Life—and death—lessons from the flu.
I’m getting over the flu—I think. There are still spasmodic coughing fits and some phantom twinges of pain, and my energy level has yet to return. It was a horrible experience, but for once I feel proud that I really nailed it. I hit it right at the peak of the epidemic and consequently should be handing out press interviews, writing blogs, maybe even a book.
It’s no fun getting sick when you’re over 60. You don’t necessarily bounce right back the way you used to. Illness ages you. It shoves you another degree or two toward “old” that you don’t get back. And worst of all, it becomes a preview of your final illness, which I can guarantee will announce itself with “flu-like symptoms.” Every sore throat becomes, “Is this it?”
When I was a kid I would have killed for a sore throat. Back then I loved being sick. First of all, you didn’t have to go to school, and second of all, it gave you power. Being sick is about the only way a child can get power.
I had two long serious illnesses when I was growing up, and boy, did I milk them for all they were worth. I’d stay home all day in bed, listening to the radio (this was a very long time ago) and reading books. I got really good food prepared especially for me, with ice cream and unlimited ginger ale. People had to be quiet, and I lorded it over the entire household. Then, a catastrophe. My brother got polio and suddenly I wasn’t the star anymore. You should have seen the fuss. The public health department came to quarantine the household, and my parents were consumed with anxiety. All I could think was, “Why not me?”
These days things are a little different. First of all, it turns out the flu really hurts. This is no low-grade fever. This is that awful burning behind your eyes that means the fever’s edging up toward 102. This is coughing so hard that you start to black out. And worst of all—the aches. My hip joints and thighs were killing me.
No matter how I tossed and turned I couldn’t get comfortable. It was like lying on concrete.
And the vast colonnades of leisure time the invalid experiences—forget about it. Nothing held my interest. Not television, not the Internet and certainly not a book. The nights were the worst. I finally just lay on my back all night, staring at the ceiling, willing time to pass, praying to fall asleep. Believe me, when my time comes, my problem is not going to be desperately clinging to life. As soon as I start to feel uncomfortable I’m out of here.
You also need somebody to take care of you. My pug, Pee Wee, tried to help. He really did. He’s a very sensitive dog and he knew I was sick. So he kept bringing me food. Great big mouthfuls of slimy dog food that he would dump on my pillow and then stare at me until I ate it. Of course, I just pretended to eat it. I didn’t get mad. I feel that this sort of helping behavior should be encouraged.
You certainly can’t go to Publix by yourself. I tried that once and the results were disastrous. I was staggering so badly I bumped into an Entenmanns display and finally had to go sit on the bench by the checkout area where they park the old geezers. Then guilt overtook me. I was infecting Publix. Illness had so clouded my judgment that I was harming society at large. You don’t think so well when you’re old and sick.
What’s going to happen to people like me when age and infirmity take over our lives? I don’t have kids. I know a lot of people say they don’t want to be a burden to their kids. I don’t feel that way, I just don’t have any. And I never bought that long-term-care insurance, the kind for nursing homes. Was that a mistake? Is it too late? I have nothing against nursing homes. They seem quite comfortable. But why do old people dread them so? They keep saying, “Don’t put me in a home! Don’t put me in a home!” What do they know we don’t? And why buy insurance for that?
Well, last month a perfect solution to the long-term care problem fell into my lap. It happens that I own a house in Bradenton that I rent to a Mexican family: Jose, his wife and three kids. They’re good, respectable people, very religious. Jose was helping me fix a leak in the roof. We started talking and he found out that I owned the house free and clear and that I had no direct heirs.
Several days later he offered me a deal. I could live in one end of the garage. He would even set up a bed, nightstand, dresser and TV to show me what it would be like. He and his family would do everything for me. Cook my meals, do my laundry, drive me to the doctor’s. They would even help with my banking. And all I had to do in return was sign over the deed to the house.
Talk about a no-brainer. I grew up in Mexico and saw how they care for their old people, so I know I’ll be loved, comforted and protected. I’ve had Jose’s wife’s cooking, and it’s pretty good, particularly the tripe. The kids are delightful and swear they won’t mind wheeling me to the bathroom every couple of hours. Jose thinks he can get that grease stain off the garage floor, and if not, we can always get a cheap rug. And I actually like Spanish TV.
I’m having the papers drawn up as we speak. Of course, this is way off in the future. But what a relief it is to know that when the final sore throat starts to tickle, it will be I who gets the last laugh.