A long hiatus deserves a great post. Here is part 1 of a story that I’ve worked and re-worked. I like it quite a bit, hopefully you do too. This one is a tad long; I’ll split it into 6 parts over the next week or so. Happy New Year!
Hooked on Halifax—April 2011
There are plenty of reasons to visit Canada. Maybe you want to ski in British Columbia, soaring through powdery snow on the slopes of Whistler, blue skies overhead. Maybe you want a taste of Europe, so you visit Quebec City and sip coffee in a sidewalk café while men in gray woolen scarves saunter past. Maybe you want to take the ferry to Grand Manan and go for a seaside bike ride—gulls cawing, waves crashing. I went to Halifax to help my older brother infect himself with hookworms.
It’s still cool when we leave Waterville, Maine, though it’s spring and the days have been slowly warming. The front yard still has a deep snow bank left over from the snowplow, but each day it shrinks. In the yard, birds wash themselves in the ever-growing puddle, and pick through the mud for earthworms and grubs that the melt has driven to the surface of the soil. We head north on the highway, foot heavy on the gas, moving smoothly between deserted lanes to take the inside on each swooping corner. Saturday mornings are empty even here, and the road grows emptier still as it progress north, then east, then south.
Nova Scotia, Halifax specifically, is not a place anyone would associate with hookworms. Hookworms aren’t normally associated with Canada at all. Cases are somewhat rare in most of the developed world, though they are still a problem in developing regions, especially parts of Africa and Asia. Most people see hookworm infections as a bad thing, and of course, there are innumerable negatives. However, there is a positive that’s alluring enough to many people, my brother Malcolm included, that they will voluntarily allow these miniscule creatures to enter their bodies and take up residence somewhere in the intestines. They are thought to be a cure to allergies and other autoimmune issues, including Crohn’s Disease and asthma.
When I first pictured the worms, I imagined a little, clear pill with dozens of wriggling bodies inside. I imagined my brother swallowing this pill and immediately ceasing any sniffling and wheezing. Malcolm has allergies, and they bother him to no end. They are not acute, and they are not generally food related. He sometimes claims to be lactose-intolerant, but I tend to think it’s just an unrelated stomachache. What he really has are a few airborne allergies that are quite common: dogs, cats, pollen, dust, wool. None are severe. Combined though, and over time, it’s become an annoyance that is difficult to solve.
Now we’re on Route 9, heading almost due east towards Calais and the border crossing. We see each other often, Malcolm and I, but don’t generally spend 20 hours together in a car over the course of a weekend. So we talk. Hookworms are a topic, as they must be. I wonder if he’s nervous, because I am myself. He says he’s not, so I don’t tell him I am, but I think we both know what the other is thinking. This trip is a not a carefree vacation—it feels serious in some way, and sometimes the air in the car feels solemn, but charged. I can’t remember how long it’s been since I heard about the worms on a This American Life podcast, but when I told Malcolm about the treatment a few days later, he immediately started researching. Initially I was suspicious; it sounds too easy, too surefire. The negatives must outweigh the positives, why else would we have eradicated them from North America? After months of e-mailing and numerous talks with doctors, Malcolm is convinced, and I am too. But I can’t help worry that something will go wrong, and if it does, is it my fault?