Magazine | December 31, 2015, Issue

Down by Winter

I have flown into the city dozens of times, but this time — slam — it felt like a crash-landing in my ears. Nothing — yawning, swallowing, those little rubber ear screws that make you look audio-animatronic — worked. After we landed I heard as through a glass, darkly.

Not hearing is like a little imprisonment. It is not all bad. Happy hour in your favorite restaurant is now endurable. Nevertheless it is bad. Home conversation becomes a comedy sketch on marriage and/or old age. “. . . .” [Nothing] “. . . .” [Nothing] “. . . !” “I can’t hear you!” After a few days of this I went to the doctor. The cabbie, an immigrant, recognized me from a TV talk on one of my more obscure subjects. Quick, without looking it up, who was Gouverneur Morris? Isaac from Ghana knows. That was cheering. The doctor was not cheering, but he was the next best thing, which is clear. The inner tubes of my ears had swollen, trapping fluids. The three treatments from most to least aggressive were poking small holes in my eardrums; taking oral steroids; or a regimen of decongestants, nasal sprays, and gum chewing (innard calisthenics). We went with Number Three.

But this was only the herald of the illness. The illness itself, which came in its train, was one of those early-winter viruses without fever, coughing, sneezes, or any symptom except exhaustion. We are meant to sleep at night, but in the care of a winter virus, every day has inserted within it a little night, with its own sleep; sometimes two. And the fact that at this time of year, in these latitudes, the sun sets before five o’clock makes daylight, like wakefulness, a fleeting acquaintance.

You try at moments of resolve to go through the motions of normal life, but can only sleepwalk. I have written all my life, I can write anytime. I wrote on 9/11, I wrote with an office mate who liked to play pop-classical piano music full blast. So I wrote when I was sick — Russo–American relations, the Reconstruction amendments, campus craziness, terrorist murders — but as soon as I clicked to send, it was back to bed. I did a few things that were foolhardy. I went to the gym a couple of times. Sometimes a workout picks you up. Not these times. Every press felt simultaneously like an enormous effort and as if I were watching a film of someone making an enormous effort. I was both tried and detached. I went out at least once a day to my favorite restaurant, a short walk — three blocks, one-seventh of a mile. But going and coming I heeded every “Don’t Walk” sign, I yielded the right of way to every oncoming pedestrian. I might as well have surrendered my passport; where is this guy from, Iowa or someplace? We went out to dinner once. The other couple is entertaining and international (Italian, Czech). I sat on the wall side of the table, in a corner, smiling and answering every question put to me, but I could not have passed a Turing test. “My instructor was Mr. Langley, and he taught me to sing a song. Daisy, Daisy . . .”

Look, this should be the worst thing that ever happens to me. My wife was sicker than I was, her early-winter virus presenting itself as a hacking asthmatic cough. Together, we became connoisseurs of takeout. The doorman buzzes. I give the okay to send the delivery man up. I wait by the door until I hear the freight elevator, then I lean out into the hall to guide the meal and its bearer to their destination. Some delivery men — immigrants all — have startlingly feudal manners. One young man took his tip with a little bow. He will learn. Then to the table with the repast: classica pizza, half pepperoni; spaghetti al limone; matzoh-ball soup and a half sandwich, chopped liver on challah; California roll and kake soba. Like the U.N., minus demagogy and anti-Semitism.

I read my wife Sherlock Holmes stories. I have read them all aloud several times (except for the ones without Watson, which I read only once, disdainfully). We are not such aficionados that we know from the first sentence which story it is; there are preliminary feints, some quite elaborate (the addict in the opium den). But once the woman in distress or the noble lord settles into the proffered chair, we know where we have been and where we are going: the remarkable bequest of the eccentric millionaire to red-headed men; the doctor who is the scion of one of the oldest Saxon families in England; the ailing machine for processing fuller’s earth; the fat amusing employer and the electric blue dress. What keeps us coming back? Nostalgia: servants, telegrams, hansoms, smoking. Anglophilia: The Empire girdles the globe, and India, Australia, and, yes, the United States, are the homes of weirdos, cultists, and savages. Moral order: The fog may be thick and the gaslights dim, but nothing is noir; there is justice, and it almost always prevails. But of course the main attraction is the eternal dyad: intelligence, intensity, loneliness vs. convention, limitation, empathy. Holmes studies the world, Watson studies Holmes. We have all been both.

A sick person in the city is surrounded by security. There are 300 apartments in my building, the avenue beneath my bedroom window never falls silent; food, work, and medicine are only a phone call or a quick cab ride away. But the sick person does not feel secure. Sleep affords no dreams and little rest; adjusting pillows brings change only, not comfort. Time is the one cure, and time cannot be hurried.

The other day I heard a phone pinging. The fax? My wife’s office phone, behind two closed doors? No, I have heard this phone before. It is someone’s cell, high and clear enough to carry, in another apartment. Maybe the illness is lifting.

Historian Richard Brookhiser is a senior editor of National Review and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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