My husband loves to eat, so when he told me Thursday night that he didn’t really feel like any dinner, warning bells started ringing in my head. Sure enough, when I walked in the door after choir rehearsal he was stretched out on the reclining sofa, shivering like a leaf, despite being wrapped from head to toe in blankets and running the space heater full blast.
“I’m really sick,” he mumbled.
He really was.
He still is, actually, three days later. We’ve always called it “stomach flu”, but now there’s a fancier name for it – norovirus. Whatever you name it, it’s one nasty piece of work. So I’ve been home playing nurse all weekend, and washing my hands like a mad woman in hopes of staving off this very contagious ailment.
Oddly enough, Sickness and Christmas actually go hand in hand in my memories. When I was a child, I was nearly always sick at Christmas time. Outwardly, I was the picture of health, but a combination of upper respiratory allergy and asthma invariably flared up around the holidays – whether it was the first damp chill of winter, the dry heat of our furnace, or the excitement and increased activity surrounding the season, I was usually coughing and wheezing by Christmas day, often spending Christmas Eve night sitting up with the vaporizer running, and slathered in Vicks VapoRub, the remedy of choice in those days for opening up my clogged airways.
I didn’t mind it so much – everyone made a fuss over me and I was pampered even more than usual. My grandmother would buy me lots of new books, because reading seemed to comfort me while I sat up at night, unable to catch my breath. My mother hovered over me, keeping her eagle eye trained for the slightest paleness in my complexion or the tiniest glimmer of fever in my eyes, listening intently to the sound of each breath, alert for the garbled rattle that indicated my bronchial tubes were clogged with mucous.
What I did mind was missing the big family Christmas party, and I missed it on more than one occasion. On my father’s side of the family, I had four uncles and one aunt, who between them had produced over a dozen cousins to play with. There were big family gatherings each year at Christmas, and I looked forward to these occasions with a combination of eager anticipation and horror that was particular, I think, to the only child.
My father would go to the party anyway, leaving me home in the more than capable care of my mother and grandparents. One year he was headed out the door, and I overheard an angry exchange of words between he and my mother, a rare occurrence in our house.
“I think you’re just using her as an excuse not to go, because you don’t want to be around my family,” he said.
“That’s not true, and you know it,” my mother replied. “She cannot be around all those people, half of them smoking, and most of the kids sick with colds. Do you want her to get pneumonia?”
“Of course not,” my father sighed. “I just want her to have some fun for a change.”
Although I was no more than 8 years old, I was troubled by this exchange. Obviously, I was concerned about being a point of contention between my parents. I was also surprised at the insinuation that my mother didn’t care for my dad’s big family – how could you not like them? Not like Uncle Bill, always smiling and joking, carrying around a neat square shaped glass that always clinked with ice cubes and contained a silvery looking drink with a slice of lime stuck in it? Then there was Aunt Marge, so beautiful and stylish in her designer clothes, her thick black hair perfectly styled, her makeup astutely applied. Then there were my cousins Lynn and Karen, girls my own age who had amazing adventures as majorettes and actresses in school plays – what wasn’t to like?
But even more disturbing was my father’s concern that I have some fun. I was deeply puzzled by this – what was I doing (or not doing) that should bring more fun to my life? Staying home and reading my books, or curling up with my grandparents and watching Gunsmoke or Bonanza on television – that was fun, wasn’t it? I didn’t mind putting on my pajamas early and getting into bed surrounded by a menagerie of stuffed animals while my mother lay beside me and read aloud – that was fun too.
Looking back, I think what my father was wishing for me was a more normal life, one where I was less a rarefied flower and more of a playful little girl. I suspect he sensed that somewhere in my nature was a person who liked other people, who enjoyed a bit of excitement and gaiety, who could joke and laugh and tease her younger cousins, maybe even run around the basement or roughouse on the floor.
My somewhat sickly childhood prevented me from doing those things, and I admit that my mother encouraged me to languish rather than push myself toward recovery. With the perspective of years, I also believe there was some truth in my dad’s original assertion – she didn’t enjoy the party atmosphere, the big family, the noise and confusion. A quiet only child like me, she preferred being home in the quiet and safety of her familiar surroundings.
I’m been kicked into caregiver mode this weekend, and I see myself responding in familiar ways, eager to do anything I can to relieve the discomfort, trying to find ways to make it better, observing vigilantly for signs of improvement. I’m still planning to attend a concert tonight, although I can faintly hear a little voice nagging me to stay home and keep an eye on Jim. But he’s up and around now, eating small amounts of food – he assures me he’ll be fine for a couple of hours.
It’s been a long weekend – and I think it’s all right if I have a little fun for a change.