I learned a long time ago that daily life can change in a flash. That doesn’t necessarily mean I’m ready when the flash happens to me. I’m not even talking about the really big changes either. Just one in which a common illness knocks you off your feet for the bulk of a week. Despite my having gotten a flu shot, some slippery version of it got past my immune barriers and leveled me within a couple of hours. What a strange week it’s been. I felt a little “off” Monday afternoon as I sat in my geology class, Life Makes Rock, 4 Billion Years of Biomineralization. I know, it sounds boring. But it is actually stimulating and exciting as our over-achieving professor with appointments in multiple disciplines, weaves together a fascinating story based on the intertwined relationship between water, minerals and life itself. Our first lecture introduced us to pioneering scientists through the centuries who worked to explain and refine the classifications of life. I was particularly dazzled by the illustrations of the Darwinian scientist Ernst Haeckel’s book called Art Forms in Nature.

I felt one of those tell-tale tickles at the back of my throat in that class, but shrugged it off as I had to babysit for my grandsons that night. I managed my little job, all the while wondering if I could beat back whatever was happening to me. Whenever I start wondering if I’m okay, I know that I’m teetering on the edge. But I just kept on going. The next day I was out and about, running errands like I would any other day, followed by hitting the pool for a midday swim. I started coughing there, and within an hour or so, I was transformed from okay to pathetic. I developed a deep painful cough and a fever very fast, and was suddenly a sick person. I felt too rotten to do anything. I missed the rest of the week’s classes. I had to bail out of a committee meeting on historic preservation which is one of my volunteer activities. I felt dreadful that the meeting was then cancelled because there would no longer be the quorum which is needed for decision-making. What an abrupt change. Because I’ve been truly fortunate with my health to date, I found that when I reached for some of the palliative medications that people often have in their homes, mine had all expired.

I felt stupid and illprepared in addition to feeling dreadful. The fact is, I’m a terrible patient. I’ve always looked at illness as my body’s way of betraying me. I am irrational, grouchy and far from a sympathetic person. I wouldn’t want to take care of me. In addition to the overall sense of physical misery, the timing of my illness couldn’t have been worse. Last year, I’d signed a contract to have my old house sided as its shingles were broken everywhere, paint had been worn away and water issues had caused a sickly mossy green color on its northern side. I’ve been avoiding such a big job for a long while, because in my previous experiences with contractors working on this challenging nineteenth century lady, complications have always arisen along with the requisite negotiations about those issues. Although fully able to work my way through these situations, I’ll admit that always being the go-to person for problems has lost some of its mystique. Yes, I can do it. But I sure am tired of it. Last week, after months of delay, I received a call from the company announcing that all the materials for the job were being dropped off in my driveway, soon to be followed by a work crew. Despite the fact that it was the end of January in the midwest, the team was ready to go. Zero to sixty, just like that – no warning, no preparation.

As anticipated, things got off to a bumpy start. The power tools brought to prepare the surface of the house weren’t strong enough to go through the thick ancient shingles. I was told to prepare for the hard banging of handheld hammers. One guy said, “if you have anything you value hanging on your walls, you might want to take them down.” I made a wild pass through the house, hauling things down as fast as I could. Forty two years worth of decorations to be dealt with in a few brief minutes. I missed a room. One of the commemorative records from Michael’s music store crashed down from a wall, broke and then took out one of the little statues I’d saved from my mom’s house. The break turned part of it to powder so it can’t be repaired. All from an external job.

My backyard is profoundly damaged. The quality control inspector from the contractor’s firm admitted it. With the weather alternating between cold, warmer, rain and snow, the ground out there needed at least a bit of protection from all the materials and equipment laid on it, even if only a few sheets of plywood. I’m not sure of how I’m going to manage all that when this is over. One step at a time.

The thuds of the hammers, the bass from the workers’ boom box, the clinks of falling debris and the guys’ chatter have been the background accompaniment to my aching, empty head, chills and rib-rattling heaves. I’ve read virtually nothing in the past week, at least nothing longer than a few paragraphs. I’ve got a pile of stuff next to me on the floor that I’ve intermittently moved to my lap before putting it aside again. I have a list of simple chores that need doing and I’ve simply spun from one to the next, acknowledging that I need to do them while doing none. Trying to muster the energy to do anything beyond basic maintenance has proven elusive this past week. Deadlines lost their power. I have nothing profound to say. I am remarkably indecisive and all things have equal importance which feel essentially like no importance at all. As each day of inactivity goes by, deconditioning occurs, both physical and mental. I’ve gone from active engagement in life to feeling somewhat like a gelatinous mass oozing between my living room recliner and my bed. All from some version of this little virus that packs a lot of power into its insidious structure.

A sobering state of affairs that makes me ponder the fragility that always lurks just this side of what we assume is reality. Getting flattened out so fast is a reminder that taking any part of life for granted is pretty shortsighted. The world is filled with people who got stunned by a rapid twist of fate that altered the trajectory of their lives with little or no warning. I suspect that trying to stay aware of every possible negative landmine that can knock us off our path, either temporarily or permanently, is probably not a sustainable attitude to cultivate. It’s too unnerving to feel that vulnerable on a regular basis. But many of us have no choice besides adapting to what seemed impossible only a flicker ago. I’m thinking I’ve turned the corner on this brief detour from my life but I’m aware that an unexpected price was exacted of me these past days. I have to gather myself back together and rejoin the world as opposed to just sitting here, waiting to get better. I’m one of the lucky ones with some autonomy regarding my existence. For so many others, whatever happened to them won’t allow for that option. Note to self- I’m going to remember that. Like I’m going to enjoy the end product of my siding job when all the annoying problems are behind me. Every day has a lesson, whether we like it or not.

Leave a Reply