Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene "By Degrees"

An intemperate holiday season.

By Margaret Renkl

JANUARY 12, 1998:  I was too happy last month. The house was warm, everything smelled of fir boughs and homemade chocolate sauce, I'd finished my Christmas shopping two weeks early, and every night my little family dined by the glow of Advent candles. In their pre-Christmas excitement, the children looked like rosy-cheeked cherubs in footie pajamas; at 16 weeks, the new pregnancy had finally progressed beyond morning sickness and daylong exhaustion.

I felt great. My husband and I were even viewing the extended-family holiday extravaganza with equanimity. As a schoolteacher, his two-week vacation still gave us nearly a whole week alone together after the relatives were back on the highway. What I should have realized, while writing Christmas cards and reporting all this bliss, was that my daily life had become a challenge to the gods.

In truth, I don't believe the gods are vindictive. I don't believe they sit up in the clouds and peer spitefully down, alert for signs that certain human beings have forgotten their place and have overlooked their obligation to suffer and mourn. When the gods strike down a person who has achieved too much happiness, when they smudge out with their Goliath thumbs the busy little ants of mankind scurrying manically from one cake-crumb of pleasure to the next, I don't believe the gods are acting with cruelty. I believe they are acting on behalf of all the people on earth who are not so happy themselves, who are not at that very moment feasting on plum cake and raspberry wine.

The only thing worse than picking up the phone and hearing a litany of unvarying complaints from a terminally depressed friend is picking up the phone and hearing a chirpy self-satisfied voice enumerate her many blessings. I recognize this truth, but for a few weeks early in December, I forgot it. For a few weeks in December, I chortled in barely contained glee. Changing my toddler's diapers, I hummed; sitting in the elementary-school hook-up line, I whistled. In the grocery store, I waited patiently as slow-moving old people blocked the aisle while comparing prices on cans of tuna. I turned to smile at other drivers waiting beside me at traffic lights. I dropped dollar bills in the bell ringers' buckets.

Even as the ink was still drying on the cards my son and I made, the gods were gathering forces for destruction--not flood or famine or conflagration this time, not war or wrecking winds. No, the source of my undoing came in the form of a handshake, a bear hug, a child's sweet kiss. Invisible, insidious, borne on the affections of the people I love best, the havoc of the gods came this year in the form of a microorganism called, appropriately, influenza--which means "under the influence of the stars."

People catch the flu more often during the holidays, according to epidemiologists, because increased travel and the slobbery ensuing greetings between loved ones--not to mention crowded, overheated rooms and passed plates of homemade goodies--provide the virus with ideal conditions in which to spread. I prefer to see it as divine retribution for too much holiday cheer.

Nevertheless, whether through scientific or supernatural means, the bug invaded my happy home on Dec. 20, exactly 24 hours after Metropolitan Nashville schools shut down for the holidays.

The first sign of trouble came during a routine delivery of gifts to family friends. The little boy in that family, a charming and kindly 7-year-old, is my 5-year-old son's absolute hero. Everything this child does must be replicated in our house; every toy he owns is coveted; every opinion he expresses is mimicked at our dinner table. That Saturday morning, though, when we arrived bearing gifts for the hero and his family, my little boy suddenly preferred to sit in the car. Only when he was told that a gift of his own was waiting for him on the coffee table did he rouse himself to join the fun. When he got inside, however, he eschewed fun altogether in favor of slumping on the sofa while all the other kids ran wildly throughout the house and the adults tried to talk over the din. I should have taken his temperature right then.

Other than being slightly more introspective than usual for the rest of the day, our fairly introspective son didn't actually seem sick that afternoon, but when he lay his head down on the dining-room table and wept at the sight of the mashed potatoes, we knew for sure. He was in bed, asleep, by 6:30 that night--something that hadn't happened since he was 9 months old--and by morning his fever was 103. Vengeance had arrived on the first day of vacation.

Vengeance progressed in the usual predictable ways thereafter: coughing, sore throat, raging fever, runny nose, vomiting. Three days later, right on schedule, the congestion in his head turned into an infection in his ear. The sick child and I weren't even all the way in the door from our trip to the pediatrician's office when my husband announced that the baby was acting odd: He was lying in the middle of the kitchen floor, flailing his arms and screaming inconsolably, apparently in protest of having been denied a potato chip. This time we got out the thermometer immediately. Yep: 103 degrees. We called the relatives and canceled the holidays.

A sick child can watch television all day. A sick child can be convinced that medicine, even distasteful medicine, will help him to feel better. A sick child can understand and accept promises of pleasures to come. A sick baby can do none of these things. A sick baby can only cry.

Our baby cried for five days. He cried and clinched his lips closed when we tried to get him to drink Gatorade. He cried and clinched his lips closed when we tried to get him to drink Tylenol. He cried when we put him down, and he cried in our arms. At night he cried nonstop except for a few 20-minute intervals of whimpering. During those five long days, he cried into my neck, he wiped his nose in my hair, he coughed into my eyes, and he vomited into my lap. On the third day of his illness, I started to feel a little funny myself.

When my own fever reached 103, the obstetrician on call that night told my husband to take me to the emergency room: Dehydration can bring on premature labor. We got there just in time to learn that the two other emergency rooms on our side of town were closed to all but critical cases; everyone with the flu was coming over to join us in what we were warned would be a four-hour wait to see the doctor.

Pregnancy has its privileges, and after only an hour of being breathed on by several dozen sick people, we were taken to an examining room. "It says here you're four months pregnant," the nurse murmured sympathetically, looking at my chart. Taking my temperature she added, "And that poor little baby's just a-cooking in there."

Time passed, and we all survived--even, apparently, our roasted unborn child--but we're wary now of too much good fortune. Having the flu is like waving at Cerberus across the river Styx. You're not dead, but you're close enough to hear the beast's throaty growl, to smell the foul stench of his doggy halitosis. Nearly three weeks after the gods first began waging germ warfare on our household, we're finally feeling better. But we don't feel good. Listen to me, all ye gods and goddesses watching from on high: We're better, but I swear we don't feel good.


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