Josna Rege

97. Sick in Bed

In 1960s, 1970s, 1990s, Books, Childhood, Inter/Transnational, reading, Stories on February 19, 2011 at 5:25 pm

It was the third week of December and I was about eight years old. At school we were busily preparing for our big winter choir concert, but there was also an epidemic of chickenpox going around, and student after student was succumbing to the disease. Because I knew all the words of all the songs, each student who dropped out of the picture made my role all the more important. I was eagerly anticipating the big event, when I would have a chance to shine. But I was not to benefit from others’ misfortunes for long.

On the big day I awoke bright and early, but almost immediately felt that something was not quite right; there was a faint prickling feeling all around my middle. Lifting my shirt, I found a tiny raised bump on my stomach. Perhaps it was a bite or a scrape; after all, there was just one. I didn’t want to look further for fear of what I might find, but I couldn’t help noticing a second little spot, also on my torso. Immediately I was faced with an ethical dilemma: nothing was visible on my face, arms, or legs, so I could simply not mention what I had found and go to school today; even if it turned out to be chickenpox, at least I would be able to sing in the concert. But then I would risk infecting even more of my friends. If, on the other hand,  I  told my parents, they would certainly err on the safe side and keep me home, ensuring that I would miss my concert. What ought I to do?
While I agonized, I scrutinized the spots, hoping that somehow I could identify them definitively as not chickenpox. As I continued to waver, I discerned a third spot; and although it was a very faint one, almost imperceptible, I knew immediately, without a doubt, that I had the chickenpox and heaved a deep inward sigh of disappointment as I called out for my mother to tell her the bad news.

It wasn’t long after I had come down with the chickenpox that my sister Sally did, too. Not only did I miss the concert, but both Sally and I were quarantined for three whole weeks, over Christmas and throughout the school holidays. Not only could we not go out, but our friends couldn’t even come over to play. We just lazed around the house, playing with our toys. It wasn’t so hard, really; the hardest part had been making that decision to tell my parents.

I loved school at that age and had no desire to miss a single day, so I didn’t look forward to being home sick. In any case, I was rarely sick. I remember once having a terrible head cold in Kharagpur and having to blow my nose so much that I went through every handkerchief in the house in no time. Finally my mother tore an entire cotton bed sheet into squares for me and I went through the whole pile of them as well. It wasn’t much fun having a streaming cold, but I do remember feeling a certain sense of pride at my highly productive nose-blowing technique.

Dysentery was another matter: that was miserable through and through. I had to go three full days with absolutely nothing to eat and only barley water to drink, getting weaker by the day. But by the fourth day, I was allowed to have boiled potatoes. Plain boiled potatoes–no salt, no butter–never tasted so good. If they stayed down, I could have stewed apples the next day; and if all continued to go well, I could graduate to boiled chicken the day after that. Thanks to my parents’ near-fanatical vigilance about boiling all drinking water, washing hands thoroughly before meals, and throwing away any item of food if it fell on the floor or a fly settled on it, even for an instant (no five-second rule in our house), I don’t remember getting dysentery more than twice in all my years of living in India.

Even though I never exaggerated an illness so as to make my parents keep me home from school, when I was really ill I was grateful for their protection from all the forces of the outside world. It was not until I was at university, when I fell sick in the reading period before final exams, that I realized that I was now on my own; there were to be no more sick notes. I had more than one final paper due and a long one that I was  particularly dreading but, for the first time, as my body was wracked by the chills and fevers of the flu, it struck me with a never-before-felt force that my parents could not protect me anymore. From now on, however sick I was, deadlines would loom inexorably, and I would have to rouse myself and meet them. (Thinking back to the strength of my feelings then, I realize how much things have changed. It would never have occurred to me in a million years to contact my professor, plead illness, and ask for an extension.)

I didn’t fall ill much as a young adult, either. I hardly remember being in bed for more than a day or so or ever missing work due to sickness. The few memories I do have are delicious ones of long hours of undisturbed reading, once the initial fever and chills had broken.  One year, stricken with a summer flu, I started Moby-Dick, one of the many American classics which, not having grown up in the States, I had never read as a child. Propped up on pillows and bundled in quilts despite the summer’s heat, I delved into Melville’s masterpiece and between short bouts of tossing, restless sleep, trod the cobbled streets and rickety stairs of seamen’s inns in old New Bedford and Nantucket, delighting in the former schoolteacher Ishmael and his larger-than-life bedfellow Queequeg. Alas for my relationship with Melville, my flu had run its course before I had reached page 250, and the outside world drew me back into its busyness before my schoolteacher had even managed to get out to sea. Someday, I promise myself, I will return to him.

Once I began teaching fulltime I could never afford to fall sick during the term, but my health would often give way just as soon as classes were over. Lolling luxuriously in bed, I would indulge guilt-free in hours of uninterrupted reading for pure pleasure (what Andrew used to call “extraneous reading”—any book I picked up during the last, tortuous days of my doctoral studies that had nothing to do with my thesis project). It was during one of these end-of-term periods of enforced bed rest that I read through most of Jane Austen. Although my mother was a passionate Austen fan (presenting Pride and Prejudice to me when I was nine and Emma just a couple of years later), I had never taken to her as a girl, and it was only thirty years later, when my everyday duties were suspended and I seemed to exist, for a time, entirely out of time, that I made my way through Emma, Sense and Sensibility, Mansfield Park, and Persuasion.

The same thing happened, at the end of another teaching term, with Harry Potter. I had followed the news of the series with interest but had never taken them very seriously, although I had asked my parents to bring British editions for Nikhil and Tyler back with them from their recent vacation in England (many of the uniquely English words and idioms having been excised from the American editions in the ridiculous assumption that they would decrease U.S. sales). As end-of-term grading loomed, one of my students asked me if I would direct her senior thesis on the Harry Potter books. I promised that I would consider it, but that I needed time to decide. Once again my body obligingly provided me with that time as soon as classes were over, and as soon as I was well enough to sit up in bed, I began devouring the books like candy, putting one down only to pick up the next. The only thing that slowed me down was their bulk, as they slipped repeatedly out of my hands, each one, it seemed, a couple of hundred pages longer than the last. (I did agree to direct Malini’s thesis, which was called, Harry, England and St. George: an analysis of J.K. Rowling’s Use of Merrie England and New Britain in the Harry Potter Series.)

In the past few years, after more than 20 years of teaching in which I was not out sick for a single day, I have realized that I need to take the occasional sick or personal day. What a gift! What a revelation! That one can take a day off from business as usual and use it simply to breathe, regain one’s inner balance, and write a new story for Tell Me Another.

Tell Me Another

  1. Sick-day reading! Among my favorite memories! I was in the hospital 3-4 times during grade school and read “To Kill a Mockingbird” each time. It completely took me away from the hospital bed. I wanted to be Scout and wished my father were Atticus Finch (sorry, Dad). During senior year in college, I was in bed with a cold for a full week. I had to read “Montaillou” for a history class and curled up for days on end, reading and snoozing. I was sorry to finish. I wanted to stay longer in the medieval town with its Cathar heretics and inquisitors, the peasants and the court scribe, the whole thing fascinating, vibrant, surprising, suspenseful, giving a gut feeling for the time and place. The book is based on Inquisition records from 14th century court testimony of ordinary (yet remarkable) people in a tiny, isolated town in the Pyrenees. It’s a spectacular find in terms of scholarship and full of illuminating details. I remember reading that the houses were so low and so constructed that a passer-by could literally lift up a corner of the thatched roof and peek inside. (At least, that’s how I remember it.) Imagine!

    One of the few stories my mother left about her life was that she had measles at Christmastime, like you. She couldn’t have been older than 7, as the family were still in Winnipeg. The public health service came to examine her and her brother. Detecting measles, he slapped a Quarantine notice on the door, and my mother was frantically upset for fear that Santa wouldn’t be able to come. I think my grandmother told her that Santa had already had measles, so it wouldn’t be a problem. (I come from a line of pragmatists.)

    I’ve read all the Harry Potters but the last and loved all of them. Also have seen all the movies. Rowling created an entire world. There’s something compelling about that Englishness, the medieval (there it is again!) tropes, the likable and interesting kids, and the balance of modern, mythical, and medieval that to me seems convincing and not at all strained, nor cutesy, nor fake spiritual. I’ve read that the theme park in Orlando is quite good, and while I’ve never thought about going to Disney, I’d actually think of going to this one. Am I just a sucker? Am I getting old?

    • There’s nothing like returning to re-immerse oneself in a beloved book, especially since there is both familiarity and newness each time. I don’t know Montaiilou, but I can imagine to all-encompassing experience of its world, complete with thatched houses with their roofs sloping down like the flaps on a nomad’s tent.
      Santa has already had measles–I love it.
      You’ve certainly identified key elements of JKR’s winning formula in the HP books. I’m not immune to their seduction but I think I would personally draw the line at a Harry Potter theme park in Orlando! Aargh! If there was any romance before it would effectively kill it for me. Still, I’d like to visit its website…

  2. Probably my most favourite sickbed reading was Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Ann of Green Gables series. I had chickenpox in grade five, just having coming to Brampton from Noida. To my exceeding dismay, I missed favourite t-shirt day upon which I had planned to make my “cool” debut in this new world. But Anne more than made up for it all in the end!

    • Childhood disappointment is felt so keenly. Thank goodness for Anne, who did her part in welcoming you to Canada! And knowing you, I’m sure you made that cool debut in your own unique way not long afterwards. xo J

  3. One of my earliest memories are from the year I was five, when I fell off my bike and landed in the hospital for a few days. The doctor gently explained that I had a fractured skull — he used the examining table paper to sketch a picture of my cracked-open head — and gave my mother strict instructions to keep me quiet and away from school. I can remember staring out the window at the Georgia pines, horrified at the thought of missing my art class… and also completely stunned at the little kid’s revelation that 1) my previously reliable body could actually prevent me from doing something I wanted to do; and 2) that the world’s activities could, and would, sail on without me.

    Fourteen years later, a bout with mono against reminded me to be grateful for good health and regular stores of energy.

    I completely agree with you on the value of a “sick” day, as a day for warding off sickness by resting and/or regaining serenity. There’s not enough room in our culture for that.

    • I can imagine that the doctor’s drawing of your little cracked skull on the examining table paper would have made quite an impression, no matter how gentle he was. How dare the world go on without you?! But seriously, that is a revelation that much older people might benefit from. And I agree that if you haven’t suffered any condition that completely saps your energy, then it is hard not to take that energy for granted, let alone empathize with others whose reserves are depleted or suppressed. By the way, tired Mom, do you have a means of taking the occasional “sick” day to recharge your batteries?

  4. We all need time off now and again, but how many people nowadays enjoy reading during their enforced days out of the rat race, I wonder?
    I also remember very few times in my childhood when I was really sick, though chickenpox was one of them.
    Another was when I was sent off from Mount Hermon to Planter’s hospital in the town of Darjeeling and I lay there entirely alone for what seemed like a month. I think it was actually about a week. I had few visitors that I remember, and the diagnosis was the dreaded “liver disease” which could have possibly been Hepatitis, although I have never been quite sure. Such things were seldom discussed with children.
    After I became an adult I seem to have had much worse luck and developed other physical ailments
    but as a child It was a rare and rather pleasant thing to stay home for a day. My favorite was when I had my tonsils out and my mother brought home-made ice-cream in to the Welsh Mission Hospital and even read to me!
    The next time that happened was when I had my cerebral aneurysm and she read the Harry Potter series to me! Even though I was an adult, that was pure bliss!

    • Oh, I wish I could have visited you when you were at Planter’s Hospital! Was that the year before I came or have I forgotten it? You must have felt so alone. Being read aloud to is one of the great pleasures in life, and in my experience, the pleasure of reading aloud to an appreciative listener is equally enjoyable.

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