I cried when I told my mom I couldn’t muster the energy to get the house ready for her visit. A week before, when the body aches and a sore throat seethed over me, I thought surely I would recover in time. Instead, I woke up each morning feeling worse than the night before, all the effluvia having collected in my sinuses while I lay still, my throat like parchment, dried stiff in the sun, that someone was now scratching a quill over.
My mom reassured me. She understood how awful I felt; she laughed and apologized for not being the Mother Theresa kind of mother who would swoop in anyway, clean the house, wipe my brow, simmer soup, etc. “I’m just so afraid of getting sick myself,” she admitted.
I can count on one hand the number of times I saw my mom sick when we were young. (At least, she hardly ever took to her bed; I realize now her fortitude may have been as much a matter of necessity as of robust health.) But she’s reached an age at which illnesses dig their talons in more painfully and hang on longer. And, a visit with any of her four children and their young families is about 85% likely to incubate something.
Of course I didn’t like being sick. Who would? I canceled things that first week, OK. But as the days wore on I began to get a little panicky. Would I be able to follow through on commitments next week, I wondered? What about the week after? How far out could I make plans again? Would I be ok to travel to my college reunion at the end of the month — a commitment already fraught with considerable time, expense, and mixed feelings?
Still, there was something about it …
After the first few days — when I was really laid out, unable to do anything but hit “Next” on episodes of This American Life (thank you, Ira Glass, for carrying through so many bouts of body aches, and also road trips) — I could do some stuff. Not active stuff; one day I tried to go for a “small, slow walk” and the infection flared. Desk stuff. Laptop stuff. The kind of stuff that usually presses at the edge of my consciousness, nagging me to sit down and attend to it: to pay the medical bills, write a thank-you note, return a phone call to a second-ring friend, email one of the kids’ teachers.
But also: to try an experimental writing prompt, to address an envelope with fun lettering, to drink tea with my daughter, to actually listen as she recounted last night’s dream.
I liked the way time slowed down; how, because I couldn’t do much, it expanded for the things I could. Not up to exercise? There’s an hour right there. Can’t go to that party you were looking forward to? What about the movie you’d thought you’d never get around to instead? (That was The Favourite, which lived up to the critical acclaim but left me feeling weird and dirty.) Nope, you can’t help in the kids’ classroom. Nope, you can’t host that dinner. Nope, nope, nope.
And yet. What first felt like disappointment in some ways felt like relief.
I began to appreciate the pace of emptier days. I wrote and drew and finished a few contract projects. I read the paper (actually read it). I responded to emails, talked with my husband when he got home from work. One time, I even answered the phone when it rang.
My muscles began to atrophy and the fresh veggies in the fridge to decay and ferment, but I finally got an explanation for our insurance coverage that I could understand. I exchanged texts with my mother-in-law. I edited a few pieces for friends, just ’cause. I felt yucky, but it felt good.
Being sick asks – demands – acknowledging the illusion of control with which I usually operate. Sometimes, plans go according to plan. When they do, it eggs me on in my belief that we can do it all, that, if only I just schedule tightly, efficiently, thoughtfully enough, we will somehow “get it right.”
In the past few days I’ve caught myself saying things like, “Well, I would like to do that with you next week, but I’m just not sure how I’m going to feel,” and “I’ll go ahead and schedule it, but I may have to cancel if I’m not feeling well.” In this in-between state, improving but without a sure timeline, I chuckle at myself for a moment, recognizing that in fact, I’m now finally speaking truth.
It feels impossible to function without being able to make, and follow through on, some commitments. At the same time, I wonder if I could keep a little of this awareness moving forward: a sense of the illusion of control, for one thing, and also that things did not crumble when I wasn’t able to deliver perfectly.
I’ve spent more time listening to birdsongs than attending meetings. Instead of ruminating over every nutrient, I heated up a can of soup and savored every sip. The girls developed a fondness for tea, and their own method for brewing it, and wanted to know if it made me feel better. We will find another time to see my parents; today, I held still long enough to feel the breeze on my skin. We missed a bunch of stuff. Yet somehow, we could get it right anyway.