This kind of intimacy has its problems. Over the years our cultures had each collected their own strains of influenza, variations of the common cold and other bugs, indigenous to our disparate lands. With slim traffic moving between our countries and a vast ocean separating them we hadn’t been exposed to this opposing culture of viruses and disease. Upon meeting, whatever dormant germs dwelt within us saw it as opportunity to throw a ball and kick out the jams. Often, during our short stays in one another’s pockets we filled them with mucus seeping from our every orifice as some mean breed of transatlantic plague took hold.
Shuddering, wheezing, weeping, a wretched pile of shivers and self-pity, one or the other of us would end up bed-ridden, croaking commands: could you fetch me a water? Could I have an extra pillow? Could you turn off the lights? Could you give me a hug?
The room reeled like a Crazy Mouse. The panaceas of our youth–Lemsip for me, Seagram’s Ginger Ale for her–were absent, their replacements strange and uncomforting. Our immune systems, racked by foreign invaders, recovered slowly, but always just in time to make the return trip home, inconsolable that we’d missed so much precious time to sickness.
On the other side of the illness divide whichever one of us was in rude health–or, not knocked for six, was well enough to wait hand and foot, as was more often the case–looked on nervously, perched beside our suffering beloved like a vulture attending the dying, though eager to help, not feast. The carer fetched chicken soup by the vat full, cold drinks for the fevers, hot drinks for chills, mopping sweaty brows, stoking lank hair, cooking food that was bland so as to not irritate fussy gorges, reading stories for eyes too bleary, lifting objects for limbs too weak.
Always furrow-browed and sympathetic, not even the vilest acts of the invalid would scare the carer from his or her side. For a time I’d contracted an unsettling gastric bug that prevented me from keeping any food down at all. The very image of health most of the time, shortly after meals I’d feel nauseated and rush to empty my stomach into the toilet. One night, weak from up-chucking, I was shouting my last valiant attempt at a meal into the porcelain when Lindsay–my nurse in shining smock–visited me with soothing words.
“Don’t look at me!” I yelled, mid hawk. “I’m disgusting!” Another torrent of chunky bile flowed like drunken karaoke, making my point for me.
But she knelt and she cooed, and she rubbed my back while my testicles shrank back into my groin through the sheer effort of ejecting my lunch. She was a good wife, even before we were married. I’m sure she always will be.
She’s been sick these past few days. Not vomiting sick–I’m squeamish about such matters so thank God for that–but suffering from a cacophony of bacterial nasties. As neither of us have health insurance we can’t afford to get ill over here; nevertheless her symptoms were so prominent we had to visit the doctor before she transformed into a creature consisting solely of mucus and pus.
The clinic was located in a strip mall, between a dental practise and a nail salon. Most of the shops in the mall were related to the body in some way: there was also a pediatrician, a pharmacy and a rehab centre. Watching people roll into the limited parking and leave their cars, I wondered how many of them were secret crack fiends finally staving off the habit of a lifetime.
Lindsay left me in the car, listening to dodgy remixes of old TV themes. I could have gone in with her, but with my immune system bewildered by American bugs I thought it best to wait in hermetic safety with Ambergambler spinning the Danger Mouse theme.
She’s been pretty sickly, poor thing. The doctor told her she has strep (a throat infection, in metric measurements) conjunctivitis, an unspecified virus and an ear infection in both ears. “I’m dying,” as she said when she shambled back to the car.
We picked up a bushel full of drugs from the pharmacists further down the mall, who oohed and aahed over her, showing far more sympathy than any of the surly chemists back home. Once back in the car she immediately applied her prescribed eye drops then drove me to Stop & Shop to buy yogurt and ginger ail: the one-two punch of folksy home remedies.
Since then she’s made a remarkable recovery, which is just as well as I have a suffocating bedside manner. If I had my way at the first sniffle I’d have my wife cryogenically frozen in case it proves deadly, and deserving of the attention of far-off future doctors. I fret, adding and removing blankets and pillows, covering her up when she throws off her sheets, removing them if she looks too warm. When she falls asleep I generally head downstairs so as not to disturb her; without her by my side I then feel lost and awkward, unable to talk to anyone, at a loose end and worked into a tizzy by my well-meaning uselessness.
The kids miss their Aunt Lala and come to me asking if she needs them to fetch her anything. The dog becomes despondent, and though she’s rather curl up at the doorway guarding her mistress she’s just as likely to sit in a sad heap downstairs like me, at a loss for what to do. When Lindsay’s sick life seems dimmer. The whole world mourns every time she sneezes.
“Don’t kiss me,” she says, eyes rheumy, nose a fountain, lips cracked and coated with runnels of luminous snot. “I’m gross!” So I kiss the top of her head instead, which has hardly any snot on it at all.
She’s feeling a little down in the mouth right now after a morning of cleaning the children’s bedroom. She didn’t have to, but she’s a much better carer than I’ve ever been. She was helping our oldest niece with her reading, and to instill a better enjoyment of reading in her she wants to find her misplaced library card, so they can borrow books Makayla might enjoy and read them together.
And she ties their shoelaces, helps them in with clothes when they need a hand dressing, comforts them when they’re sick, scared or simply down–which they often are, too often for children of their age. She cares, and in this selfish age, that’s one of the best qualities a person could have. She’s cared for me in the past–also too often–so it’s about time I send a little of that caring spirit her way. Amid all the hugs, drinks, pillows and back rubs, it’s easy to forget a carer needs love, too.