Fever in the morn­ing …

When you get the flu, ra­tio­nal think­ing seems to van­ish in the haze.

New Zealand Listener - - CONTENTS - By Peter Calder

When you get the flu, ra­tio­nal think­ing seems to van­ish in the haze.

The tui in the lit­tle val­ley that runs down be­hind our house is croak­ing. I don’t nor­mally no­tice it, though I of­ten en­joy the hon­eyed singing of the sum­mer pairs that feed on the flax flow­ers.

But as I lie in bed with noth­ing much to do ex­cept stare at the bare spin­dles of the leaf­less fig tree, this raspy tui crowds every­thing else out of the au­ral land­scape.

I gather that they de­vour and re­gur­gi­tate sounds they hear – the beep of cars un­lock­ing seems pop­u­lar – but if that’s so, Old Croaky must have been in­spired by a lawn­mower that wouldn’t start. Af­ter three days of his tune­less­ness, I’m cer­tainly be­gin­ning to won­der whether killing na­tive birds is okay if you’re act­ing in self-de­fence.

It’s an odd­ity of the hu­man con­di­tion that when we are ill, we soon start to doubt we will ever be well.

Be­ing sea­son­ally sick al­ways feels like it’s the first time. This win­ter’s bout of flu was the first in 13 years to get un­der my de­fences, re­in­forced as they are by 20 years of vac­ci­na­tion. And to keep it in per­spec­tive, it wasn’t the full serv­ing: I had a de­cent fever, but no night sweats, no aching joints. The hack­ing cough, which per­sisted for three weeks af­ter I had “re­cov­ered”, was never ac­com­pa­nied by a se­ri­ous short­ness of breath.

Yet with­out be­ing pre­pared to cop to a charge of hav­ing man flu, I have to say I was pretty mis­er­able. And from the depths of my bedrid­den mis­ery, I couldn’t re­call ever hav­ing felt so bad, be­cause present-mo­ment lived ex­pe­ri­ence trumps mem­ory every time. I can re­mem­ber the colour of my lunch box in primer one and the date dec­i­mal cur­rency started, but I have no mem­ory of pre­vi­ous at­tacks of in­fluenza. This was sick­ness such as no one had ever felt.

Im­per­cep­ti­bly but quite sud­denly, I sus­pect, that sense of dumb sur­prise gets re­placed – I’m not sure when; I’ve not been well – by a creep­ing fear that this is the way it’s go­ing to be from now on: life, which is sick­ness, will be sick­ness. It’s an odd­ity of the hu­man con­di­tion that when we are ill, we can­not re­mem­ber what it was like to be well, and we soon start to doubt we ever will be.

It’s a func­tion, per­haps, of how the in­valid’s world be­comes bed-size or room-size at best. As symp­toms ebb and flow, we slip in and out of sleep at odd times – late af­ter­noon, say, or just af­ter break­fast, when the nor­mal nap­ping of healthy peo­ple would be out of place.

We eat oddly too: soup in the morn­ing, por­ridge at night, and we won­der at the ease with which ev­ery­one else car­ries on liv­ing as if the world were not, in fact, com­ing to an end.

In this shrunken world, our present re­al­ity be­comes the only re­al­ity. Try as we might to re­call sun­lit days at the beach, time spent with grand­chil­dren and the joys of cook­ing and eat­ing, all th­ese mem­o­ries sink into the grey sludge of the im­me­di­ate mo­ment.

Friends are no use. They might email or text an in­struc­tion to “Get well soon” – or the even sil­lier Amer­i­can­ism “Be bet­ter” – as though re­cov­ery were an act of will and ill­ness were some sort of fail­ure of char­ac­ter. They never think to visit, to make a cup of tea, maybe play a hand or two of cards. “Oh, it’s just the flu,” they say. “He’ll get over it.”

It takes smug well­ness to gen­er­ate such offhand­ed­ness. They’ve for­got­ten that you for­get: you for­get how bad it is un­til it hap­pens to you, and then you can’t be­lieve it was ever this bad.

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