It started out innocuously; with autumn refusing to let go and temperatures so warm the building next door was able to put on a new roof in mid-December.
But two days after the roof was finished, everything changed, and abruptly. Temperatures dropped to twenty degrees, then even further to ten degrees, four degrees, minus eight.
Snow fell. A lot of snow. Lake Michigan resisted freezing for as long as it could, throwing off steam as its warm water equalized with the cold-as-needles air above it. It finally succumbed, forming thick ice that has extended the beach by several yards. Thinner ice that formed beyond the breakwall broke off into sheets that have been flowing north and south along the coast.
It’s been like this for two and a half months now. We Milwaukeeans have been traipsing around in layers under coats and heads wrapped in caps knitted by our grandmas, carrying our dress shoes in Pick ‘n Save bags. Our gloves are filthy, our scarves are stiff from breathing through them, and once we’re inside and take everything off, we do it with the verve of getting out of a straitjacket.
Then there are the viruses. This year I got my flu shot a little later than I’d planned—the beginning of December—despite warnings from my friend Gretchen that they aren’t good for your immune health.
“But the last time I didn’t get it, I got the flu and it rocked my foundation,” I told her. I’ve gotten a flu shot ever since and haven’t been sick.
This year, however, was different. On January 6 when my stomach seized up, in my head I went over everything I’d eaten the past few days, certain that I had food poisoning. I was barely over it by the time I started to teach on the 16.
On January 18 we had a music gig and played to a packed house on Milwaukee’s near west side. At the end of the night I was exhausted. The next day I couldn’t drink enough water.
Then came the sore throat. The exhaustion. The congestion. Memories of The Flu of 2011 made me twitch. I tried to fight it. But couldn’t.
It took a full three weeks to get over what turned out to be influenza. The whole time, I taught four sessions of Pre-College English, all in a row, from 8:30 in the morning until 1:30 in the afternoon. The faces of all eighty of my students swam before me as I stood in front of the classroom. Utterly exhausted when it was over, I collapsed when I got home.
As my body tried to recover, those of my students began to falter, one by one, not coming to class for a week at a time either to nurse themselves or their children who’d brought bugs home from school.
Several of my students brought their sicknesses into the classroom with them, along with their wet boots and coats and gloves, clutching boxes of Kleenex. I shut the door to begin the day’s lecture. There was sneezing, coughing, clogged voices. One student asked to be excused; when she came back she said she had thrown up. I reopened the door to let the cooties out.
Which didn’t help. A few days after I could finally breathe, my stomach seized up again, so badly this time that I had to cancel one day of classes.
Being sick became my life. No band rehearsals, no socializing, not even with John. I didn’t write or exercise.
One thing I did manage to do well was to eat like crap: potato chips, four-for-a-dollar ramen noodles, Doritos, chocolate milkshakes from McDonald’s.
I complained about it on Facebook, saying, “Eff-erooni, what a winter so far. Flu once, stomach virus twice since January 6. Hard out here for a pimp.”
Several people chimed in, expressing sympathy, others sharing their own tales of misery.
My friend Terri said, “Just think of it as building a wall of immunities while teaching. My daughter is in her fourth year of teaching elementary music and this is the first year she hasn’t been terribly sick.”
The night before, I had lain awake, despairing because I hadn’t been writing. I couldn’t think of anything to write about. My flu-addled brain was freeze-locked. When I woke up the next morning, I was still despairing.
Then Terri said what she said.
It got me thinking about “building a wall of immunities” as we make mistakes in life, many of them over and over again. The more you’re exposed, the more you learn—if you’re lucky—to never make them again.
I think about this when I get to know people my age who are still making the kinds of mistakes that are the hallmark of our twenties and thirties. Not changing patterns that stopped working for them decades ago.
It also makes me think about the people who aren’t good for us who come into our lives over and over and over again. Folks that Dr. Harville Hendrix say we invite into our hearts because they are like our mothers and fathers, with whom we’ve had tenuous childhood relationships that we want to fix.
This is one lesson that’s been difficult for me to learn: allowing people to get close who don’t deserve to be that close. These days, however, my wall of immunities no longer permits it.
My instincts tell me that Terri and Gretchen are spot-on about building immunity to sickness. Because last year I didn’t teach at all, having taken time off time to write.
There were times I didn’t leave our apartment for four days, because I was thinking and being and taking pictures and playing music and writing essays. It was one of the best years of my life.
The irony is that while I traveled from one end of my soul to the other and back, I had unwittingly weakened my ability to chart the real world. As soon as I returned to teaching and the real world, bam!
At the end of influenza, I sat in my hair stylist’s chair, so exhausted I was close to tears, not yet knowing that the following week I would need to buck up again when Round Two of viral gastroenteritis hit. This is the first week I’ve felt halfway strong in two and a half months.
If the flu vaccine I got in December helped at all, it did so in an extraordinarily limited way. Maybe Gretchen is right, maybe flu shots are worthless, and immunity is best built naturally. I don’t know what I’ll do next year.