Getting sick

FI-Robert-WalshGetting sick during springtime is cruel. Blowing one’s nose amid the chirping of birds is wrong, like going to a funeral on roller blades. Every spring the weather teases us with 60-degree temperatures for a few days before pulling the rug out from under us. Suddenly we’re looking at frost on Easter morning. Inevitably, I catch whatever bug is going around at the time.

Part of this is the fact that I teach middle school English. I am in constant contact with adolescents who have no problem shaking my hand right after long, exploratory probes of their noses and ears. I see them leave the bathroom without washing their hands, knowing I’ll have to touch that door handle on my way out. I was no better when I was their age. I’d knock on my mom’s door at 3 in the morning.

“I got sick,” I’d say.

“Did you make it to the toilet?” my mom would ask, hoping against hope.

She’d turn on the light and sigh as she noticed the trail of vomit I’d tracked in from my room. The poor woman had tried; she’d trained us in the forgotten art of throwing up. First: Reach for the trash bin by our beds, then make our way to the bathroom. Empty the trash can, clean it, and take a few washcloths with us in case we had to throw up again. Nowhere in the training manual did it mention her role in this process.

Unfortunately, we just couldn’t come through for her in the clutch. After all, who wants to throw up in a trash bin? Her seven kids followed the magnetic pull that compelled us to wake her up afterward. She’d put a damp washcloth on our foreheads and begin the cleanup after putting us back to bed.

“If you feel you have to throw up again, cover your mouth with this washcloth until you reach the bathroom.”

One never truly understands the difference between a washcloth and a hand towel until we find out just how quickly we can fill up a washcloth. It acted more like an umbrella than a dam.

My mom had to stamp out viruses as soon as they appeared; otherwise, she’d be bouncing from bed to bed like a cross between Florence Nightingale and John Mayer. She’d smear Vick’s VapoRub over our chests (with a dollop under the nose) when we were too stuffed up to breathe and was a believer in the power of Ritz crackers and ginger ale to soothe a queasy stomach.

She also wasn’t afraid to use a rectal thermometer. She might have been trained in the ways of modern medicine, but she was still a firm believer in the principle that colons tell no tales. She’d take two readings by mouth, and if there were a discrepancy she’d tell us to turn over on the bed. (It’s worrisome that I only remember one thermometer in the house, but I’m sure there was another. Surely there was. Surely.) I used to cringe at every checkup when they asked to take my temperature; I owe a special debt to whoever invented the ear thermometer.

As you can imagine, it was hard to be considered “sick” in my house if you wanted a day off from school. My mom was an emergency room nurse and looked at sickness as a luxury we could ill afford. We tried everything: Rubbing our foreheads and necks to make ourselves seem hot to the touch, sprinkling some hot water to simulate sweat, coughing fits … it didn’t matter. With one look she could tell us things even the rectal thermometer couldn’t. In later years she finally came clean: She needed some peace and quiet. If we wanted to stay home from school, it would have to involve a blood transfusion.

Now I spend the week of my spring break in a NyQuil haze for fear I’ll miss a school day. Even worse, my mom doesn’t let me call her after 8 p.m. when I get sick …


You can read more at and contact him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @RobertFWalsh.

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