The headache came first. On a Saturday afternoon, as innocent as a Cure song.
By Sunday I’m woozy. “Monday’s blue. Tuesday’s gray and Wednesday too. Thursday, I don’t care about you. It’s Friday, I’m in love.”
OK, but back to Wednesday.
By this point I had shut down almost entirely.
I had a full-on head cold, or probably the flu because it was complete with fever, nausea and exaltations to the Goddess that I would never do anything bad again if only my nose would drain itself of this hot gold mucus and allow me to breathe like a real person again.
This was the first time my husband of exactly one and a half months saw me so sick for such an extended period of time.
Though we lived together before being betrothed, it had never been during a bout of ol’ influenza.
During those illnesses of yesteryear, we’d typically give each other a middle-school-slow-dance-distance hug, a warm bowl of soup, and a shout to “Call if you need anything” on the way quickly out the door to our own, not-gross apartment.
It didn’t bother me that he was seeing me so absolutely unappealing. We’d seen each other at our most vulnerable long ago.
In fact, the scariest part about getting married wasn’t the wedding night or committing to each other for life, it was trusting one another with our money. Sharing bank accounts is the modern girl’s virginity, after all.
“Will you still love meeee tomoooooorrow – because today I spent way too much at Macy’s-there was a really good sale tho and we should go back asap because coats are eighty percent off.”
That’s how that song would go if it were written in 2017.
But here we were: Me sick, him catching it, and us together … living our “In sickness and in health” vow IRL. I really thought we had nothing left to learn about each other.
For example, I learned that it’s possible for me to smell his stanky dried saliva on a shared pillow and not bitch about it once, and instead just roll over, mentally adding “wash sheets” to our to-do list.
I also learned that as I tend to skew into helpless whiny adult-baby territory when I don’t feel good, he turns into a no-nonsense Polish grandmother who loves me but is … whatever is Polish for “completely sick of my shit.”
The more I refused to help myself, the more he helped but also gave me lectures. While gently covering my burnt-out nose and chapped lips with Vaseline, for example, he gave a long-winded speech about not putting dirty tissues on the nightstand like I had been doing.
I stared back in awe that one person could have so much air in their lungs!
I also thought I had nothing else to learn about myself. But this infection was a monster and a scholar, ready to teach my sorry ass.
So, I work from home as a copywriter and I had an important client presentation to make via phone call on Thursday. At this point I was on the upswing but still ticking by at only about 70 percent.
Though I felt capable of faking coherency, I had been bequeathed a new sickness gift: A voice that was nearly gone.
When I dialed into my team line before we called the client, I managed to croak out a wimpy “Hello.”
My teammates on the other line burst into laughter. A loving laughter, at how pathetic I sounded and how they thought I should just go back to bed, but laughter no less.
I laughed too but told them I was going to go on mute and just jump in if there was a client question only I could answer.
Something inside my head—and not just the mucus buildup—made me feel like my scratchy, nearly nonexistent voice made me appear weak, not good enough, and that embarrassed me.
Hmm… Where did that come from?
Luckily, when you’re sick, you have a lot of time to think about things like this. Because while the Goddess giveth you DayQuil, she taketh your ability to sleep on command.
After the call ended and I had crawled back to my bed, I laid there and thought about this perceived weakness and my subconscious desire to not let anyone hear me that way.
Again, where did that come from?
I decided to start with my childhood. Because this is where all weird subconscious adult insecurities take root.
I remembered having sore and strep throat a lot.
Then there was the unfortunate bout of frequent yeast infections until we discovered I was allergic to the bubblegum scented, red-dye body wash we were using.
I remembered pretending to get sick from the fumes of 409 when it was time for chores and I didn’t want to work.
I remembered Grease. Yes, I associate sickness with Danny Zuko and, my favorite pink lady, Rizzo.
As we were not yet owners of cable, I spent my days home from school in the ‘90s watching Grease on repeat.
“Won’t go to bed ‘till I’m legally wed! I can’t! I’m Sandra Deeeee!”
Who knew going to bed meant having sex? Not I, said the child singing it.
I just thought she was willing to forgo sleep to find a suitor. Like a real idiot.
Following the lead of my boo, Rizzo, I never liked Sandy that much. Nothing in her character resonated with me. She was indeed too pure to be pink. She was too pretty. She was too sweet.
Too sweet… too sweet… Oh my god, bingo!
Like a T-Bird outta hell, the following memory landed on me:
It’s third grade and time for the Christmas musical. Grades 1-3 do a musical together, which means I’m considered an “older kid” and can try out for a lead role!
I get it.
I practice my butt off at school and at home, learning my lines, putting together my costume using my dad’s old robe and knock-off Birkenstocks, a raggedy brown towel draped over my head and tied on with baling twine from my dad’s farm.
Most of all though, I practice my one vocal solo.
My singing voice is pretty average now and it was pretty average in third grade. Here was my solo part. I still remember it:
“Sometimes I wish that I could be. Somebody else instead of me. A person who is quiet and sweeeeeet. To be like that would sure be neat.”
If I’d been assigned to sing this verse as a teen, my paranoid rage would have led me to believe someone was trying to tell me something. I’ve never been accused of being quiet. And being sweet is a nice goal but it’s not exactly something that comes naturally to me.
Sometimes you gotta tell a motherfucker that dirty tissues can go anywhere you damn well please when your head feels like it’s in a vice, OK?
It’s the day of dress rehearsals and we’re performing our musical in front of the WHOLE SCHOOL, which means the all-powerful fourth, fifth and sixth graders will be watching from the bleachers.
I’m. So. Nervous. And on top of my nerves I have, you guessed it, a sore throat. And my voice is almost gone.
Here’s what I remember. Squirming my way through the whole show, bravely speaking into the mic even as my voice uncontrollably spat and sizzled.
My 9-year-old-self made every valiant effort to add inflection and drama and intrigue but I mostly sounded like a mouse on acid. I can remember so badly wanting to prove myself worthy of this part.
I thought I was doing OK. But then I had to sing.
And there, swimming in my dad’s weird brown throwaways, I sang. My nasally voice cracking the whole way:
“A person who is quiet and sweeEEeEEeEeet. To be like that would sure be nEEEeeEeat.”
As I recall this, I can see as clear and as bright as Christmas Eve’s come-to-Jesus star, the entire sixth-grade class whispering about and laughing at me.
Do you ever have memories of Those Moments where you wish you could DeLorean back in time and just give your little self a big hug and whisper:
“It’s totally cool, bitch. I got you. We’re gonna be SO fucking happy someday. Fuck them.”
Yeah. This is one of my Those Moments.
My older sister takes a seat next to me on the bus home that day after school. She’s in fifth grade and doesn’t sit by me normally, so it’s nice to have her there by my side.
She tells me I did great, and I shouldn’t worry about those kids laughing at me. After all, didn’t I notice who was making fun of me the most?
I cringe. No. I was trying not to look.
“It was Hillary’s sister,” she says matter-of-factly. “You know, Hillary, the girl in your class that you beat out for the lead part. They just think they’re special because their mom is a professional singer and they think singing is all that matters and it isn’t.”
Then she changed the subject and rode by my side the rest of the way home.
I wake up from my reverie and turn over to see my new family member, my person who has taken the place of my sister and now rides shotgun in my daily life. My Polish grandmother husband, now sick with whatever I gave him.
In that moment, it’s Friday. I’m in love. And I throw up a shout-out to the Goddess for giving me such good people throughout my whole life. I’d give them all my money, my flu, my voice. I’d give them anything, everything.
And, in that moment, I feel better already.