April 17, 2003
Paper Trail


We're three-quarters of the way through the daily drive to work -- his hands on the steering wheel, my hand on his thigh: our default marital *commute position* -- when David suddenly erupts with a single, explosive, snot-intensive/window-rattling/sinus-imploding sneeze: the first such eruption of the day.

"God bless you!" I say to him automatically.

In point of fact, God bless you is no longer my default sneeze response. It used to be -- back in the I have decided to follow Jesus! glory days of my youth -- and then beyond, into motherhood, when a sneeze often heralded the beginning of some ghastly childhood illness that was certain to keep everybody in our household awake and cranky for at least the next seventy-two hours. In those days, God bless you was less a benediction than a desperate plea for divine intervention. Later, when the Tots were older -- during the drunk dysfunctional days just before I ran away -- we used to say 'Shut up' to each other, whenever somebody sneezed. We were firmly in the grip of Beavis & Butthead at the time, and I'm sure we all thought it was uproariously edgy and amusing and cool to say such a thing to each other. Now it just seems incredibly mean-spirited and awful. These days, I generally go for something gentle and generic and safely secularized: Goodness! or Gracious! or May the deity or belief system of your preference confer health and long life upon you!

Still, "God bless you" is what pops out of my mouth now. Old habits die hard, I guess.

"Ex-CUSE me!" David says wetly, once the violence has passed. "I didn't even see that one coming!" 

And with one hand on the steering wheel, he continues to negotiate 880; with the other hand, he begins groping around on the floor beneath the drivers seat. I know what he's looking for: the half-empty roll of Charmin Ultra we keep in the Subaru for just such a nasal emergency. By this point I'm sure it has probably rolled all the way under the seat, out of reach, and is floating around somewhere on the floor in back ... along with the orphaned shoes, the uncapped felt pens, the empty Fiji Water bottles.

Quickly, I unzip my purse and pull out the auxiliary roll of toilet paper.

"Here," I say to him, ripping off a fat wad of Charmin from the roll. "Use this." Still driving, eyes never leaving the freeway in front of him, he takes the toilet paper gratefully and mops up his nose (and his chin, and the lapel of his suit jacket, and the steering wheel). Then he scrunches the snotty tissue into a ball and tosses it on top of the dashboard, with all the rest of the snotty used tissue balls.

"I know that's gross," he says apologetically, nodding his head in the direction of the pile of old snot rags. "I'll clean it up tonight."

This is his first full day back to work in three days. He was feeling vaguely unwell all last weekend -- even as we were chauffering my son around town, in the pouring rain, shopping for baggy pants and Brothah Lynch CDs -- but somehow he managed to ward off a fullblown viral meltdown until Kyle's visit was over. When it hit, finally, it hit hard and fast. Wracking cough. Soaring fever. Blistering headache. Crippling ennervation. He limped into the apartment on Monday night, his face the color of week-old egg salad, and quietly announced that he was "sick." As soon as we got home from taking Kyle to the airport that night, David went straight to bed and pretty much stayed there for the next forty-eight hours. He spent most of Tuesday in a fog of OTCs and misery, sweating beneath a pile of blankets. Wednesday he went into his office for a couple of hours, against my wifely protests, but at least he came home early that afternoon and napped the rest of the day. I got home from work that night and the detritus of his convalescence was everywhere: crusty juice glasses on the kitchen counter. Sticky cough syrup rings on the headboard. Crumpled magazines. Rumpled blankets. Sad little puddles of socks and underwear and shoes, left abandoned on the bedroom floor. And everywhere -- from the bedroom, to the bathroom, to the cluttered desktop real estate surrounding the computer -- those little piles of snotty used tissue balls, like a sad, soggy paper trail of illness.

Last night he was still barking like a Pier 39 sea lion -- I crawled off my spot on the living room sofa at 1:15 a.m. and dosed him with Robitussin, and then got up and did it all over again at 4 a.m. -- but this morning he climbed into his suit and tie and announced that he was well enough to work again.

"I feel fine," he said. "You'd hardly know I was even sick." And he promptly burst into another four minute episode of wet, strangled coughing.

"If you say so," I said doubtfully.

I knew there was no point in arguing with him. When somebody you love as much as I love my husband hates being sick as much as David hates being sick -- when they steadfastly resist all your attempts to coddle them and nurture them and hover over them in the middle of the night, mustard poultice in one hand, rectal thermometer in the other hand, like a demented Grandma Nightingale -- you don't press the issue. Instead, you observe them from a safe, quiet, neutral distance. You resist the temptation to lay your hand on their forehead every time they look at you. You crawl out of bed at 1:15 a.m. to give them cough medicine ... but only if they really need it. (Read this: only if nobody in your household has gotten any sleep in the past seventy-two hours.) You stuff an auxiliary roll of toilet paper in your purse, in case it becomes an *issue* during the morning commute.

And you definitely don't say 'Shut up" when they sneeze.



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