There are few childhood memories I remember quite so vividly as the familiar routine of a sick day.
Illness was held to rigid standards in my family. Being sick the night before school, for example, wasn’t medically relevant. Even symptoms themselves were largely ignored in favor of jamming an old mercury thermometer in my mouth. Sore throats were subjective. Coughing could be faked. But the thermometer was infallible. Its word, law. Its decisions, final.
Reaching the coveted 100 degree mark (as even 99.9 was only “something to keep an eye on”) was a bittersweet victory. My mother never made her displeasure at having company during the day a secret. She would sigh and moan and wonder how someone with literally several things to do during the day could find time to take care of a sick child, as well.
There was a lot of strategy involved in being sick in my household, insofar as there was any strategy required at all. Most of it involved avoiding my mother. The rest largely revolved around finding watchable television before and after “The Price is Right.”
And, between bouts of real dreams during days spent mostly sleeping, I daydreamed of how much simpler it would be when I had no one to answer to.
As with more or less everything I thought during my childhood, I turned out to be wrong, of course. Being sick as an adult wasn’t nearly as fun as being sick as a child. And that even before Bob Barker retired as host of “The Price is Right.”
One of the more inevitable truths of human biology is that cramming students from all over the state into a small area is the recipe for disaster. In fact, it’s the recipe for more than one distinct flavor of disaster. But in this particular case, the disaster in question was the epidemic level of exposure to every illness in the the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania – a traveler’s guide to the very worst bacteria, viruses and fungi the Keystone State had to offer.
Truth be told, I did better than most. I’ve always had a fairly strong immune system. So I spent the first three weeks of college just being surrounded by sick people. It was only the Sunday of my fourth week that I finally succumbed to one of the dozens of sicknesses I’d been assaulted by since I got there.
I realized, almost from the moment when I was forced to use toilet paper to blow my nose because I had no tissues, that I was completely out of my depth.
Things didn’t get any better from there, not least of all because I had no real sense of how to tell if I was sick at all. When I was growing up, sickness was something determined by either the back of my mother’s hand, a thermometer or, in dire straits, an actual doctor. Deciding for myself whether or not I was sick seemed to be an awkward proposition rife with potential bias.
My mother was a five hour drive away. I could only assume the back of her hand was with her. Both were equally out of my reach.
Of course, even if I had been home, I couldn’t have used the old mercury thermometer. It had been destroyed in fairly spectacular fashion years before when my brother tried to test the temperature of water that, despite refusing to boil, was apparently hot enough to burst a thermometer. There’s an old saying about not watching a pot boil (which, for the record, we followed). If someone had made a similar saying about not putting glass thermometers in them, we might have avoided the mess entirely.
As for seeing the doctor, well, I usually thought of seeing someone with a medical degree as the step you’d take after you figured out if you were sick or not.
Within the next hour or so, though, my symptoms escalated from sniffles to sneezes to runny nose before finally reaching monsoon levels, with a sore throat added for a little variety. It was only when I rummaged through my trusty medical bag for a cough drop that I realized I hadn’t had the foresight to pack either cough drops or tissues. Or, for that matter, a medical bag of any level of trustworthiness.
And so, rather than ruin the sleeves of every shirt I owned, I trudged down to the campus store to buy anything I assumed would be helpful, at prices that weren’t.
“Are you sick?” the cashier said as I dropped a random assortment of medicine on the counter in front of her. She looked at the pile and then at me. “You look sick.”
“Thank you?” I said, not certain of how else to answer.
Although I wasn’t happy that she had judged my health by my shoddy appearance rather than the six pounds of medicine I was buying, I let it slide. Aside from wanting to consume the aforementioned medicine as quickly as possible, it was actually nice to get any sort of outside confirmation that I was sick.
“Well, get some rest. Those are some nasty dark circles under your eyes,” she said, handing me the bag. I didn’t bother explaining that those were a standard feature of my face rather than a recent addition.
I wisely left before she pointed out anything else that was merely a symptom of being me.
Back in my room, I picked through my Trick or Treat-esque haul and more or less put a random handful into my mouth. I realize that sounds either dangerous or idiotic, or more likely, both. But keep in mind that no one is born with instinctual knowledge of proper pharmaceutical consumption. And my parents certainly never tried to instill any in me. The fact that I ate only oral medication and not the box of tissues was, frankly, a small wonder in itself.
And then, far more exhausted than one ought to be from a short walk and a small amount of swallowing, I collapsed into bed.
Then again, this probably worked in my favor. The only real advice I knew about being sick was that sleeping helped. I wasn’t sure of the science or magic behind it, but it was all I had. “I’ll watch Adult Swim twice tomorrow night,” I reassured myself, and slowly drifted off.
You can only imagine my surprise when, the following morning, I somehow woke up feeling even sicker than before I’d gone to sleep.