In Sickness and In Health


How do you get sick? Or, more specifically, how do you know the exact moment when IT has tapped you?

With me, the merest hint of a murky twilight flashes across my mind, and that’s when I know. It could be a sunny day, a rainy day, a nothing day, but when that mental twilight hits, I know I’ve been tapped.

I worked with some school children last week in a large, enclosed room for a couple of hours. Fourth graders are tricky– they’re so full of energy that a herd of them romping and chattering in a room might be easily taken as mass happiness, but I’d be willing that more than a few of them were experiencing a fever high. During the lesson, sporadic coughs and sneezes could be heard, followed by parents, students and Heritage people looking around surreptitiously: who was that?

I placed a handkerchief mentally over my mouth, and imagined Campho-Phenique spread over my nostrils. I told myself repeatedly: you never get sick. Sickness is an illusion. You are NOT going to get sick.

That was Friday.

By Saturday morning, I could sense that mental twilight approaching, but it was so far down the road that I thought I could stave it off. I felt fine; maybe it was just a warning of what COULD happen to someone so arrogant as me– someone who never gets sick.

By Saturday evening, twilight had descended. We were on our way home from a large party in Cocoa Beach and I was in the shotgun seat not only feeling its tapping on my shoulder, but feeling the clamp of its clenched wrist. I thought back to that merry Friday full of fourth graders, and I thought back to the party, where we hugged and laughed and talked loudly in one another’s faces as we ate things that we wouldn’t normally eat during the year: chocolate things encrusted with peanuts and goo, each one a meal in itself. Some people were very sweaty at that party; for once, I was rather cool and collected. I thought I’d be suave and enter with a red cotton sweater knotted jauntily across my shoulders (very Winter Park 1986) but that lasted about a minute. The sweater stayed draped over a chair back all evening, lonely.

By the time we got home, I knew that my bedroom companions that night were going to be Mr. Phlegm, Ms. Congestion and Chief Runny Nose. But I wasn’t sick.

Sunday I canceled everything, thinking I would lay in bed all day, supine, so as to allow my head to drain itself south. I read back issues of the New York Times Book Review, clipping articles about interesting books, and ate chicken noodle soup and swallowed Sudafed and DayQuil. I never get sick, but when I do I never experience a loss of energy; maybe I’m like those feverish fourth graders. I cleaned out old eMails, attended to eBay listings for work, and continued writing a history of Tildenville for a book. I drank plenty of fluids like orange juice and water, and sweated a lot– I think I probably drowned a lot of any other microbes that were trying to get in.

Monday I was still not sick– I never get sick– and so I plowed through more Book Reviews, slept a lot, and thought about getting up to put the living room together after we set up the tree early last week. But I didn’t.       I was energetic enough to get on Facebook and become annoyed– something that always raises my blood pressure– and so I went back to bed to read some more. You can really lose yourself in the Times book reviews; they are so erudite and intelligent, and not once did I come across the words “amazing” or “awesome.” Well, “amazing” once, but I think it was used ironically.

I’m a good patient when I’m not sick. I don’t demand anything, but I am brought cups of tea, and things as I ask for them: scissors; close-up reading glasses; orange juice; Kleenex; fresh socks; that book of Eastern European maps next to the Compton Atlas– no, not this one, the older one; the mail; those Christmas cards; my checkbook; my journal– please don’t look inside it; my inhaler.

And this morning I woke up about eight thirty feeling somewhat better– for someone who never gets sick, that is. Since I’d straightened the bedclothes the night before, they were still covering me neatly– I hadn’t spent the night tossing and sweating, which is always a good thing. My reviews were stacked neatly to my right on the bedside table, and I could hear Blueie cheeping happily across the house; sunlight peeked under the bedroom door. All was silent– I don’t sleep with my devices, naturally, and so I lay there under the neat covers and basked in the early morning silence. My mind, never at rest, switched into List Making mode and began lining up the things I wanted to do today. I still wasn’t going in to work, because I am always loath to infecting anyone, but there were the things I could continue to do at the iMac: the writing and the eBay.

And then the bedroom door opened, and a specter stood framed in the daylight: hunched, bedraggled, swathed in cotton flannel pajamas, it croaked at me: “I don’t feel good.”

Sheesh. Some people!