Due to a recent snow and ice event, I have been stranded at home for four straight days. My only contact with the outside world has been through frequent Facebook forays and occasional incoming phone calls. How is it possible, then, that I could wake up on the fourth morning of isolation with swollen glands and a scratchy, sore throat? Where in the heck did that germ come from?
I typically have a very strong immune system, which I attribute to having spent the last 29 years of my life surrounded by sniffling, sneezing, coughing and spewing teenagers and being exposed to practically every virus and bacteria imaginable. Been there, had that. I remember being sick all the time in my early years of teaching, catching every bug that crawled its way into my classroom, but eventually my tolerance level increased and I became, as I like to claim, “one tough ol’ broad.”
I was not so tough as a child. My young mother was overly protective, so my siblings and I were not allowed to play outside in the rain (we might catch our “death of cold”), and playing in the snow meant first being bundled in so many heavy layers that movement was nearly impossible and hardly worth the effort anyway since we were only allotted a few precious minutes before frostbite or hypothermia had a chance to set in. And while other 1960s moms were rushing their children off to visit their sick little friends (in order to go ahead and expose them and “get it over with”), my mom was locking us behind closed doors and shielding us from all the nastiness the world had to offer.
I’m sure my mom thought she was doing the right thing, but when I was in the first grade (there was no mandatory kindergarten at that time), I was threatened with retention for missing so much school. In that first year alone, I was bombarded with billions of germs I had never been exposed to before, and consequently I contracted German measles, chicken pox, mumps, repeated bouts of tonsilitis, ear infections and colds. I was a sickly and puny child, and one of my most vivid memories of that time was watching all the other neighborhood kids riding their bikes in the street while I stood at the picture window, clawing my face, with my mom yelling in the background to stop scratching or I would end up with scars (she was right).
Fortunately for my own children, when they were growing up I did not share my mother’s opinions on germs or her techniques for illness prevention. While I did not purposefully expose my sons to whatever virus was floating around, I also did not take drastic measures to shield them. Whatever happened, happened. That may sound callous to some, but I parented under the assumptions that fresh air was the best medicine and that a little dirt never hurt anyone (especially growing boys). Maybe it was just sheer luck, but all three boys–despite their share of typical childhood illnesses–still managed to grow up healthy and strong.
It wasn’t until a few years ago–after my sons were mostly grown–that I started turning into my mother and becoming a full-fledged “germaphobe.” I think it started about the same time the media began predicting a pandemic that would decimate the world’s population because of the “bird flu” virus that was already ravaging parts of Asia. That was in 2005; then, in 2009, it was H1N1 (the “swine flu”) that the media screamed was going to kill us all. Now, I was smart enough not to take too seriously all their over-dramatized hype, but at the same time I was still a little worried–what was a middle-aged woman with a strong aversion to needles supposed to do to protect herself from such danger? I should have told myself to “suck it up” and take the darn shot; instead, I decided just to be more careful.
I became a pro at opening push doors with my hips, shoulders and forearms, and I learned to use my sleeve or a paper towel to turn doorknobs and flip light switches. I lectured my students about coughing and sneezing into their elbows instead of their hands, and I became semi-obsessed with washing my hands and using Germ-X to kill off the bacteria that was probably transferring from every surface I touched. I started avoiding water fountains, salad bars and buffets like the plague they were waiting to become, and I became quite adept at traversing staircases and escalators without the benefit of handrails (and I haven’t fallen yet!). I even started washing the cantaloupe and watermelon rinds before cutting into them so as not to transfer possible salmonella or E. coli onto the slices I was getting ready to devour (it’s amazing, really, that in the previous 40 years I had never become deathly ill from failing to take such precautions).
Despite all these attempts at protecting myself, I still get a little freaked out, though. I find shopping cart handles to be particularly disgusting (did you know they’re supposed to be more germ-ridden than public toilet seats?), and I wonder how many dirty hands have wrapped around the handle on the gas nozzle (which has surely NEVER been disinfected). Don’t even get me started on the hidden hazards of hotel rooms! And even though I already knew not to accept lemon in my iced tea, I recently read that one of the most germ-infested items in a restaurant is actually the menu–yikes! I hadn’t even thought about that!
I do everything I can to stay healthy, and most of the time I’m quite successful. And yet now, following a four-day isolation in my own home, I have still managed to catch a bug of some sort. Go figure. I can’t explain it; can you? (Could it be that the germs actually invaded my system during my December doctor’s visit and have been lying dormant ever since, just waiting for the opportune time to catch me off guard?)
I’m reminded of a passage from The Sword in the Stone, one of my sons’ favorite Walt Disney movies from long ago. Merlin seemed on the verge of losing a Wizard’s Duel to the evil Madame Mim after she changed herself into a dragon–until Merlin, that crafty old guy, turned himself into a germ and infected Mim, thereby defeating her:
Merlin: “I have not disappeared. I am very tiny. I am a germ. A rare disease. I am called malignalitaloptereosis … and you’ve caught me, Mim!”
Madame Mim: “What!”
Merlin: “Oh, it’s not too serious madame; you should recover in a few weeks and be as good, uh … he-he, I mean, as ‘bad’ as ever. But I would suggest plenty of rest and lots and lots of sunshine.”
Madame Mim: “I hate sunshine! I hate horrible, wholesome sunshine! I hate it! I hate it! I hate, hate, hate …!”
I guess it’s time to quit whining about a little sore throat, accept reality, and go in search of some throat lozenges (or maybe the ingredients for a soothing hot toddy). I’m not going to let a microscopic germ defeat me, and hopefully in a few days I’ll be as good as new–and as “bad” as ever!
“You have a cough? Go home tonight; eat a whole box of Ex-Lax – tomorrow you’ll be afraid to cough.” ~ Pearl Williams