I’ve been out with the flu all week. It has not been the most… thrilling of experiences, to say the least. I’d go so far as to say it’s been pretty miserable. Being feverish, achey, coughing, and general unable to walk more than ten feet at a time is not exactly my idea of pleasant.
The problem with the flu is it just sort of knocks you down and makes you lie around for a few days until it’s done with you. Plans? Cancel them. Work? Call in sick. School? Hope you have a friend to get those notes. You can’t even concentrate on a book, usually–it’s just television and movies and feverish dreams.
We had a discussion at dinner the other day as we all hid behind bowls of soup and hoped we were recovering. My mom asked if we–me, Tucker, Dad, Grandmother–remembered being sick as kids. Tucker doesn’t have many memories about it. He said he blocked them out. Dad had awful asthma as a kid, and remembers that; Grandmother had a few stories. So did mom.
Personally, I have a list a mile long of stories I could tell you about when I was sick: late autumn nights on the huge swing under the oak tree, huddled under a blanket and coughing with the croup. Shuffling between the kitchen and the living room in New York to watch Persuasion with a mug of theraflu in my hands. Lying on a pallet in my parent’s room. Hallucinating about Mary Poppins in the hallway when I was eight and had the stomach virus. Swine flu, twelfth grade: 104ºF fever, three seasons of 30 rock in two days. I don’t remember a single episode. Catching laryngitis and reading the fourth Magic Tree House book, then trying to talk to my grandparents on the phone. Generally, when I was growing up, sick days were when I attacked a pile of books and drank a lot of gatorade.
One time when I was about seven years old, I came down with some sort of infection. I don’t remember what it was that time around–a stomach bug, the croup, the aforementioned time I got laryngitis–but I do remember that I was stuck in bed all day long. I was homeschooled at the time, so most of my schoolwork became reading work: math and writing would wait for me to feel better, but reading has never been a chore.
We lived in Charlottesville at the time. This, however, is not about the beautiful red-gold of the mountain’s leaves in autumn, or even the views you can get of Albemarle County from Skyline Drive. This is about a lanky seven year old stuck in bed with some variation of a sore throat and a copy of Red Sails to Capri on her lap.
(To this day, I have never met anyone else that has read that book. I wish I knew why. From what I remember, it’s an excellent story, and I thoroughly enjoyed the book. It has the added bonus of being a Newbery Honor book, but I digress.)
I shared a room with my sister Emalyn until I was fourteen, and my bed at this point was by one of the windows in our room. I was in the house alone–Mom had taken Em with her down to the mailbox at the end of the driveway, Dad was at work, Tucker at pre-school. I decided I wouldn’t wait for mother to return: the thermometer was right beside me, I knew how to use it. I could figure out how bad my fever was (or wasn’t) for myself.
I stuck it under my tongue–still watching Mom and Em until they slipped around the far side of the house towards the door–and waited for the beep. When it came, I pulled the thermometer out of my mouth and read the numbers: 97.3ºF.
I burst into tears.
Mom came running down the hall.
I don’t remember exactly what she said, but I remember the motions: her sitting on the edge of my bed, smoothing back my rather messy curls, trying to understand why her eldest had suddenly burst into tears during the two short minutes she’d been gone.
“Honey, you’re not dying. Shhh. Tell me what happened.”
“No, I am!” Distraught and a little shamefaced, I showed her my thermometer, sniffling. “It said my temperature is 97.3! And 98.6 is normal, and over that is a fever, and under that is dying.”
“Oh, Connor, honey, no! 98.6 is an average. Lots of people have normal temperatures that aren’t 98.6! Yours must be one of them.”
It took her a while, but I eventually calmed down and accepted the fact that my average body temperature was less than 98.6. I settled back down into my covers, either to read or sleep or both.
Despite this incident, it was only when I was eighteen and had started college that I realized I was melodramatic. This might seem a bit shocking; surely the girl who, at seven, declared her own death by the evidence of a drugstore thermometer, would realize her melodramatic nature much earlier? But no, I was happily ignorant of this part of myself for a solid eighteen years, two months, and something like fifteen days. I held my brother as the standard of all things dramatic, and with such a level, how could I ever live up? No, I was the calm one, definitely.
Hardly. I’ve always dwelt in hyperboles and extremes. Something is my favorite, I love it, I hate it, it was the best thing ever, it was the worst thing ever. Apathy and I have never been very good friends.
And here, at the start of a new year–a year of more unknowns than any year I’ve yet experienced–I’m glad for that. I’m grateful for my dramatic pauses. I’m grateful for years at a school that led me to finally realize that I am dramatic. I’m ridiculously grateful for my parents who managed to put up with three kids, two of whom remain ridiculously dramatic and often quite loud. Dramatics lend themselves quite easily to storytelling, and that particular aspect of myself is one I wouldn’t change for the world.
I don’t know what the next year holds. Honestly, I don’t even know what today holds. This is my fourth sick day in a row, and while I don’t want to infect my co-workers, I am starting to go a bit stir crazy. I have been wildly discontent for the past few weeks, swaying between job options and career ideas and wondering why am I here, dear God, please take me anywhere but here, I need to get away. I need to not be here. I was walking around downtown with my best friend the other weekend having a grand old time after brunch and I almost burst into tears because I didn’t want to be there. I wanted to be hanging out with her, but every fibre of my being screamed for me to just get out of town.
But I’m here.
I don’t know why I’m still in Philadelphia, honestly. I love this place: it’s home in a way that no other place ever has been, or ever will be. I love this city with the very core of my being, but I’ve been feeling that restlessness that sent me to work in North Carolina during the summer of 2011, right after my first year of college. The restlessness that whispers Go. Just go. This place will still be here. The people will be here. Just go. And then, when you’ve seen a bit more, come back.
So no, I don’t have a plan for the year. I don’t have a slew of resolutions to try and keep. I don’t know what jobs I’m applying to next. I don’t know what I want to do for a career in the short term or the long term. I just know that when I opened a letter that I wrote to myself on January 1, 2014 and stuck in an envelope that said DO NOT OPEN UNTIL 1 JANUARY 2015, this is what I found:
Through all the confusion–I hope you write.
I know that’s hard. I know the words don’t always come, and I know they so, so often feel inadequate. Write them anyway. They’re important.
I didn’t mention med school, or confusion about that path. I just talked about what I most wanted for me in that year, two thousand fourteen, and waited for me to catch up with myself. I did, but that’s a story for another time.
(No, I’m not applying to med school. Yes, I am certain. No, my parents aren’t completely used to the idea yet, but they’re getting there.)
The important thing here is that I’ve never had much of an idea where I’m going. I thought I did, but I usually figure out the next step just before the opportunity comes my way. Maybe this year, I’ll pay more attention to that and less attention to keeping everything on schedule. Maybe this will be the year I finish a novel (or two?). Maybe this will be the year I find a new job that I don’t like any more than the current one, or maybe it’ll be the year I find my dream job. Maybe I’ll read a hundred books, maybe I’ll read ten.
(Okay, that’s a lie. I’ll definitely read more than ten books.)
I don’t know what lies ahead–never have, despite what I might have thought. Does anyone? All I know is what lies behind. And I might not want to be in this city right now, dearly as I love it, but it’s like Neil Gaiman wrote–wherever you go, you take yourself with you.
Maybe I’ll stick around for the next decade. Maybe I’ll fly off to Ireland for a few years, or go see Australia, or move to California where there will never be ice on my window. But then again, maybe it’s just time to embrace the fact that I will never know what life’s going to throw at me–and it’s really best for everyone if I just remember to roll with the punches and write about them afterwards.
So today, when the thermometer beeped and I pulled it out of my mouth to see 97.3ºF, I smiled. It might not be the perfectly average 98.6, but hey. The last thing that melodramatic seven year old would want is to be called is perfectly average.