There are few things more disappointing than waking up sick.
I’m the sort of person that considers sleep a gift that I give my body, largely against my better judgment. Sleeping means I can’t get anything done. It’s more boring than almost anything I could be doing while awake. If the alternative wasn’t literally dying, I probably wouldn’t grudgingly sigh and part with six hours of my free time every night for my body to do routine maintenance.
Given that I’d actually slept twelve hours the night before, it seemed particularly unfair that I’d woken up feeling like I somehow swallowed six angry hornets.
“I sleep and you keep all my stuff working, body. We had a deal,” I said, or tried to say, anyway. My throat was so swollen that it was more a croak than complaint.
I sat in bed for a while longer then, not sure what to do. It was clear by that point that I was sick, so that was one less problem than I’d had the night before. But of my two problems – the other being decidedly more hornet and throat related – it was probably the one I minded least.
Then, acknowledging this moment as a milestone in my new responsibilities as an adult, I did the only thing I could. I called my mommy.
“You sound sick,” she said, almost the moment I’d said hello.
“I have a sore throat,” I rasped with great difficulty. “It’s hard to talk.”
“You could always e-mail me.”
“Can’t. Computer exploded.”
“That’s not important,” I said, trying to get us back on topic. (Though, as I hadn’t yet told her about the fiery demise of my desktop, I can understand why it was a topic that might interest her.) “I feel awful. Should I stay home from class?”
There was a pause. “I don’t know. If you feel sick enough to stay home, then you should stay home.”
“How sick is sick enough?” I wondered. Remember that sickness was always something other people had decided about me. I was happier letting my mother, doctor, mercury encased in glass or even a campus store cashier make the determination than I was to decide myself.
“I don’t know. Do you have a fever?” she asked.
“How would I know?” I explained, in as few words as possible, that I had no way to measure my temperature.
“Put the back of your hand on your forehead. If it feels hot, then you probably have a fever,” she offered.
Still a little skeptical, I did so. I waited. And to perhaps no one’s surprise, it felt almost exactly the same as my hand. It was only then that I considered that using my own body to test my body’s temperature might be an inherently flawed endeavor. “I don’t think it works on my own forehead.”
“Can you have someone else feel it for you?” she suggested.
“I’m…not entirely comfortable with that.” I wasn’t sure what seemed worse to me – the idea of asking a random stranger to touch my face, or a random stranger actually touching my face.
“Okay…” my mom said. “What if you put your hand on someone else’s forehead? If it feels cold then that means you’re hot. I think…?”
“I’m even less comfortable with that,” I said. I then explained, going forward, that she could probably skip any advice that involved other human beings – especially if it involved us awkwardly touching one another to detect our respective temperature variations.
It was at this point that my mother started to sound a bit exasperated. She sighed loudly. “I don’t know what to tell you then. If you feel sick, stay home. If you feel okay, then go to class.” There was a momentary pause before she added, “You’re on your own now. So whatever you decide is fine.”
We exchanged some small talk. This mostly consisted of her talking while I made as little response as humanly possible. She tried to bring up the computer several more times, but that wasn’t a topic I was ready to discuss even while healthy.
And then, as my mother had said, I was on my own.
There were two sobering pieces of this realization to painfully swallow. The first was that being an adult meant I was in full control of my life. And as excited as I was to take ownership of my successes, it was far less pleasant to consider that I was the only one responsible for my mistakes and failures. I mean, I could (and would) blame my upbringing for things here and there, but overall, the buck stopped with me.
The second, and more personal, realization was that so many of my life decisions had been made with my childhood in mind. On some level, I realized I wasn’t fighting to go to class because it was the right thing to do. I was fighting to avoid my mother’s disapproving gaze on the back of my neck as I watched Bob Barker make small talk with contestants on “The Price is Right.”
But my mother wasn’t there. She didn’t decide when I went to school anymore. And even if she judged me from afar for missing class, it wasn’t something I had to live with.
With those revelations in mind, I laced up my sandals, pulled up my short sleeves and pulled myself up by my…sandle straps? Sorry. I just realized that all the metaphors about working hard don’t really work when you’re wearing jaunty summer clothing. But you get my point.
I’m not sure why I went to class that day, even after I’d decided I was far too sick to make the trip. Maybe it was a long overdue attempt to try and live up to my own standards. Maybe it was a stupid decision, and someone with more experience should have made it for me.
In my defense, I’d tried to go that route.
The important thing, though, was that it was my decision. And as an adult, it would be the first of many. I felt a lot of pride in my choice…though, in all fairness, pride could have just been another symptom of whatever was killing me at the time.
I had literally ever other symptom, so why not pride, too?
“Jesus Christ,” a voice said as I set my books down. I looked up to see my professor doing a passable imitation of my mother’s disapproving glare. “You look like death.”
I croaked in the affirmative, then added, “But I made it here.”
“Awesome. Get out.”
I blinked at him, confused.
“You damn kids have gotten me sick five times in four weeks, because you don’t have the sense to stay home when you’re dying,” he said, muttering something about our parents needing to teach us these things. “No more. Go home. Sleep. Drink fluids. Rub yourself with Echinacea or whatever they’re saying to do now. Just leave me and my immune system out of it.”
“Oh,” I said. I waited a beat to make sure he wasn’t joking, and then picked up my books. “I guess I’ll just…go then?”
“Go breathe your death air in the hallway,” he said, pointing.
I left, a little stunned. I was joined, not half a minute later, by six other students displaying a variety of other symptoms. It made me feel a little better. Emotionally, I mean. I was still so sick I could barely stand.
There might have been another life lesson or two to learn from all that. Maybe something about making decisions but accepting the unpredictability of life. Maybe something about accepting limitations. And I may have even tried to learn them, if my vision wasn’t slowly fading to black. So I went home.
Though I did note, as I stumbled back outside, one of my fellow exiles worriedly looking at her phone as she said, “My mom is going to kill me.”