6:20 AM. Mark comes in to see if I’m awake. I sit halfway up in bed and peer at him.
“Uh oh,” he says.
At this moment, my nose feels like a spigot. (Alternately, my nose feels like a cave where bats fly, tickling the roof with annoying flaps of their sharp-tipped, ink-black wings.) I reach for a kleenex. I’m feverish, and waking up is too, too much effort.
“Please,” I say, “wake me at 7:00 so I can call in.”
He shuts the door softly and returns at 7 AM. I crawl downstairs, steeped in the early onset misery of a good, solid, American cold; I make my calls and send my emails. I pop a benadryl and some naproxen, and I climb back upstairs. In the bathroom, I avoid my reflection. My hair points straight up; my face is a pudding. I look like a reject from the troll doll factory.
(“Throw that out!” shouts the foreman. “Too ugly!”
“Trolls dolls are SUPPOSED to be ugly,” a line worker shouts back.
“Not THIS kind of ugly,” says the foreman, grimly.)
No wonder Mark said, “Uh oh.” I crawl back into bed and sleep until noon.
I read once that more couples founder over the way they handle illness than over financial issues. Mark, the first born, was a sometimes frail, asthmatic kid whose mother worried about him–maybe even coddled him just a little bit when he didn’t feel well. (Mark’s dad used to say, “I told her, Pat! You’ve got four other kids, too!'”)
Mark’s image of sickness is of a tender, worried face and gentle, comforting hands dispensing soup, 7-Up, and sympathy.
My image of sickness is of my brisk little mother pulling the covers off my shivering carcass and pointing toward the door. If there was no blood, if there was no fever, I wasn’t sick. I was going to school.
My wan, weak, fake voice did not impress her.
“You’re not dying,” she’d say. “Stop talking like that.”
“SHIT,” I’d think, and head for the bathroom to try to make my germ-ridden self presentable. And usually she was right: enough dayquil down my gullet, enough hot, fresh coffee swallowed, and I felt human. No reason not to be at school, or work, or wherever it was I was supposed to be.
You internalize what you grow up with, one way or the other. And so the last thing I want, when I am really not feeling well, is someone hovering. Give me the medicine, a good book that I don’t have to think about too hard, and let me sleep. The one luxury I crave at those times is ginger ale, my mother’s answer to all illness. We never had soda pop, growing up; to have a true fever, to be entitled to a glass of ginger ale sparkling on the rocks, and a dish of vanilla ice cream–to hear my mother yell, “Don’t touch that! It’s for your sister! She’s SICK!”–was nirvana.
But once I have the drink, I don’t want the company. I want to savor the bubbly brew, read my book, and fall asleep until I felt better.
The first time Mark had the flu when we were married, I got him his 7-Up, cooked him an egg, gave him his medicine, and left him alone.
“You’re not exactly Florence Nightingale,” he said to me.
“You’re not exactly dying,” I retorted.
I sleep until noon on this Lenten Friday, look at the clock, and fall asleep again until almost 1:00. I go downstairs and fix myself a bowl of chunky sirloin burger soup, the only food that sounds tempting or palatable–meatless day be damned.
Jim, helpfully putting dishes in the dishwasher drops a bowl, which breaks smartly into big jagged chunks. There’s a silence. I can almost hear him thinking, “Oh, Lord. She’s sick and she’s going to be crabby.”
“Hey,” I say, sharply, trying for a gangster voice. “What uh yuh doin’? I never broke no dishes.”
“Huh?” says Jim; he smiles when in relief when he realizes I’m kidding.
I get the broom; we sweep up the shards and save big chunks of plaid ceramic for some vague outdoor mosaic project we might or might not do.
I eat my soup, put the bowl in the dishwasher, and rinse out the pan, which I leave in the sink. I take JR Moehringer’s The Tender Bar into the living, oust the dog from the reading chair, and fall asleep there for most of the afternoon.
My parents’ first child, my sister Sharon, was born before my father shipped out for World War II–sometime around 1941 or so. She died when he was in the Philippines. Sharon had some kind of meningitis/hydroenchephalitis, which of course my mother thought at first was a cold or the flu. But Sharon got sicker and sicker, and finally went into a hospital in Youngstown, Ohio, where my mother was staying with friends. Many, many years later, the doctors told my younger brother, Sean, that the records showed Sharon rallied. She played with my mother, whose heart must have leapt with relief.
And then Sharon fell asleep, and died.
We were a pretty hardy bunch growing up–although we played, collectively, a lot of outdoor games, rode bikes everywhere, and some of us climbed tall things when ever possible,– no one ever broke an arm or a leg. (I was not, compared with my brothers, even remotely a daredevil child, though I did love a good game of kickball or Red Rover.)
But we did, of course, get really sick, or really hurt, once in a great while. My brother John, for instance, banged up his leg playing high school football; he followed the traditional wisdom of walking it off, and came home and laid on the couch to watch TV. Within thirty minutes he was writhing in agony, and an ambulance came to take him to the hospital, to undergo emergency surgery for stubborn and dangerous blood clots.
When I was a junior, at one school day, I started a headache that aspirin wouldn’t touch. It grew worse and worse. It felt as though, if someone tapped my head, it would, like an over-ripe grape, explode. I didn’t have the wherewithal to go to the school nurse and ask to go home; I just trudged, head down, through the day, and then walked home.
There, my mother looked at me and sensed I was not faking (why would I save that kind of act until AFTER school, anyway?) She put me to bed in the downstairs bedroom and took my temperature. Then she disappeared.
I found out later she’d gone to the neighbor’s to call the doctor, not wanting to frighten me. My temp had soared to 105. I was hospitalized in seclusion until they determined I did NOT have meningitis, just a bad, scary virus.
When I was released and went home, I tried to milk a couple of extra sick days out of the experience.
“You’re not dying,” said my mother–the same thing she said to John when he came home from surgery.
Years later, I realized it was as much mantra as remonstrance. Not a huggy person, my mother, but a terrified one, nonetheless.
But today, of course, it’s just a pesky cold, an end-of-the-week inevitability: Mark was sick last week, Jim fell prey Monday; today, the nonchalant germs worked their lazy way to me. I enjoy the blank canvas of a day in which to sleep and read and savor a dish of rainbow sherbet. I think wryly that it’s too bad to have a cold and not truly appreciate that kind of luxury. I know, though, that if I wasn’t sick, my internal time-master would be marching me through a list of chores. I’d never let myself laze like this without the cold’s excuse.
At 5:00 I wander into the kitchen and take another dose of dayquil, and I check my phone and my email. I’m a little bit pluggy yet, just a little bit drippy, but the bats have settled down, and the spigot is almost closed. A day of rest was definitely in order.
I’ll let the boyos handle dinner; I’ll lounge tonight, watch TV, take a long luxurious soak in the tub. And I’ll get up in the morning and try to disguise any troll doll traces before I go off to work, and then to a meeting, and then come back home to weekend chores and projects and plans. The rare day off will have soothed and succored me; we’ll get the other dresser painted, maybe; rearrange the bedroom; touch up the yellow paint. Maybe, on Sunday, we’ll take a short road trip to Half Price Books to use the fifty percent off coupon that arrived like a shining surprise in yesterday’s mail.
The days following a little cold always offer such clear, haze-free relief, days in which I appreciate my mostly rude and ruddy health. I think of dear ones who don’t, right now, enjoy that advantage, and I send some prayers skyward. “Thanks, ” I think, “for the restful day, among all the many other gifts. And send Your blessings to–well, You know to whom to send ’em.”
Mark, dear soul, comes home with tuna helper and rainbow sherbet; we eat our Friday dinner, and then I take a bowl of sherbet into the living room and read some more of Moehringer’s fabulous prose.
And that’s just about enough leisure. I look forward to the morning.