‘Tis the season of the welfie, that selfie hybrid where you take a photo of yourself working out at the gym. Admittedly, all the wave of welfies at the start of the year pushed me into a frenzy of yoga stretches, old ballet moves, pre-dinner brisk walking, and swimming in Gabby’s old tri-suits in frigid 6 AM pool water. It was, in Stingo’s words, a kind of “small-scale madness”. Well the photo above is not a welfie. I am not working out. In it I am gaunt and sleepless. I am not well. Something happened to us.
We’re at my parents’ for the summer, and we recently took another trip together to visit my ailing uncle and our extended family. We took the fast ferry, we sat by the sea, we sang, we laughed. We were happy. And then we came home and then boom. We all fell ill.
First my Dad got sick. He had a cold and this incessant cough. And he had body pain that made him walk funny. And he wouldn’t eat. Because of his heart we worry about pneumonia so we brought him for tests and an X-ray. No findings. Nothing remarkable. That was a good thing. But then I got sick, and then Mom got sick. And to my horror, and at the height of my illness, I stared at the languid eyes of my kids as their bodies began to burn with fever.
It was viral, but we’ve had viral before. We’ve had viral many times. I’ve nursed Gabby and the kids through some pretty bad bugs. But this was something else. The first two days we had what felt like a bad sinus infection, and the cough that got deeper and took your breath away. But these were nothing compared to the body pain, which for the next three days became steadily worse.
Pain in my face, the back of my head. Pain between my fingers, and on the soles of my feet. On the small of my back. My calves. My collar bone. My wrists. All of my arms. My teeth. Before it hit me I thought, Dad is walking funny. Why is he doing that. Why does his hand shake when he lifts his spoon. Why does he pause too long. Why doesn’t he eat for goodness sake (my parents are diabetic). But I knew nothing until I knew the pain myself. And then everything Dad did made sense.
One night I woke up because the ibuprofen was wearing off and I felt a chill. The kids were sleeping but their fevers were rising again and I had to bring them down. I needed to go to the bathroom but I thought I saw someone in there. It was three in the morning, was I seeing things? Was it the medicine? The bug? My mom dreamt of old boats. They always give her a bad feeling. I dreamt of tornadoes and hail.
So I thought I saw someone in there. A woman who looked like me but wasn’t me. I saw the back of her head. Dark hair so striking in my bathroom’s white light. Sorry lady, if you’re trying to be creepy I’m too sick to care. I made it to the bathroom, I think I crawled there. I stayed there a while because I didn’t know what else to do, and the white light made it feel like a hospital. You get better in hospitals. I was pausing too long. The air conditioning outside murmured like a girl with a secret.
When Gabby came to visit we were all still so sick. It was the weekend of our 8th anniversary and we owed each other a big date. We planned to have dinner at this Lebanese restaurant, but we had none of that. How he managed to dodge this bug cements his status as my impermeable rock. Caroline seems to have inherited her father’s constitution. She was felled the least by this illness and didn’t need the antibiotics that we all eventually took.
Jamon with his asthma was another story, and on day 5 of his fever I was feeling desperate. I told Gabby I wanted to retreat to a hospital with our son. I felt like such a wimp, like a “human train wreck”. I cried please please I can’t do this anymore. Please believe me. Jamon woke up and saw my swollen eyes and promptly panicked. “Mommy, I don’t want to die,” he said out of nowhere. WHAT. I vowed never to lose it in front of my kids. But this was a faceless, relentless, insidious enemy and I was scared. No, no, you’re not going to die! I told him with a fake smile.
Certainly, there are worse things in the world than a family being sick together. There are far worse things than the flu. But thousands of people die of it every year. My son thought he was going to die. We all thought we were going to die. I think you know that does things to you.
By the third week we were picking up the pieces. But very slowly. Jamon’s fever lasted six days and his breathing had become irregular so we had to nebulize and put him on a week-long course of antibiotics. After the trademark bone-crushing-hit-by-a-truck-you-will-be-wiped-out pain of this bug, came days of paralyzing tiredness. I still had no appetite, I didn’t even crave my usual morning coffee which never happens. Never mind that there’s pretty awesome coffee in my Mom’s house, just the thought of it made my stomach turn. I was a joyless zombie, so very tired, I couldn’t even make a fist.
One by one we started to heal. Caroline first, then Dad, then Mom, then Jamon. This time it took a while for me to feel like my old self again. Right before Mother’s Day I held a steamy mug of coffee in my hands and it felt familiar. Also, the kids and I have been getting up early to catch the sun, horrific when we were sick, now it feels healing. Warming our tired bones. I look around Mom’s garden and I’m suddenly emotional.
I don’t have any welfies to show right now, only selfies. And sometimes I take selfies after something’s happened. I keep them to myself in a secret folder so I might look at them again and be reminded of what happened, how I felt, and how it came to pass.
Funny how something as random as the flu can turn your world around. I am not the same. I’m thinking about what I sometimes take for granted. Feeling well. Good doctors. Medicine. The means to buy medicine. Access to good medical care. Coffee. Flowers. The Sun. Air conditioning. Blankets. A good pillow. The rain. The sound of birds in the morning. Cell phones. The internet. Food. Water. Friends. Anniversaries. Parents. Children. Hope. Prayers. Praying. Courage. And freedom.
This was an upheaval. And as it came to an end, bittersweet memories of when I was sick with measles as a child came rushing back. Another kid in our neighborhood died from complications. So for more than a week, I was holed up with my Mom in the embracing darkness of my parents’ bedroom. Mom never left me and if she cried I never knew it. When it was over and I was allowed to walk outside my grandmother was waiting for me. She and Mom smiled quietly at each other. Those unforgettable expressions mothers have of enormous relief and fragile joy. I walked gingerly, like I had forgotten how to walk. They followed me as I walked to the balcony of my childhood. As I stared at a stone wall in my grandmother’s garden covered with ivy and moss. I stared like I had never seen it before. I was not the same. It was noon, and the sun fell on the wall like light on an emerald. I stood there, and they stood with me, one on each side. And I remember exactly what I said. It’s so bright.
Everything is so bright.