results don’t rule out cancer, but it’s a positive sign. You have three choices: we see how you react to medication, we perform a biopsy to determine exactly what it is, or we surgically remove the tumor. I’ve reserved an operating room early next week in case you want to go ahead with surgery.”

 

* * *

 

The armyworms were north of our farm, marching our direction, stripping cornfields, decimating wheat and oat fields, wasting alfalfa crops. Every evening before supper, my father reported on the marauding caterpillars’ progress. I’d never seen an armyworm, but my ten-year-old mind pictured them as fat, pulsing black worms with sharp teeth and blazing eyes. I remember how upset I was, how fearful that the armyworms would invade our farmland. The first of our crops to go would be the grains and hay we fed our Jersey dairy cows and Leghorn chickens. Next in their path, our ten-acre patch where we harvested and sold the best sweet corn in the county. Then my mother’s vegetable garden. Vegetables she canned and froze for later meals. What if the armyworms ate all the tomatoes, potatoes, onions, cauliflower, broccoli, green beans and peas? Would the army worms crawl through our house on their way south? Would they hurt us?

 

Daddy was helpless in the face of this enemy. I didn’t understand. Why couldn’t he stop them before they raided our land? There must be something we could do.

* * *

 

Doing nothing is not an option as far as Gene is concerned. He requires information—he must know what is going on in his head. He approves the operation.

 

The vice president for Health Sciences visits Gene in his hospital room and assures him the neurological team has the best doctors in the world. Not among the best doctors but the best doctors. We feel confident. We don’t consider a second opinion. We don’t consider waiting.

 

We decide to spend the next week as normally as we can. Gene returns to work worried everyone will treat him differently, but his colleagues surprise him. They express concern and support, then move on to the business at hand. One UW regent writes a personal note to wish him well and confides that he had successful brain surgery thirteen years earlier. Patricia, a former staff member, leaves a small box at our front door. It contains a golden crystal and a note indicates it aids healing. Gene is so moved he can’t speak. He caresses the crystal and slips it into his pants pocket.

 

Over the weekend, we attend the Husky men’s basketball game against Arizona, the Tiffany exhibition at the Seattle Art Museum, a chamber music concert, and a holiday party. When we tell friends about the impending procedure, they look concerned and wonder if Gene should be resting. I picture us as bravely carrying on (now I realize we needed to stay busy, maintain our schedule, and try not to think too much about what was coming). Monday rolls around. We’re due at the hospital early the next morning. We succeeded in compartmentalizing the looming operation until now.

 

“I’m worried about you,” Gene says the evening before surgery. “What if something goes wrong? How will you manage?”

 

I tell him I’m not worried. In truth, I have thought about him becoming incapacitated. I have considered what I would do if he died. But these are not lingering thoughts. I truly believe Gene will recover, fully and completely.

 

* * *

 

I later learned that armyworms move like a military regiment through farmers’ fields, plundering crops. They systematically destroy one field and move en masse to the next feeding ground. They prefer millet, timothy, bluegrass, small grains, corn, and soybeans, but if they’re hungry, they’ll eat anything.

 

During the armyworms’ campaign, I worried my fifth-grade best friend, Judy, with daily reports. “They’re still moving our way. I’m really scared. I hope they don’t eat the animals. What if King is in their way? We keep him outside because Daddy doesn’t like dogs in the house.” I dreamed of the invasion, of the steady march of these horrid insects. I didn’t know how we would survive their onslaught. It seemed so hopeless.

 

* * *

 

Tuesday morning we drive to the UW Medical Center Surgery Pavilion. It is 5:00 a.m. Gene checks in, dons a pastel-green hospital gown, and is cuffed with a white identification bracelet. A neurosurgical resident shaves off Gene’s bright-red hair—the red hair I’ve loved since I first met him—and places seven magnetic markers on his skull. Another MRI will be taken before surgery and the markers will guide the neurosurgeon as he maps the brain before removing any tissue. We wait to be taken to Radiology. Gene looks at me, his eyes wide and serious. I take his hand.

 

“This is pretty scary,” I say.

 

He nods. “I don’t want to leave you. I want us to be together many more years.”

 

“We will be. Remember what an astrologer told me years ago. She saw us growing old together. I’m holding on to that image.”

 

Gene squeezes my hand and his blue eyes scan my face as though he might never see me again. I know what he is thinking, and the depth of his love engulfs me.

 

An attendant brings a wheelchair. Gene lowers himself onto the seat, and I walk beside him, still holding his hand. The halls and department desks are decorated for Christmas. It must have taken hours to hang snowflakes from the ceiling, wrap wastebaskets to look like presents, and extend twinkling lights and artificial greens across the fronts of desks. Someone decided to loop strings of purple beads among a chain of sparkly white snowflakes and put red bows on lampshades. We are instructed to look for the candy-cane desk. It is surreal.

 

We reach Radiology. Gene transfers to a gurney and is wheeled into the MRI area. The attendant directs me to an adjacent waiting room. Gene later tells me they gave him earplugs before the procedure. I learn why. A terrific noise, a whining and clattering, invades the waiting room as though a medieval torture machine is gearing up for its next victim. Without earplugs of my own, I want to escape. The racket goes on and on and on.

 

Finally, the MRI ends, and we go to surgery prep—a long room with fifteen hospital beds lined up against the wall, separated by blue curtains. A nurse signals it’s time for me to leave. Gene and I look at each other, tears in our eyes. I squat down, lean over the wheelchair arm. “When we were at the concert last weekend, I felt your father’s presence. He was hovering behind you. Protecting you.” I’d forgotten the experience until this moment, and it seems fortuitous the memory resurfaces now. Gene looks at me, trusts my intuition, and I can see this steadies him. I kiss him and leave. It is 7:00 a.m.

 

***

 

The Zimmerman farm was the armyworms’ next target, and they attacked as usual during the night. “Karl told me they’re hard to spot in daylight because they hide in soil cracks and under stones and clods until it gets dark again,” Daddy reported at the table the next evening. “All he could see in the morning was their black-pepper droppings and his obliterated crops. Karl said he could actually hear them! Chomping, chomping, chomping. He said he felt like he was going crazy.”

 

I clamp my hands over my ears imagining their incessant chomping.

 

* * *

 

I retreat to the surgical waiting room armed with books, paper, and pen. A woman sleeps in a chair and a family huddles together, softly speaking. The waiting room has floor-to-ceiling windows along the western wall. There are no Christmas decorations. I was told it would be a four- to six-hour operation. I turn an overstuffed chair around to face a small garden and stand of pine trees outside the surgery pavilion. I open a novel. I can’t concentrate. I pull out my notebook and pen. I can’t write. I check my watch. I stare out the window. When I go to the restroom, I walk into the men’s room.

 

Later Gene told me that while he waited for the procedure to begin, Dr. Scanlon leaned over and told him that Dr. Brody was in the operating theater, observing. “Who’s that?” Gene asked. “My mentor, the man who discovered how to map the brain’s functions.” Gene looked up at the gallery and spotted Dr. Brody. Dr. Scanlon will use his techniques to ensure he doesn’t injure Gene’s vital brain tissue. Gene said he felt reassured.

 

Several days earlier Dr. Scanlon reviewed the procedure with us. After anesthesia, an incision will be made on the left side of Gene’s head, above his ear, and a hole drilled into the skull to allow small surgical instruments access to the mass. After this is completed, he will be awakened and instructed to name black ink sketches of objects like a car, the sun, and a tree and to read sentences from a slide projector handled by Diane, a technician. Diane will review these images with Gene the day before the surgery and ask him to name them so that she knows what he calls each object. As the surgeon probes the mass in Gene’s brain to locate the speech center tissue, he will prompt Diane to reveal the images one by one on a screen and instruct Gene to identify them. Anytime Gene doesn’t respond correctly, the surgeon knows he can’t invade that part of the tissue—a misstep could impair Gene’s ability to speak or read. The critical coordinates are entered in the computer as the brain mapping proceeds.  As it turns out, his speech center is unexpectedly adjacent to the tumor.

 

* * *

 

The armyworms—dark-green caterpillars with two orange stripes on each side and brown heads with dark honeycombed markings—continue their terrifying march. They feed for about two weeks, reaching their mature length of 1½ to 2 inches. Then they pupate just below the surface of the soil and emerge as light-brown moths with a salmon-colored “exclamation mark” in the middle of their forewing.

 

We knew nothing of this metamorphosis.

 

* * *

 

Diane comes to the waiting room after they put Gene back to sleep to finish the operation. We step into a small, private room. She smiles as she says, “Gene was very chatty while he was awake. We discussed the Tiffany exhibition, he suggested an improvement for showing images to the patient, and he said to tell you he is fine, he is thinking of you, and he will see you soon.” I thank her, and she leaves. I’m alone again, waiting. A sob moves into my throat, releasing my corralled fears.

 

An hour later, the surgeon arrives and escorts me to the same small private room. “Gene did well during the surgery,” he says. “There may be some temporary problems with his speech because of brain swelling, but they’ll recede after a few days. We dispatched the tissue to pathology and will have a report in five days.” When pressed, Dr. Scanlon says he’s learned not to predict the pathology and that we will know the results as soon as he knows. I can’t think of other questions. Later, I wonder why I didn’t ask if he was able to remove all the growth.

* * *

 

Armyworm moths are strong fliers. They hide during the day. They mobilize at night and scout for sweets and decaying fruit. They feed for ten days and then the female moths lay greenish-white eggs in long rows or clusters on the lower leaves of grasses. Each moth lays five-hundred or more eggs. They fold the leaf lengthwise and fasten it about the eggs with a sticky secretion. Ten to fourteen days later, pale-green worms emerge and begin feeding. They are innumerable, lodging in grass or grain fields, but no one is aware of them until they attack as one.

I was having nightmares. My mother would gently awaken me and soothe me back to sleep. She hid her own fears from me.

 

* * *

 

Gene is moved to Intensive Care. The nameplate outside his room says Mr. Mumsford, a pseudonym the nurses give him to protect his privacy. Gene does not want visitors.

 

As I enter the unit, I see that Gene is awake and alert. His head is swathed in white gauze. But when he lifts his head, I see a circle of scarlet on the bed linen as though a Japanese flag covers his pillow. He is speaking clearly and telephones his administrative assistant and the university’s president. I know he believes it’s important to demonstrate he survived surgery intact and lucid.

 

Our attention focuses on Gene’s healing. We’ve been positive throughout and we remain so. But the next morning Gene can’t speak coherently. He says things like, “My bland doesn’t jam. Where’s my gling?” The nurses call in a speech therapist who works with him and instructs me, “Talk in short sentences and use sign language to help him understand. It will reassure him. Don’t worry, this will pass.” I realize Gene’s thought processes are working normally—he just can’t express them.

 

It’s frightening to see this loss. What if he doesn’t regain his speech ability? What if he’s trapped inside his head with no way to communicate? How will he cope if this is permanent?

* * *

 

The armyworms continued to advance, drawing closer and closer. Armyworms have two natural enemies. If it rains for an extended period, a fungus begins to grow and destroys the caterpillars. Their other predator is a wasp that lays a parasitic egg on top of the worm that will consume the head and annihilate the vermin. But no fungus or wasps assault these creatures. They march on.

 

* * *

 

“There’s confusion regarding the data,” says Dr. Garland, my husband’s neurologist, as we meet in her office a week after surgery. She’s about forty with a mass of long curly hair. “Dr. Scanlon was not able to remove the entire tumor—only a pea-sized portion. The lesion is too deeply imbedded in the brain’s speech center. The tissue has been examined by five pathologists here at the University of Washington and one of the world’s experts at Johns Hopkins, but we can’t determine what it is or what caused it.”

 

“But it’s not cancer?” I ask.

 

“The tissue removed is not malignant.”

 

I note the qualification.

 

Gene and I sit there flustered by the new information. Our written list of questions is no longer relevant. Gene has already had a slew of tests: two MRIs, one CAT scan, a Doppler electrocardiogram, a spinal tap. Now Dr. Garland wants a transesophageal electrocardiogram. The doctors continue to search for answers. I wonder, with all these amazing diagnostic tools, why they can’t identify and pin down the nature of Gene’s tumor.

 

“The lesion might be inflammation of brain tissue, or focal encephalitis, or the result of a small stroke.” Dr. Garland says. “Focal encephalitis is rare, and the medications given during and after surgery would have cleared it. Your MRIs show no previous stroke activity, and it would be unusual for this episode to be the first to present. Let’s wait. Wait to see if the mass changes. But be sure to continue taking Deplin to prevent seizures.” Gene’s speech is again normal although he sometimes has trouble retrieving a word and turns to reading children’s books for a few weeks because he is not able to absorb adult literature. He returns to work and plays squash two weeks after surgery.

 

* * *

 

As far as I know, my father did not know about the short life cycle of armyworms or that they could be destroyed by natural enemies. I didn’t learn this until years later when I researched them on the Internet. All we knew then was that they were on the move, driving closer, now just two farms away.

 

One evening Daddy came home with a genuine smile on his face. “The armyworms are gone, disappeared!” It seemed like a miracle. We were spared the onslaught of these caterpillars that decimated crops as if they were General Sherman’s army marching through Georgia. We could hardly believe our good fortune.

 

* * *

 

Another MRI is scheduled for April, four months after surgery. I wish the invader gone. I visualize the mass retreating, getting smaller. I can’t stay with this image. I try not to think about the remaining lesion, but I can’t help myself. Is it growing? I imagine foreign tentacles tunneling into Gene’s brain. What will we do if it advances? I research inoperable brain tumors. The information is disturbing and might not be pertinent. I stop reading.

 

It is April. The next MRI is done. We wait for the results but can’t reach the doctors over spring break. We fret over the blackout. Two days after classes resume we get an email from Dr. Reston, Chair of Radiology.

 

Gene

 

Fantastic scan...your images look great. There are some changes from the biopsy...which is a bright signal...but they were there previously...and the enhancement is no longer present with the enhancement presence being the indicator of this being a neoplasm. Specifically, this does not have the appearance of a brain neoplasm given the lack of enhancement and stability. Makes sense to get followup scans as your doc would recommend but I could not be happier with the appearance of this scan.

 

Call me if you have any questions.

 

Best regards...



I read the email over and over again. I don’t understand. “Is it smaller or what?” I ask Gene when he comes home. Exasperated, he looks at me as though I’m dim and says, “It’s gone!”

 

Gene’s brain healed itself, cast out the intruder. It is as though we’re riding Class Four rapids and suddenly find ourselves in a pool of calm water.

 

We relax. We plan a trip to Houston to visit our two-year-old granddaughter, Sloane; another trip to Arlington, Virginia, to attend eight-year-old Madison’s first piano recital. We toast our thirtieth wedding anniversary with a glass of vintage champagne and consider ourselves lucky.

 

Over the next three years, Gene has four more seizures. One frightening episode occurs as he drives us home after appointments with our chiropractor. After six months with no seizures, Gene’s doctor had cleared him to drive and I didn’t object. I wanted him to have confidence in his healing. We’re on a side street headed toward State Route 99—a well-traveled route for commuters. It’s rush hour. He’s talking with me as we drive. As we approach the turnoff for 99, he doesn’t take the slight curve but heads into a median planted with ground cover. Startled, I turn to look at him. His face is in rictus, his arms extend straight in front of him, his hands gripping the steering wheel. I try to pull his foot off the gas pedal. His leg is rigid. I can’t budge it. I attempt to put my foot on the brake but I can’t reach it—the center console impedes me. I decide to put the car in park mode but end up in neutral. The engine roars. Startled, I shove the gearshift again. Now it’s in reverse and we drift back and I keep expecting a collision and I try to guide the car but Gene’s hands are still wrapped around the wheel and I don’t have much vision behind me and I do the best I can and we seem to be slowing down and we ease onto a grass strip, graze a high concrete wall, and come to a gentle stop. I look at Gene. The rictus is gone, his head is against the backrest, and he’s snoring. A pedestrian looks in the car while I’m attempting to crawl into the backseat because my passenger door is blocked. She asks if we’re all right, can she do anything for us, call 911. I don’t know why I can’t accept—I need help—but I say no. She looks at me with concern, but leaves. I get out of the car. My hands are shaking. I can barely hold my phone. Finally, I manage to call 911 and attempt to tell them where we are. Somehow they find us and take Gene to the UW emergency room. After asking the firemen if the car is safe to drive, I follow the ambulance to the hospital. The emergency-room doctor asks me how I managed to stop the car. I shake my head and say, “I don’t know,” but to be honest, I just don’t want to talk about it.

 

Gene is not aware that he’s had a seizure and he finds it difficult to comprehend his condition. I try to explain, the doctors try to explain, but he doesn’t take it in. One day he’s on a city bus coming home from work and a passenger seizes. It unnerves Gene. “It was terrible,” he says. “I wish I’d never seen it.” But I’m glad he witnessed it because I believe it will help him come to terms with reality.

 

He begins to tell people his problem was caused by stress—there was no tumor. I correct him, frustrated that he’s denying his condition. He ignores me. He tries to eliminate the anti-seizure drug, Deplin, and doesn’t tell me. He has a seizure. He waits a year and tries again. This time he seizes on a squash court, falls face down, and sustains injuries to his face: a cracked tooth, fractured bones in his face, lacerations above his eyebrow, a split lip that has to be stitched shut, and severe facial bruising. This physical evidence convinces him of the reality of his seizures. He accepts he will be on anti-seizure medication the rest of his life.

 

* * *

 

Eight years after the armyworm invasion, I left our Ohio farm for college. I never lived there again, but my parents stayed until my father’s death in 1980. There were no more armyworm invasions during their tenure. Now more than sixty years later, I still wonder if there was something we could have done. I know my father was talking with other farmers, but did he call the Columbiana County extension agent or consider contacting the Agriculture College at Ohio State University for information?

 

My curiosity leads me to the Internet for the latest information on armyworms. I expect they’ve since been wiped out, but I’m wrong. In 2016, armyworms from the Americas appeared in Africa. No one knows how they got there, perhaps carried by air currents or on imported fruit. Within two years almost all of Africa was affected.

 

Everything’s been tried. Insecticides. Natural remedies: tricogramma wasps, ladybugs, lacewing, minute pirate bugs, neem oil. Zambia deployed its air force to spray insecticides on their crops. It was ineffective. They lost 321,236 acres, mostly maize—a major food source. The armyworms worked their way through most of Africa and are now invading India.

 

In 2018, New England endured a huge armyworm infestation. Not only were crops wiped out, but luxurious lawns with tender green grasses were like dessert to these caterpillars. Time and science have not yielded a solution for combating armyworms.

 

* * *

 

It’s been fifteen years since Gene’s first seizure, ten years since his last one. We are approaching our ninth decade of life. We celebrate with a dinner of duck confit, a bottle of Chateau Margaux, and a luscious chocolate gateau on crème anglaise accompanied by glasses of ruby port. Gene fixes me with those blue of eyes of his, lifts his glass, and says, “Here’s to the astrologer’s prediction. She was right. We’re growing old together.”

 

Gene and I accept that we cannot remedy every challenge that comes our way and we acknowledge the inevitable changes aging brings. Our bodies don’t respond the way they used to—Gene has an arthritic knee, I have a heart pacemaker, we both pause when getting up from a chair to orient ourselves in space, our hearing diminishes.

 

Our brains slow down. We often search for words. . .

 

 

 

 

 

 

Susan Knox writes short stories and creative nonfictions and authored Financial Basics, A Money Management Guide for Students published by The Ohio State University Press, 2004, 2nd edition 2016. Her stories and essays have appeared in Blue Lyra Review, CALYX, The Forge, The MacGuffin, Zone 3, and elsewhere. She has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net. She and her husband live in Seattle, near the Pike Place Market where she shops most days for the evening meal.