Magazine | June 03, 2019, Issue

The Cruelest Cough

(Mike Blake/Reuters)

The spring clad all in gladness
Doth laugh at winter’s sadness.

Except when you have a spring illness. The popular-science explanations for why we get sick in spring include changes of temperature, frequency of rain, and explosions of pollen. Probably the real cause is bad luck, its badness deepened by the fact that the rest of the world is stirring, brightening, coming to life. You are the miserable exception.

One day you were engaged in the daily round — meeting deadlines, banging the drum of publicity, laying plans to generate more deadlines and more opportunities for publicity. You flew in from the Midwest, or was it the South, crept into the city in a rolling yellow beetle, greeted the spouse, stowed toiletries and accessories in their proper bullpens whence they could readily be fetched for the next round, when all at once, there was no here here. Some one or thing opened the sluice that let out some of your innards and all of your energy. You now feel simultaneously insubstantial as a paper bag and immobile as a pallet of bricks.

The vacated spaces inside you have been refilled with mucus. In some spring illnesses you do not notice this in daylight hours, or as long as you are standing, walking, or sitting upright. But the moment you recline, it flows. The last thing in Dante’s Hell, after the circles of sinners and the crawl down Satan’s torso, is “the sound / Of a small stream which trickles down the steep, / Hollowing its channel.” This is the stream that trickles at the top of your throat in the middle of the night. Dante’s stream is Lethe, forgetfulness. Your stream is Pay Attention, wakefulness. As an aid to insomnia, the trickle in your throat stimulates coughs — light little barks, varied by trombone/tuba eruptions. To not keep your spouse as awake as you are, you have to move to the sofa.

You consult doctors. If yours is an illness caused by bacteria, they will prescribe an antibiotic. They may also suggest, for symptom relief, sprays for the nose and lozenges for the throat, plus the old standby of chicken soup, with a chaser of honey, lemon juice, and hot water. The fact is, many of these illnesses are not curable, only endurable. They must run their course. Their Triple Crown is you.

The world shrinks drastically. Outside the trees are donning leaves, women are shedding layers. It passes like a rumor, or a memory. At dusk the chirp of sparrows is joined by the songs of more tuneful birds, purple finches and robins. They filter through blinds, as from musicians at a race-blind audition. From necessity and the sheer desire for human contact, you do venture out once a day. There is a diner in the building, where you can lunch, whose regulars are schoolkids and alters. You are not the former, so you must be the latter. One block beyond is the pharmacy, with its shelves of over-the-counter meds in alternating blocks of patented and generic, and its counter where you line up to fill prescriptions, hopefully not behind too many fellow sufferers; since they moved the magazine rack, reading material is limited to labels on packages for adult diapers. One block beyond the pharmacy is the neighborhood Italian restaurant, which is a block too far. Happily, they deliver; their Balto beats a path to my door with the nightly francese or marsala.

Conditions at home deteriorate. Illness generates clouds of used tissues, winkling in between the pillows, washing up alongside the bed under overhanging blankets where they will not be seen. Cough drops you tossed for some reason in mid-suck miss the waste basket and adhere to the floor. Half empty glasses populate living-room table-tops, paraphernalia crowd the nightstand — spoons, nose spray, discarded packets and wrappers. My wife when ill solaces herself with a headset and smartphone playing the autistic genius Bach interpreter. I solace myself with two punched pillows and a snooze. You can’t read anything more complicated than the flotsam of online: Twitter chatter, digitized tabloids reduced to boobs-and-crime essence. P. G. Wodehouse reads like Heidegger. I do find myself actually finishing newspaper articles (when I am healthy all I have time to read is headlines).

Tasks that are the work of 15 minutes loom like the rise of China as global hegemon. Now is a chance, you think, to put your dark heavy socks in a bag and lay out in their place your light fun ones. You would as soon enter an Ironman triathlon. Your temper crumbles along with your capacities. If you seem patient it is only because you are torpid. Robocalls, a cough suppressant that gave you nightmares, doctors’ counsel that disagreed, provoke bitterness and melodrama: Why am I being afflicted with such insensitivity and incompetence?

Then, like feedback, comes repentance. Like the phases of revolution, compensation is always too severe. Think of the people you know who are worse off, much worse: requiring transplants, hosting tumors, sealed up post-op like a time capsule, all ordinary bodily functions blocked. Is your sorrow like unto their sorrow? You play the always-losing game of the Suffering Sweepstakes, according to which there is on earth at any one time only one person entitled to complain, the worst-off: trans Rohingya cyclone victim thanks to climate change . . . I am unworthy.

Will you give it to your wife? Did she give it to you? Years ago a doctor told us a consoling thing: You are both colonized with each other’s germs. Marriage is like the Age of Discovery: White men gave liquor and smallpox, red men gave syphilis. Deal. If one of you is healthy and the other still able to listen, there is always the last resource of communication, reading aloud. The detective defends the past from too-good-to-be-true job offers and men with sinister laughs, the lost boy becomes a man under the watchful eyes of the bear and the panther. You’ll get better; you always have.

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

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