Being a compulsive exerciser, I am as familiar with injury as with the feel of my fingers on the keyboard. But a combination of genetics, habits, and luck make illness strange to me. Once every three or four years, a ‘flu might lay me low, but usually my body goes into hyperdrive and after a couple of days of constant naps and eating everything in the kitchen, I’m fully recovered. So, when an illness persists, I’m like a toddler – I feel it all the more because I have so little with which to compare it, and never more than now that I’m living by myself.
On those rare occasions, my ambitions are reduced to sprawling on the bed like a particularly unappetizing piece of jetsam (or is it flotsam? I can never be sure which is which), gently bemoaning my condition and trying not to sound as sorry for myself as I actually am. I pile some light series of books on the bed like the Scholar’s Mistress in Fritz Leiber’s Our Lady of Darkness, and alternate between dozing and reading, feeling like I’m imposing on everyone around me because I’m not up and going about my daily routine.
In fact, I can get decidedly tetchy when I’m ill. I’m too solidly middle-class to enjoy being waited on, and I can’t help thinking I have no right to be the focus of so much of anyone’s attention (I have the same problem in restaurants, too, which is why my guilty reflex is always to over tip, no matter how poor the service). What I really want is to be left behind a closed door, and every five hours or so someone’s head on an angle between the door and the frame to check – preferably without speaking – that I don’t need to be rushed to emergency.
Meanwhile, I can lie back and read until my eyeballs ache, until I see the formula in the series and start inventing the last in the seemingly endless series that I happen to be reading, such as Sharpe’s Enema or Continuity Editor of Dune, all of which strike as much funnier at the time than they do now.
With this attitude, I would probably drive anyone with an instinct to nurse into a berserker frenzy. Fortunately, that’s not the type of person who tends to be my life for long.
But a few days ago, when poor air quality threatened to burst my sinuses like over-pressurized inner tubes and I felt about as hearty as Samson after his last haircut, I could have used even a nurse around the house. It was only the second time I had been ill since I was widowed, and I couldn’t just focus on getting better. I had pets to feed. For that matter, I had myself to feed, although I had an only theoretical interest in the subject. Even cutting back on all but the minimum of daily chores, I still had dishes that need washing, and laundry to put away.
I suppose I could have abandoned all these things except feeding the pets, but then the rising piles of dishes and dirty clothes would have accused me of being untrue to some neurosis no doubt carved into my psyche along with toilet training, nagging me until I attended to them anyway. So, I coughed and wheezed, and slithered from beneath the sheet, flopping like a deboned salmon, and did them anyway.
It wasn’t in any way heroic. But it was necessary. And I soon learned two things: First, living alone is not so bad when everything is going well. But in domestic crisis, having nobody except myself to rely on is unsettling (I do have friends and neighbors, but not wanting to be a nuisance, I forget to ask for help until I no longer need any). Second, I now strongly suspect that I was not nearly as easy to have sick around the place as I always imagined, and was, in fact, as self-indulgent, unceremoniously dumping daily chores on whoever was around at the time.
I’m coming slowly out of hyperdrive now, with a renewed interest in food and only the occasional bits of phlegm coughed up to remind me of what I’ve been through. But I think I’ll see what I can do to make my intervals between illnesses even longer than they are. A few days to recover may be efficient, but they are a self-indulgence I can no longer afford.