Monday, January 7, 2013

Current Flu Epidemic Pales Next to the Never-Ending Virus of '92

The other night up at Mount Wachusett (hey, super ski conditions now, so stop reading and head on UP) one of the Thursday Night Race-League members was chatting about the current flu epidemic, which led to a story about how her children had once infected another teammate’s kids, while both families were on vacation.

It was a particularly contagious tummy bug, a completely horrific vacation scenario.   

As I thought about this, a tiny part of my memory cortex came alive, activating a piece of neural tissue – the really flimsy one.  And I started … to smile. It was that sad, wry smile my mouth gets when it hears of familiar tragedy. I could relate. 

These two Moms might be living inside a slightly different decade, but this is a timeless story. And though it's been some time since my own kids barfed on each other (New Year’s Eve doesn’t count) it feels like yesterday.

Each September when my kids were little, other parents would be basking in back-to-school bliss -- but I basked in a need for prescription sedatives. Soon, the flaming foliage would hint at winter’s return, causing my entire family to happily loll about in ski wax and pole-tip sharpeners. But I feared the changing seasons with veteran dread. 

It wasn’t just the stressful Halloween costumes I’d fashion from refuse seconds before my kids would trick-or-treat.  And it wasn’t Darcy and Biff, a tragically wealthy childless ski couple to whom winter brought life, liberty and the pursuit of snow sex.

More terrifying than any of this was The Return of The Never Ending Virus.  It road in on the coattails of Columbus Day and gestated in my kids until Easter.

It always started with the sniffles, but those moist nasal passages soon gave way to a panorama of symptoms so diverse, local pharmacists had to trip through their own wealth as they sold entire stocks of over-the-counter cures.

One November, as Darcy and Biff screwed their bindings, I took inventory of my home supply of pharmaceuticals. There I stood, humbled by an array about which CVS could only fantasize, and I reflected on the investment called ‘kids.’

If they didn’t get sick that year, I would kill them.

In decades of parenting, I’d spent real money on tissues so soft, they dissolved in their noses, made payments on cultures taken to see what random throats could grow. And when bellies churned, I accessed lines of credit to pay for bowel elixirs engineered to stop up volcanoes and constipate small provinces.

It was fiscally clear that, by Christmas of 2012, we could have purchased a volcano of our own. We’d have skied on it.

1992 was a particularly bad year for The Virus. There were more contagions than you could sneeze at, which was the least prevalent symptom.

Mutant strains of influenza rendered vaccines useless.

Chicken pox made a startling comeback.

So many tummies erupted, entire chapters were added to cookbooks devoted to the Clear Liquid Diet.  In fact, when Moms and Dads heard the words, “Knox” or “bouillon” we knew gold wasn’t the topic.

But 1992 was also a time of camaraderie, of kindred spirit.  I felt closer to other parents that year than I’d ever felt toward my own (even the year they sent me to Camp Petri Dish where I was stricken with blood-fungus and homesickness).

So deep ran my affection for other parents in that Contagious-Year, I shared with them all my secret recipes for Rolaid-broth and home-vasectomy.

Pediatricians, however, did not share in our fellowship. In retrospect, they probably all had The Virus, but surely they might have used compassion when speaking with distraught parents. 

That winter I helpfully fashioned for local doctors A Compassion Quiz. 

                                                           COMPASSION QUIZ

In the following scenario, you are a Pediatrician.  A parent calls to tell you their child has a 103-degree fever, blue-speckled rash, and delirium.  Which of the following is the BEST response? 

A.          Oh.  That.  Everybody’s got it.
B.    Can you call back? I almost beat the boss at level six.
C.     Speak slowly, I want to record this. It sounds like a rare ectopic froog. I’ll be right over and oh, could you sign a photo-release?  I’d love a video of me treating your child.

Of the twenty physicians I mailed it to, fourteen are still puzzling over answers A through C.

I must confess that, while everyone else was drowning in a sea of prescriptions, I was in my glory.

 I lived for illness.

Now I am not referring to my formally-diagnosed generalized and systemic hypochondria.  I am referring to the break in the monotonous winter routine.

No longer did my children rise at dawn as a regimented militia on Mission Rice Krispy, defiling themselves with cereal in a violent breakfast frenzy.

No more was I affixed to combs and Industrial-Strength Hair Glue, sculpting fork tines and faux-hawks on heads like Vidal Scissor-hands.

No banshee wail shattered the morn’ with, “THE BUS!  QUICK, LUNCH MONEYYYYYY!!!”

All about me … was silence.

Because they were sick.

Gray and lifeless, they faded into folds of pummeled pillows where they remained uncomplaining for nearly four days.

And they were contagious.  It was nirvana.  All four of my children reduced to a collective lump.

And this was my favorite part:  when I entered their bedrooms, their faces lit with joy because maybe – just maybe – I had brought a red popsicle.

It was arresting, really, since only weeks before they had certified-mailed to Santa a computerized paper ream with itemized requests for a Super Nintendo Library housed in a rotating oak display case.  And a Jeep.  A real one.

In the incubation of one microscopic virus, my kids were transformed into selfless beings in whom frozen confection elicited personal thanksgiving. And if I brought to them such manna, they became so completely happy, they exhausted themselves from smiling and fell into profound sleep.

1992 was also the year I was first prescribed those sedatives. When my husband and I both caught The Virus, the contagion outlived its joy.

By the third week of consecutive illness, my husband finally limped back to work, cradling Kaopectate and swatting at things that weren’t there.

The cat was coughing up blood.

It was a Monday morning and I was home licking the insides of an empty penicillin bottle when the phone rang.

I knew it was the school nurse.

I picked up the receiver and said, “In my hand are utility shears.  If you tell me one of my kids is sick, I will cut the phone cord.  You have until 3 to heal him or you’re next.”

Everything -- even sickness -- in moderation.

Now load up the ski coffin and get up to Wachusett.  (Just be sure to bring Emergen-C and Zicam up with you.)