All I have to do is walk up to someone and ask, “How are you doing today?” and they fall onto my shoulder and tell me how miserable they are. Then they feel an astonishingly unpleasant need to stick their faces close to mine so they can tell me all the gory details — in the meantime spewing out nasty germs in my face. As they blab on, I can see their little microscopic spiddle germs sailing right toward me — and I cringe.
I also have friends who have emailed me to tell me how sick they are, how this is the first day out of several where they could finally haul themselves out of bed and use their computer. I like this way of letting me know about their illness a lot better. Germs can’t be transmitted through emails, so I much prefer this approach to those who feel a need to get up close and personal and cough their misery in my face.
They can call me if they like, and that’s fine, too; phone messages are not contagious, either.
I know what they’re all going through and I can sympathize with them, since I got a bad cold virus earlier this month and lost the ability to do things like sleep, and breathe. And I can honestly say it was the worst sickness I’ve gotten since I moved to Florida in 2002.
The myriad of dismal symptoms this flu strain offered up included such doozies as a hacking cough, a stuffed nose that made it difficult to breath, and a persistent sense that your entire body had been thoroughly stripped of anything remotely resembling energy. I’d crawl into bed shivering every night, and on some days dragged myself around the house like a cast member from “Night Of The Living Dead.” I nearly joined their ranks, too. Over the two-week course of this illness, during the first week I decided I absolutely had to get some work done.
I’ve had bad experiences with these flu bugs before. A few years ago, I got sick with the flu and decided to brave the hour long drive from where I lived in downtown Orlando to my office in Haines City. I dutifully got up early that morning and left around 8 for the dreaded and crash-prone Interstate 4. As unnerving as it is to consider it today, my life almost ended that morning.
I wasn’t getting much sleep with my nonstop coughing at night, and as I was driving down that very busy highway, I suddenly felt my eyes trying to shut, and my brain beginning to close down. It seemed like such a great idea at the time, because my entire body seemed on the verge of collapse. So badly did I want to succumb to it; in this state of exhaustion, the desire to give in to the collapse felt so much better than fighting it and staying concentrated on the road. Doing 60 mph on a highway, I was dangerously on the verge of falling asleep at the wheel. I was saved, ironically, by my sister Kerri, who is a night bird and almost never is awake as early as 8:30 in the morning. But on this particular morning, Kerri was driving to Fort Lauderdale to catch a flight to Jamaica. She called to tell me about the drive — and in the process, helped keep me awake long enough to complete my commute. I wonder if she had a protective sixth sense about me that day.
But I think the worst aspect of getting the flu bug is something else entirely: the almost complete inability to stay warm. Winter in Florida is hardly the same as being in my old stomping ground of Massachusetts, and this winter was milder than in past years. I think when I caught the flu we were still getting into the 80s during the day and the 60s at night — summer weather for many of the folks up north.
Even so, I remember lying on my couch watching TV at night with a heavy blanket wrapped over me. When it was time for bed, I’d toss off that blanket, and as I started moving for the bedroom, my entire body would begin shaking from cold chills. I’d jump into bed and pull the covers over me, still shivering for several minutes. But if I woke up in the night and had to get up, I’d be shaking violently again the second I got out from under those covers.
Then my dreams made it all so much worse. Several times I was transported outside, to what was clearly a northern city in the middle of winter. I’ve had this dream before, many times in fact: I wake up lying on a bench, in the middle of a park that’s devoid of other people, and it’s freezing out. I look at myself and see that I had taken an old newspaper from a trash can and used it to make a kind of blanket, putting one section of the paper after another over me. But it doesn’t help; my entire body is shivering from the cold. My teeth are chattering.
And I’m alone. I have nowhere else to go. So I lie there, shaking convulsively.
When you get the chills, a fever usually accompanies it, and when I finally drift off, my dreams often are violent and threatening. At the same time it all seems so real, so vivid, and often I dream that I’m still lying there in my bed. You get a sense of helplessness from this.
I can remember lying in bed, those covers pulled up to my chin, and I’d finally found a position where I felt warm. If I moved even one foot, I’d start to shiver again, so I remained motionless.
Suddenly I felt like I couldn’t move at all, like my body had just frozen. All I could do was blink my eyes.
Then I felt it. There was someone or something at the foot of my bed. He — or it — was hiding there, just out of sight, but I could sense his presence. In the darkness, I couldn’t see much … until I felt the hand reach up and touch my leg. Something was now climbing onto the bed. No matter how hard I tried to focus and make out what it was, I just couldn’t; the room seemed to get darker as I stared down at the edge of the bed. Any tiny bit of light in that room — from the moon outside, from the small night light on the wall — disappeared entirely as I stared down at what was climbing onto the bed. Was it a person … or an animal? I had no clue, but I could ominously feel that something was getting closer, touching my legs, then moving closer as it climbed onto my chest, sitting there for a moment at it looked down at me — and in that pitch darkness I couldn’t see what was about to engulf me…
In a perverse way, it all seemed so lucid to me, because all around me was the familar: I was in my bed, I could see the walls of my bedroom, and I truly believed it was happening.
Then I woke again. The room was once again silent. Peaceful.
And I’m absolutely terrified I’m going to fall asleep again.