Both my son and I are dependable sun-worshippers. We seek the heat. We shiver in slight breezes, even on summer days, and during winter months we stretch out on warm bright patches of floor, even public floor. But this sickness has turned us. Suddenly being hot is hard work. Sunlight makes our eyes hurt. It makes our heads hurt. Outside in the long-awaited heat we breathe worse, and we cough more. I catch my son with his face inside the freezer. Not looking for anything—just because the air is cold and crisp. I shuffle around to join him, lean in to an ice cube tray as though for a kiss I haven’t been drinking alcohol since January (Which is probably why you got this thing, my inner drunk suggests), but now I fight urges to drive to the local liquor store, with its walk-in freezer. Would the employees notice if a teetotaler mother and her child strode with sleeping bags into—but not out of—the beer freezer? And how is it I grow so blissful imagining camping out in a spot–with its shudder-inducing preview of winter– that you couldn’t normally pay either of us to enter? Who are we, these strangers on the hunt for arctic air? That’s another crazy thing about getting really sick. Even as you curl inwards for hours at a time, closer to your own body than ever, you become more and more unrecognizable.
We lose weight. When you’re always on the verge of choking you don’t dare put anything in your mouth. Besides, we’re not hungry. I lose nine pounds in five days, which provides me with a lame joke: I am so bikini ready….for quarantine. The other lame jokes involve puns that interchange coughing with coffin. If my thoughts drift to death—if I find myself, let’s say, googling whooping cough induced suicide—it might be because breath is life. And neither of us can get a good breath. A coating of mucous that feels like Elmer’s glue—heavy and sticky—cakes our noses and throats. It provides a low-grade suffocation, a suffocation drill. But trying to clear the sticky film away by inhaling or exhaling deeply will cause a coughing fit, which is like being strangled for real. So we don’t take deep breaths. We take little puffs of air in and out through Elmer’s mucus, saving ourselves for the next cough. I think of plants catching fire. I think of turtles taking naps on the road. If gills were guaranteed to work would I have the courage to carve into us? If he was dying, and if they could be low, like a shark’s–would I be daring enough to slice right between my son’s rib bones?
Misery and good fortune really are bedfellows, which is strange enough. But even more unexpectedly I find, during the darkest night, that fortune tugs away more of the sheet. For instance, we can’t speak for hours at a time. We don’t dare–and when we are brave enough to risk coughing fits by trying, our voices cut out. But some people are born not speaking. Some people, in one hit or nick to the larynx, will never speak again. The word luckily keeps clunking around in my head. We’re not DJ’s, luckily. We’re not professional opera singers, luckily. Luckily we aren’t smack in the middle of reading the voice for a major animated motion picture. My son misses his last weeks of his last year at his friendly elementary school. But he’s not taking exams yet, luckily. He’ll be deemed no longer contagious in time to attend his graduation ceremony, luckily. The back yard space between the two soccer goals—which my son constantly zings and spins and kicks so frantically that merely watching him feels like standing inside a pinball machine— falls eerily still. He mourns another missed swim meet, another gone soccer game. He manages to stand in goal for his soccer team’s semi-finals game, squinting sunwards to watch the strikers do his job down-field. He’s there but not there, which must feel something like riding a hoverboard over your house. When a robber’s breaking into it. They lose by a single goal. But they weren’t headed for the Olympics, luckily (We feel so bad, so belatedly, for the two Australian Water Polo players who contracted whooping cough right before the 2012 London Olympics. Luckily we’re not Melissa Rippon and Nicola Zagame.) We have no diagnosis yet, and no medicine. But luckily we have a house, clean water, beds, toilets, Kleenex. On and on like this we fall and rise with self-pity, with gratitude, more gratitude. For every poor me that flares up inside, there are four more I’m so luckys stomping in to extinguish it.