I write this on a mini-break, a two-day respite that by chance became three.
I was fine for most of Monday. Coherent. Alert. Nothing seemed amiss. But when I went to bed that night, my cursed body attacked. It became the fabled porridge, simultaneously too hot and too cold, a sheet of shivering sweat as floodgates opened to anonymous pestilence.
I felt better at around noon Tuesday, when I finally stirred, my hair a matted tangle like moss in a morning dew. Then I rose to my feet. I stood in place. My bedroom did not. Holy nuts. I chugged a few Tylenol and collapsed, useless to the universe. My only visitor all day would be the delivery guy who brought a burger my mutated palate welcomed as fetid garbage painted across diapers of bloated roadkill. My digestive system made immediate arrangements for its disposal and didn’t care how it went. (Luckily, I had veto power.)
Wednesday, the official start of my break, marked a minor improvement. I didn’t sweat as much, but I wheezed like my grandfather on any given morning before his first cup of coffee. More Tylenol as I activated my trusted sleeping aid: a 6-CD collection of Frank Zappa’s multiple-night Roxy stand in 1973. I figured I’d be asleep within minutes, as the Mothers noodled into fighting shape. Nope, I heard the entire thing and surpassed my lifetime tolerance threshold for “Penguin in Bondage.” At sunup, I was officially still awake, a frazzled coagulation of wracked, exhausted muscle struggling against the need to cough, to free the knives boiling in my gut.
One small problem: I soon reached a point where sleep was not an option. Weeks earlier, I’d agreed to speak at a noontime function in Lebanon. Life was more innocent then; I scheduled engagements with a breezy confidence. Now I was a human infirmary, hovering just north of feral. Life-affirming liquids like water and orange juice served solely to enhance my cottonmouth. The dizziness was largely gone, replaced by tolerable explosions of pin-prick numbness.
I hurled myself into a scalding shower, slipped into semi-presentable apparel (Underpaid Midwest Cool Professor Chic), tugged a comb through my weary mane, and hoped no one would notice the multiple circles of hell rippling from my eyes to my ankles. Was I ready to people? Were people ready to people with me?
After slugging back more Tylenol, I closed my eyes and stumbled into a morning of miraculous survival and reaffirmation of my ability to bore high school students. I was at turns gregarious, convivial and charming, at no point clinging to the dais and imploring existing gods to stop stabbing the insides of my eyeballs. The event was a success, and I celebrated later at home by honking lungers with champion aplomb.
Like most dudes, I can’t hang with sick. Sorry, no time. When something puts me under, I’m a failure. There was a rule in our house when I was growing up: You could be sick for one day, but then you had to go back to school. One day was enough time for your immune system and inherent manliness to collaborate on a knockout assault. The only exception in my case was the Strep Throat Incident of 1984, when I dropped a waist size without ever leaving my bed — a diet I could use today. Otherwise, you were to be present, always. You were not to fall behind. You couldn’t allow someone else to gain the upper hand.
I carried that warped perspective deep into my professional career. Gotta show ’em you ain’t soft. No plague could dissemble your crew. You were just that dedicated. “Why can’t you be more like Cory? He’s bleeding in multiple languages from every other freckle, yet he’s 10 minutes early. Hell, he’s our new CEO. Yeah, I said it. And you’re telling him to go home? Clean out your desk, you groveling coward.” Meanwhile I’d wrack pathoses into people’s faces, my eyes wet with walls of throbbing mucus, feeling like a million bucks.
That changed for good about four, five years ago. It was a bad winter, man. Some virus hauled tail through the Pacific Northwest, decimating our ranks. City editor Kim Jackson and I whooped symphonies of bile for more than a week, filling each other’s cups. Whatever I had was nasty; I lost the hearing in my right ear for the better part of a year. This was serious Victorian nightmare fuel. I’d never been flattened by anything like it.
Yet we reported for work every day and somehow produced a newspaper, but I don’t remember any of it. We leaned hard on lozenges and fired thunder across each other’s bows while the newsroom requested transfers until we stopped spattering the walls with disease. After that, I was told, in no uncertain terms, that when I became an alphabet soup of contagion, I’d be better off staying home.
By the time you read this, I’ll have likely returned to work. My prognosis is good. I can breathe. I can move. I can sleep without six layers of parkas. The coughing jags are like a petulant kid’s outbursts as his commitment slowly flags. Hopefully, I’ve recovered enough to last a few more months before another traveling epidemic — or just the news in general — wears me down again.