Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Friday, September 5, 2008

Come on get down with the sickness

I've been battling a cold/general suckiness for a few days. I finally gave up and took some cold medicine, but since I: a) have nothing but drowsy-making stuff and b) waited until it got so bad I didn't care and took it anyway, I'm really struggling now to maintain a modicum of competence and non-idiocy. (Cold meds affect me like a tranquilizer dart would affect a normal person.) So I hpoe you'll all excuse any missssssssssspellings and forgvie me if I seem out of.


Aaand we're back. Sort of.

I was going to finish a list-type essay dedicated to my husband (who is freaking out about his upcoming 29th birthday; apparently 29 is the new 30, which is the new 70), but I'm stuck about halfway through. Until my neurons fire up once again, please accept this illness-themed story in its place.

When I was a few days shy of eight years old, to celebrate the end of school, my mother took my brother, my sister and I to Fiesta Mall.

(For any Arizonans who might remember, this was back when the neighborhood of Fiesta Mall and the vicinity was considered semi-upscale, at least by us. I once went, hold onto your hats, all the way to the top (sixteen stories!) of the neighboring Bank of America building. These were indeed happening times.)

The outing was doomed. As we walked across approximately fifty-seven miles of boiling-hot parking lot toward the mall entrance, either the heat or the long day or a heretofore undetected bug got the best of me. I staggered to the nearest curbed-off island of gravel and oleanders (this is considered fancy landscaping in these parts) and abruptly emptied the contents of my stomach into the rocks.

My mom was mildly concerned about this, and asked if I was OK. I told her I felt better, but thirsty. Needless to say, she wasn't overly eager to bring a potential vomit-time-bomb into the mall, so we piled back in the car and headed home. During the trip I whined, no less than four and a half billion times, that I was really really thirsty.

When we arrived home my mom gave me a glass of water.

"Sip it," she advised. "Sip! Slowly!" she repeated as I gulped it.

"But I'm sooooo thirsty," I whined in a cracked whisper, in the tones of someone who is moments from death by dehydration -- for I knew this clearly to be the case, however ignorant my mother was of the fact.

"You just threw up. Sip. Slowly. Slowly!"

I gulped it. Naturally.

Approximately thirty seconds later, I beat it down the hall for a very urgent appointment with the toilet, vaguely wishing I'd had knee pads for my crash-landing.

My mom, of course, showed the proper amount of sympathy -- or rather, she displayed what she deemed the proper amount of sympathy. Here is how she showed just how very concerned she was: While I was in the bathroom, presenting my copious offering to the porcelain god, she walked in with a purposeful stride and a gallon jug full to the brim with water.

"Here," she said, plopping the jug on the bathroom counter with such enthusiasm that its plastic sides bowed and rippled, and had it not been securely capped, its contents would have fountained upward in eerie synchronization with the contents of my stomach.

"Here," she repeated. "Drink up. Drink all you want."

(My mom claims not to remember this, but says she believes it, as it sounds just like something she'd do, and just like something I would have done.)

With that, she turned on her heel and left again with my brother and sister. I assume now that either a) they only retired to the living room, front yard, or swimming pool; or b) she arranged for proper supervision before departing, but I was too busy feeling sorry for myself and entertaining notions of witch-mothers abandoning their dying progeny to notice which of these scenarios actually took place.

Miraculously, I survived.

But here's the thing: I think she was exactly right.

My mom was pretty consistent in this attitude -- she showed considerable concern if anything was really wrong with any of us; say, the time I broke my arm so that my wrist neighbored my elbow, or the time my sister went careening down a tree and slashed her thigh open, or the time my brother came down with some disease, which remained mysterious in nature or origin but which left him bearing a striking resemblance to Jeff Golblum's character in The Fly, mid-transformation -- but unless there was something really wrong, in her view, there was nothing really wrong.

What constituted sick and/or injured, and garnered a modicum of sympathy, in my mom's view:
  • Blood spurting so copiously that you resembled some sort of festive lawn sprinkler.
  • A broken, severed, or severely cut body part. (Where "severely cut" is defined as "laceration twelve or more feet in depth and two or more miles in length.")
  • Any body part actively on fire.
  • Simultaneous vomiting and explosive diarrhea (providing you make it to the bathroom; if you didn't even death throes wouldn't save you).
  • A fever exceeding two hundred degrees.

Of course, if we had a real illness, one that could be infectious, she'd keep us home from school. But "real illness" was defined as "something more serious than the common cold, with demonstrable symptoms, that was not brought about by the sufferer's own stupidity."

To her own credit, my mom applies these standards to herself with even more stringent adherence than she uses on anyone else. She recently got out of the hospital, where she spent a month in what would have been a completely incapacitated state for any normal human (not just laid up, but laid flat-out, wiped out, bodily rebellion). But my mom is not any normal human. She wrote thank-yous, kept in touch with just about everyone, made sure things were running smoothly at work in her absence, and actually made an effort (and succeeded) to entertain my sister, my brother and I when we visited, so that it felt more like an afternoon chatting on the couch than an afternoon in a hospital room.

My mom, incidentally, will deny that it was a big deal: Some garbage about how she didn't write that many thank-yous; or that she only checked on work, didn't really do much; or that we were the ones going to the effort during visits. She lies. She's amazing.

She's always been like this, at least for my entire life. It was about more than just her high standards for herself, though she has that in spades. And it was about more than just her disinclination to allow us to skip school, though there certainly was that.

Because of my mom, I've tried to apply the same standards to myself for years. I woke up today with -- in addition to a burgeoning cold -- a migraine and, er, bathroom problems, and went about my day, as much as I wanted to melt into nothing. I also apply them to my family. This isn't always always a popular policy; just ask my husband ("So your blood sugar's low. Here. Sugar. Eat."), or my son. ("You still have to brush your teeth, clean your room and pick up your dirty socks, no matter what aches.") My heart is full of nothing but mushy, cheesy emotion for my son. It's where I keep the squeaky clean language and knowledge of cartoons, where I store comforting songs and tricks for making it feel better. It's covered in crayon-written messages and drawings of dinosaurs and hearts. Big googly-eyed turtles hold the whole mess directly against my heart with the strongest of magnets. But my mama, as you might guess, didn't raise no fool.

For instance, my son wanted to say up late last night. He is evidently of the opinion that we hold secret nightly parties as soon as he closes his eyes. One of fastest ways into my sympathies, the little sucker has figured out, is to have something wrong with him. And sympathy takes time, and time means later bedtime. So he played pathetic.

"Moooom, I have a sniffly nose. And I feel funny ("Funny" turned out to be "tired" when I asked him to describe it. Tired at bedtime. Go figure.) And, I have a leg ache, and my feet itch."

"Do you have a gash, a rash and purple bumps?"


"Nothing. You're fine. Bedtime."

But it wasn't until recently that I figured out what I like best about my mom's philosophy: It's a whole outlook on life, an all-encompassing; straightforward; no-bullshit-taking approach to everything. My son might occasionally try to play sick for sympathy, but his heart isn't really in it. Being well is so much more fun. And sickness, well, that's just life. I took him with me to visit my mom in the hospital. She had managed to procure a second hospital gown to layer over the first and so was afforded some small amount of dignity, but otherwise was as you'd expect: wires, tubes, IVs, beeping stuff, blinking lights and digital readouts, the hatrack-looking thing that all the bags and tubes hang from.

"Oh," a friend comented when I told her later about the trip. "Wasn't he scared?"

"No, it's fine now. My mom'll be in there for a little while longer, but she'll be fine. David knows that."

"I mean all the hospital stuff. Wasn't he scared of all that?" (She pronounced hospital stuff the way you might pronounce leprosy lesions.)

"Nah. We explained it all ahead of time. He had a great time."

"Are you kidding?"


"'A great time?' You are joking, right?"

"Uh, actually, no. After talking to her for a minute, he wanted to know about all the stuff attached to her."

"So he was scared."

"No, he thought it was cool."

She didn't believe me. But it's true. He was fascinated. We must've heard about a billion times: "What's this one, Grandma? What does this one do? So if that's the reading for this, then this one must be..." He was enthralled.

That's the thing. Sickness, even death, is just a part of life. Some parts totally suck and are to be avoided at all costs. But almost all of it is fascinating. Welcome to the reigning philosophy in our family. Intravenous anything? Fascinating. Vomit? Enthralling, at least up to the age of ten or so. Viruses, bacteria, childbirth, disease progression, emergency medicine shows at dinner? Sign us up. Just make sure we don't miss the part with compound fracture.

Also, I realized the other cool part of the no-acting-pathetic rule as I watched a child play with my son on the playground. This child is sometimes, but not always, in a wheelchair. I don't know his exact deal, injury or disease or what, if it's permanent or not, but I do know from the mother herself that his only impediment is that he sometimes has a little trouble using his legs. But because of this, she babies him every waking moment. She opens his food, does his homework, comes on all the field trips (but only to follow him around and get him special treatment), cries foul if he ever gets in trouble, pre-chews his food ... you get the idea. (OK, I made that last one up. The rest are from direct, annoying obsesrvation, though.)

This child was coming off the playground, quite happily and ably, to start the school day the other day, and his mom rushed over as if he were on fire. "Oh, poor baby. Do your legs hurt? Here. Let me help you." With this, she carried him down the sidewalk baby-talking all the way. He looked absolutely miserable. (Disclaimer: I know I'm talking out of my ass about children in wheelchairs, as mine isn't. Still, I think I can confidently say she does this boy no favors, and would be the same way were her son running marathons. Take my bloviating with a grain of salt, of course.)

My son, on the other hand, had to make his own darn way through the crowd to say goodbye, despite being knocked down by another child en route. And he was overjoyed to come to me. (Disclaimer 2: I made sure he was OK, though he didn't see me checking on him.)

Life goes on. And life is infinitely cooler than the miniature not-so-miniature roadblocks we encounter. And if my mother was a wicked witch, I certainly hope I've inherited the tendency.

He already knows he'd better make it to the bathroom no matter how sick he is, so I'd say we're on the right track.