'The Sound Of A Snail': A Patient's Greatest Comfort Struggling with an illness that left her bedridden, Elisabeth Tova Bailey was surprised when her friend brought her a gift: a pot of flowers that also contained a wild snail. In a new memoir, Bailey describes how that nearly motionless mollusk became an unlikely companion.

'The Sound Of A Snail': A Patient's Greatest Comfort

'The Sound Of A Snail': A Patient's Greatest Comfort

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The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating
The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating
By Elisabeth Tova Bailey
Hardcover, 208 pages
Algonquin Books
List price: $13.99
Read An Excerpt

Though illness may rob us of vitality, sometimes it can also help bring us understanding -- albeit in improbable disguises.

Essayist and short story writer Elisabeth Tova Bailey was struck with a neurological disorder that left her too weak even to sit up. The illness forced her to stay in bed, where she felt life was slipping by, unused.

Things changed for Bailey when a friend brought her a gift: a pot of flowers that also contained a wild snail the friend had plucked from the ground. That nearly motionless mollusk became Bailey's companion -- almost her surrogate.

Bailey, who uses a pseudonym due to her illness, has written a memoir called The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating: A True Story.

"I really have to lead a very, very quiet life," she tells NPR's Scott Simon from her home in Maine. "I'm not somebody that ever wanted to write about myself or my illness."

What Bailey did want to do, though, was "write a sort of biographical thank you for the snail. And I also wanted to help other patients with my illness."

Though Bailey's illness is debilitating, it is not very visible, she says. Still, it's physically limiting: "extraordinarily difficult to live with -- and it's very unpredictable," she says. The illness is also difficult to define: "Depending on what specialist you go to, you can get a different diagnosis," she explains. Those possible diagnoses include dysautonomia, a mitochondrial disease, and chronic fatigue syndrome.

Despite the snail's tiny stature, Bailey says she found herself overwhelmed by the little creature when it first arrived: "I was a little bit perplexed," she says. "It felt like just one more thing that I couldn't deal with." After her friend left, Bailey found herself bed-ridden, with a small animal in her room "and no understanding of its life or how I would ever get it back to the woods where it came from."

Elisabeth Tova Bailey kept her snail in this glass terrarium. Deborah Smith hide caption

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Deborah Smith

Elisabeth Tova Bailey kept her snail in this glass terrarium.

Deborah Smith

But soon, Bailey found herself fascinated by the snail. Though she was too sick to watch television or read, the snail's minuscule movements were captivating. "I think sometimes about the Emily Dickinson poem about the fly on the windowsill," she says with a laugh -- the poem that begins, I heard a Fly buzz -- when I died ...

As the hours and days wore on, the snail emerged from its shell and started exploring its surroundings. "I began to see the pattern in its life," Bailey recalls. "And when you start to observe the patterns of another animal's life, I think you get to know that animal and feel connected."

Bailey was so ill that she could hardly tend to her own needs, let alone anyone else's. She could, however, care for the snail, feeding it petals from wilted flowers. "It gave me a feeling of being useful again," she says. Listening to the nocturnal snail munch on petals was comforting to Bailey when she was struggling with insomnia.

She also admired the pace at which the snail lived: "It moved at a speed that was actually faster than my own speed, and so it really was peaceful to watch it. It moved so smoothly and gently and gracefully, it was like a tai chi master."

Though not fully recovered, Bailey is moving a little faster these days, and says that "like most humans" she tries to do too much. "I think the functioning of humans is evolving to be faster and faster," she says.

Perhaps there's something to be said for moving at a snail's pace.

Excerpt: 'The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating'

The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating
The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating
By Elisabeth Tova Bailey
Hardcover, 208 pages
Algonquin Books
List price: $13.99

Viruses are embedded into the very fabric of all life.
-- Luis P. Villarreal, "The Living and Dead Chemical Called a Virus," 2005

From my hotel window I look over the deep glacial lake to the foothills and the Alps beyond. Twilight vanishes the hills into the mountains; then all is lost to the dark.

After breakfast, I wander the cobbled village streets. The frost is out of the ground, and huge bushes of rosemary bask fragrantly in the sun. I take a trail that meanders up the steep, wild hills past flocks of sheep. High on an outcrop, I lunch on bread and cheese. Late in the afternoon along the shore, I find ancient pieces of pottery, their edges smoothed by waves and time. I hear that a virulent flu is sweeping this small town.

A few days pass and then comes a delirious night. My dreams are disturbed by the comings and goings of ferries. Passengers call into the dark, startling me awake. Each time I fall back into sleep, the lake's watery sound pulls at me. Something is wrong with my body. Nothing feels right.

In the morning I am weak and can't think. Some of my muscles don't work. Time becomes strange. I get lost; the streets go in too many directions. The days drift past in confusion. I pack my suitcase, but for some reason it's impossible to lift. It seems to be stuck to the floor. Somehow I get to the airport. Seated next to me on the transatlantic flight is a sick surgeon; he sneezes and coughs continually. My rare, much-needed vacation has not gone as planned. I'll be okay; I just want to get home.

After a flight connection in Boston, I land at my small New England airport near midnight. In the parking lot, as I bend over to dig my car out of the snow, the shovel turns into a crutch that I use to push myself upright. I don't know how I get home. Arising the next morning, I immediately faint to the floor. Ten days of fever with a pounding headache. Emergency room visits. Lab tests. I am sicker than I have ever been. Childhood pneumonia, college mononucleosis -- those were nothing compared to this.

A few weeks later, resting on the couch, I spiral into a deep darkness, falling farther and farther away until I am impossibly distant. I cannot come back up; I cannot reach my body. Distant sound of an ambulance siren. Distant sound of doctors talking. My eyelids heavy as boulders. I try to open them to a slit, just for a few seconds, but they close against my will. All I can do is breathe.

The doctors will know how to fix me. They will stop this. I keep breathing. What if my breath stops? I need to sleep, but I am afraid to sleep. I try to watch over myself; if I go to sleep, I might never wake up again.

1. Field Violets
at my feetwhen did you get here?snail
-- Kobayashi Issa (1763 – 1828)

In early spring, a friend went for a walk in the woods and, glancing down at the path, saw a snail. Picking it up, she held it gingerly in the palm of her hand and carried it back toward the studio where I was convalescing. She noticed some field violets on the edge of the lawn. Finding a trowel, she dug a few up, then planted them in a terracotta pot and placed the snail beneath their leaves. She brought the pot into the studio and put it by my bedside.

"I found a snail in the woods. I brought it back and it's right here beneath the violets."

"You did? Why did you bring it in?"

"I don't know. I thought you might enjoy it."

"Is it alive?"

She picked up the brown acorn-sized shell and looked at it. "I think it is."

Why, I wondered, would I enjoy a snail? What on earth would I do with it? I couldn't get out of bed to return it to the woods. It was not of much interest, and if it was alive, the responsibility -- especially for a snail, something so uncalled for -- was overwhelming.

My friend hugged me, said good-bye, and drove off.

At age thirty-four, on a brief trip to Europe, I was felled by a mysterious viral or bacterial pathogen, resulting in severe neurological symptoms. I had thought I was indestructible. But I wasn't. If anything did go wrong, I figured modern medicine would fix me. But it didn't. Medical specialists at several major clinics couldn't diagnose the infectious culprit. I was in and out of the hospital for months, and the complications were life threatening. An experimental drug that became available stabilized my condition, though it would be several grueling years to a partial recovery and a return to work. My doctors said the illness was behind me, and I wanted to believe them. I was ecstatic to have most of my life back.

But out of the blue came a series of insidious relapses, and once again, I was bedridden. Further, more sophisticated testing showed that the mitochondria in my cells no longer functioned correctly and there was damage to my autonomic nervous system; all functions not consciously directed, including heart rate, blood pressure, and digestion, had gone haywire. The drug that had previously helped now caused dangerous side effects; it would soon be removed from the market.

When the body is rendered useless, the mind still runs like a bloodhound along well-worn trails of neurons, tracking the echoing questions: the confused family of whys, whats, and whens and their impossibly distant kin how. The search is exhaustive; the answers, elusive. Sometimes my mind went blank and listless; at other times it was flooded with storms of thought, unspeakable sadness, and intolerable loss.

Given the ease with which health infuses life with meaning and purpose, it is shocking how swiftly illness steals away those certainties. It was all I could do to get through each moment, and each moment felt like an endless hour, yet days slipped silently past. Time unused and only endured still vanishes, as if time itself is starving, and each day is swallowed whole, leaving no crumbs, no memory, no trace at all.

I had been moved to a studio apartment where I could receive the care I needed. My own farmhouse, some fifty miles away, was closed up. I did not know if or when I'd ever make it home again. For now, my only way back was to close my eyes and remember. I could see the early spring there, the purple field violets -- like those at my bedside -- running rampant through the yard. And the fragrant small pink violets that I had planted in the little woodland garden to the north of my house -- they, too, would be in bloom. Though not usually hardy this far north, somehow they survived. In my mind I could smell their sweetness.

Before my illness, my dog, Brandy, and I had often wandered the acres of forest that stretched beyond the house to a hidden, mountain-fed brook. The brook's song of weather and season followed us as we crisscrossed its channel over partially submerged boulders. On the trail home, in the boggiest of spots, perched on tiny islands of root and moss, I found diminutive wild white violets, their throats faintly striped with purple.

These field violets in the pot at my bedside were fresh and full of life, unlike the usual cut flowers brought by other friends. Those lasted just a few days, leaving murky, odoriferous vase water. In my twenties I had earned my living as a gardener, so I was glad to have this bit of garden right by my bed. I could even water the violets with my drinking glass.

But what about this snail? What would I do with it? As tiny as it was, it had been going about its day when it was picked up. What right did my friend and I have to disrupt its life? Though I couldn't imagine what kind of life a snail might lead.

I didn't remember ever having noticed any snails on my countless hikes in the woods. Perhaps, I thought, looking at the nondescript brown creature, it was precisely because they were so inconspicuous. For the rest of the day the snail stayed inside its shell, and I was too worn out from my friend's visit to give it another thought.

Excerpted from The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating by Elisabeth Tova Bailey. Copyright 2010 by Elisabeth Tova Bailey. Excerpted by permission of Algonquin Books.