We are all of us, in our family, competitive by nature. My 7-year-old son Henry, for instance, has never for one minute bought the idea that soccer is "just a game" and maintains, at untellable personal sacrifice, a polite silence whenever one of his coaches says they're just out there to have fun. Henry's father, pacing the sidelines like a caged animal, raising a triumphant fist with every goal, may have contributed to the boy's attitude. Rosie, now 4, wants to know if her lavender princess dress with the silver sequins and stiff petticoat is the prettiest of all princess dresses. And I was irate when my son's Quaker school, victorious in an end-of-season soccer championship game, declined to mention the final score in the school newspaper.
I wish I could report that the family's rivalrous spirit quiets down during times of illness, that we all lay down first fiddle and become benevolent and nurturing human beings. In fact, we grow rather cold-blooded, each of us sure he is the sickest, each vying for the special dispensations of the gravely ill. "Mama?" Henry will say, ears pink with fever, tenderly cupping his chewable junior-strength Tylenol tablets, "Mama, am I sicker than Rosie ever was?" And Rosie, pale with the effort of sitting up to take her pink syrup: "Mama, I feel so much badder than Henry, right?"
My husband and I are more subtle, of course. I take the ingenious path of refusing to get sick, holding out like a Roman soldier, righteous and superior, while those around me stumble, lose strength and collapse. My husband settles the issue by tying a bandana around his neck, climbing into bed and refusing, like a groundhog, to be routed from his hole.
In truth, now that we are past the early daycare years, our family is rarely sick. But this year we, like so many others, were hit hard by the flu. Perhaps it was the power of suggestion--each day we were bombarded with stories about packed emergency rooms, overwhelmed schools and virulent super-strains. Perhaps we were simply overcome by schoolmates, friends, neighbors, strangers, each of them raising, like Pigpen, a little dust cloud of pestilence. Whatever the case, the assault began in mid-December, a shock-and-awe campaign of brute viral force. There was a brief cease-fire at Christmas, a lull during which we sat dazed but upright, opening presents whose bright wrappings shone achingly in the firelight. Hostilities resumed within days as we took up our tissues and lozenges and confronted the enemy. The Maginot Line fell just shy of New Year's.
By the time the dust cleared we were wizened, wrung-out versions of our former selves. Victorious, but in a deflated way; grateful, really, to be alive.
From what I've been able to piece together, it all began at darkest midnight, when dots of light, like fireflies, entered Henry's bedroom. Gradually the lights evolved into fairy-creatures with pale wings and feathered legs, jinni that drifted around the room, gathering now and then to whisper their plans for the small human lying in bed. While this was happening, naked Egyptians were busy burying a mummy in the mattress next to Henry, and Big Tiger, a normally cuddly and well-meaning stuffie, grew fangs and began to float toward my son's throat.
At this point, feeling outnumbered and creeped out, Henry made his escape. Hot as a furnace, teeth chattering, he skittered into our bedroom and began dancing around on the carpet. I got up, put him back in his bed, gave him some Motrin and a cup of water, rubbed Vick's VapoRub on his chest, gave him his stuffed Owly, put away Big Tiger and sat on the bed until he fell asleep. He was home for the next several days, achy, flushed, and with a pesky cough.
Just as Henry began to feel better, Rosie got it. She woke up in the wee hours with a croupy cough, a high fever and the pitiful, clingy black-of-night desperation of sick babies. (My children, I've noticed, always get sick in the middle of the night. Vomiting, in particular, adheres to a strict midnight-to-4 a.m. schedule, as if by union edict.)
I got up and held Rose upright in my lap while she pointed out the big blue marbles rolling across the wall and the "adorable" little toys that floated over mama and daddy's headboard. "Do you see that peacock?" she asked, pointing to a corner of the room. "He has a beautiful gold tooth."
I gave her some Motrin and a cup of water, rubbed VapoRub on her chest, gave her her stuffed llama and, because her cough sounded bad, got into bed with her. She'd almost fallen asleep when I made the mistake of patting her reassuringly on the leg. "Mama!" she cried, nearly jumping out of her skin, "that big feathery monster tried to lick my leg!"
"What big feathery monster?" I asked somewhat irritably, the novelty of my children's hallucinations having worn off. Rose pointed to the dark ceiling, where it was just possible to make out the floating circle of a Barbie balloon, leftover from my daughter's birthday party. Pink and sheeny, the thing had stubbornly refused to deflate, despite a solid week of battering. I'd grown to hate it.
"Right there!" she whispered urgently. "It's evil!"
"Point of agreement," I said, getting out of bed to banish the monster.
And that's how it started in our house, with evil fairies, naked Egyptians and feathered monsters. This is the short version, of course. There were also several trips to the doctor and a string of sleepless nights and at least one ear infection tacked on for good measure. The doctors differed in their diagnoses, but we chose to believe the ones who wrote "influenza" on the checkout papers, since flu evoked maximum pity response, not to mention commiseration benefits. It was true that even run-of-the-mill viruses seemed especially vicious this season, but they lacked the sympathy-producing mojo of true, Fujiian-strain influenza. "The doctor says it isn't the flu," one friend told me bitterly, her child struggling to breathe. "It's just the crud."
All around us, families were going through the same thing, staying home from school and work, standing in line for vaccines, canceling travel plans. Depending on their exhaustion level, people were concerned, irrational, cranky, hysterical. A woman at the Food Lion wore surgical gloves as she shopped; a man at the movie theater ordered his daughter to keep her hands off the ticket counter. "Remember me telling you about the germs?" he said angrily. "Remember that little boy on the news who died?"
Worry, fear, anger, panic. This was, as they say, the mood of the season. Despite the occasional voice of reason, explaining that this year was like any other, that flu deaths were statistically on target, the genie spirit of fear, with pale wings and feathered legs, continued to flit about our lives. "I just want to stay home under my quilt," a friend said. "If the weapons of mass destruction don't get you, the mad cows will, and if not the cows, the flu."
And it was true, our cup of fear had runneth over: rogue states, nuclear arsenals, the scary things hidden in a hole beneath a prayer blanket, in the spine of a dairy cow, in the hug of a friend. You don't have to be feverish for the evil fairies to come.
The steady, soothing voices are right. This flu season has been more or less routine--nothing, for instance, like the horror of the Black Death or the flu epidemic of 1918. Nothing, for that matter, like the common illnesses that still kill millions of poor or malnourished people every year. Nothing like the suffering that has come to the Iranian city of Bam, its homes flattened, its grieving mothers coming into our warm safe homes on the front pages of the morning papers.
What made this flu season feel so ominous, it seems to me, is that--peering from behind our battened hatches, our fortified harbors and armored cockpits--we understood that we cannot create a protocol for, or response to, every threat. This relatively harmless virus, showing up as it did amid a chaos of uncertainty and precariousness, reminded us that we are no different from the world's billions, all of us a hair's breadth away from illness and death and catastrophe. That weapons of mass destruction are everywhere, innocent in their mute, biological simplicity, exploding silently in the air around us. And that calamities arrive, like Prince Prospero's unwelcome guest, to remind us that no vaccine, no protocol, no "response" will ever relieve us of our mortality.
Rosie got sick on a Tuesday night. On Friday morning, I woke up with a fever and the sensation that someone had poured quick-drying cement down my windpipe. Forty-two hours later, at 2 a.m. (union edict), I was sitting in the emergency room at Duke Hospital, describing my symptoms to Dr. Wang. By that time I had completely lost my voice, and spoke in a delicate whisper. I mention this only because Dr. Wang was himself all delicacy-- a slip of a man in his white coat and silver accessories--and whenever I am around such people I always feel a certain amount of corn-fed American guilt. Sick as I was, I could have hefted the man in the palm of my hand.
To make matters worse I insisted on giving a long whispery speech about how, given the inflammation of my trachea and larynx, what I was really suffering from was probably a parainfluenza, and not a true influenza. This was a mistake, since Dr. Wang and his staff immediately labeled me a problem, somebody who would have to be "managed" instead of merely monitored. Dr. Wang dismissed my parainfluenza theory, told me I had the flu, ordered up a chest X-ray, then disappeared down the hall, a fleeting vision, an apparition in white and silver.
Several hours later I drove home, took my prescription codeine tablets, got my cup of water, rubbed some VapoRub on my chest and gave my husband a pleading look that asked him not to allow the house to burn down, at least not with the children inside, while I slept.
That was a Sunday, four days before Christmas. On Monday, the children and I were still coughing and feeling a bit woozy. In the midst of their recovery from the flu, Henry and Rosie had managed to catch standard-issue colds, and were lightheaded and pink in the gills. Nevertheless, we went out to do some shopping, no doubt raising, with every step, our own little clouds of pestilence.
While we were gone my husband wrapped a bandana around his throat and crawled under the quilt on our bed. He emerged briefly on Christmas, and seemed to be pulling out of it, but woke a few days later with a high fever and a cough. On New Year's Eve he got into bed early with his cough syrup and VapoRub and cup of water. I settled the children in their beds, and waited, wondering what apparition, feathered, naked, pale, winged, might be hiding in the shadows. Images flickered in the dark corners: children taken by a microscopic virus, by the shifting earth, by missiles exploding in an ancient city.
At midnight there were distant sounds of celebration. Laughter, a voice calling out, firecrackers breaking the blue silence. The concussive pops rang high and hard, puncturing the world's thin membrane of fear and releasing, at last, the tension of the night.