Lessons Learned / Mike Turpin
Editor's note: This column first appeared in the New Canaan News in 2006.
Opposites attract. Opposites also marry and discover along the primrose path of marital bliss what the French call le difference. While the French celebrate interpersonal and social diversity (and long vacations), American couples struggle with certain fundamental differences such as how to deal with the various benign illnesses that plague a family. After all, it is flu season and these differences come to the surface during the dog days of winter.
In every relationship, there is a "drill sergeant" and a "baby." A drill sergeant views illness as a temporary setback that must be denied at all costs. Sickness is a self fulfilling prophesy and the sergeant is willing to let the symptoms play out. Sergeants hail from the "tough it out" school of hard knocks. A sergeant believes in mud poultices and Mary Baker Eddy. The baby, on the other hand, is always quick to declare a medical emergency or the beginning of a pandemic.
Men become babies when they are ill. They want their mommies. Women on the other hand, endure. Illness, like childbirth, is a temporary inconvenience that must be worked around. This plays itself out each flu season as men complain that their wives show them little sympathy when they are ill. Wives on the other hand, keep the house going even when they are sick and as a result, have contempt for babies who cannot get up to help.
Men never really notice when their wives are ill. "My wife never gets sick," a friend shared with me as his wife was coughing up a lung while we were out to dinner. Yet, when a man is sick, he reverts to fetal rocking, moaning and deep adolescent dependence. To a drill sergeant, this contemptible behavior is worthy of court marshal.
I should have noticed the subtle harbingers when my wife and I were dating. I knew she was a first-generation Brit. However, I assumed the whole "stiff upper lip" and "it's just a flesh wound" thing was Monty Python hyperbole. I assumed when the chips were down or up with the stomach flu, she would transform into a Florence Nightingale that would nurture me back to health. I recall my first illness while we were dating. She called my apartment and said she would pick me up for a party around 7 p.m. I was incredulous.
"Um, I've got a FEVER and I assumed YOU would be coming over,"(bringing soup, videos and sympathy until I was ambulatory) "Oh, you'll be fine," she remarked dismissively. Thus began my odyssey into the land of those who muscled through illness and denied its symptoms with sheer grit.
I had grown up in a household where sickness afforded you a sort of temporary celebrity status. In the home of my mother, there was an unwritten rule that if you were even thinking of getting ill, you went right to bed, eschewed all social obligations and incubated until the illness either hatched or the false alarm had passed. My mother gave you the benefit of the doubt and transformed into nurse extraordinaire. She would organize around the illness. She would hold a vigil by our bedside moving like Mother Teresa, a kind shadow in flickering night light -- cooling feverish heads, rubbing backs and humming soft songs. In a family where you had to compete for everything -- food, air, space and attention, illness gave you temporary immunity from obscurity. I often found myself envying my brothers when they became sick. My mother focused exclusively on her patient, orphaning the rest of us who had the misfortune of dwelling in the land of the well.
The arrival of a major epidemic like chicken pox or measles was greeted with 19th century pragmatism -- the infected child and his three brothers were quarantined together in a room until everyone came down with the illness.
"Best to get it all over at once," she would shrug.
In later years, we would feign illness by placing the thermometer on a hot lamp or enduring scalding hot showers to raise our body temperatures. We would then moan like ghosts wandering into her room to complain of a headache.
When I became a parent, I would fall to pieces with worry when my children would get sick. However, I also was trained to triage and nurture the sick. In a strange way, their illness made me feel more relevant. I suppose a few steps further down this bizarre self-centered road and I would be institutionalized with Munchausen's Syndrome.
Enter the British wife. To the British female, illness was a circumstance, not an event. I recall visiting her family and was seated at dinner when a car drove down the driveway.
"Oh that must be David," her Scottish mother mused.
"I thought David had a really bad flu," I said.
"Oh, he has a bit of a fever but he slept in his car at work today during breaks and is feeling more chipper. Besides, you are here and he wanted to say hello." (And infect me, was all I could think. Slept in his car? I mean how many parts of the body does one have to be bleeding from to merit medical attention in this band of Christian Scientists? Had there been more children in this Celtic brood but only the strongest ones survived? Perhaps this explained the freshly turned earth in the back garden.) I realized that in this man's army "sick was sick."
Years later, as we brought children into the world, the "Stiff Upper Lip" school and the "It Could Be Plague" school would routinely clash over diagnoses and prognoses. She would say, "It's just a cold." I would be certain it was histoplasmosis or ebola. At the first sign of a cough or sniffles, I was on the phone to the doctor or demanding my spouse reschedule her day to go sit in a pediatrician's waiting room. A headache could be meningitis. That sore throat could bird flu. "The last I checked none of us have been to China" my spouse would respond. " We ate Chinese food the other night. Those dumplings could have been under-cooked. "
Another wonderfully British trait for denying illness was passive aggressive resistance. Grinning with no intention of change is a very Continental European trait and an effective form of foreign policy. I can remember being upset when calling from work to check on our sick son and hearing that she was going to "give it another day" before seeing the doctor. Another day? I was not sure I could handle the lack of resolution. I wanted the symptoms and my own out of control projection sustained by a dose of antibiotics.
As more children were born, I mellowed, graduating from burning the pacifier when it fell from their mouths, to wiping it on my pants and popping it back in their mouths. My wife, born to a midwife in a small English village, seemed pleased with my progress. We made quantum leaps such as actually agreeing to carry on with a vacation if one of the children came down with the sniffles or developed a cough. We braved a dinner party if one of us felt a little under the weather. And yes, we did send a child to school before they had been symptom-free for 48 hours (that one had me sweating)
There's no doubt I am still cursed -- half hypochondriac and half Munchausen sufferer. I inherited my family's fascination with illness. I still conjure up extreme diagnoses when the kids are ill and am too quick to recommend a course of antibiotics to assuage my own anxiety. Pediatricians, after years of acquiescing to impatient parents who wanted symptoms treated, are beginning to side with my wife and are not as quick to prescribe the Z Pak or amoxicillian when the kids are running a low grade fever.
I suppose this pragmatic return to 19th century medicine is healthy. But, there are times when my entire family is fighting illness -- coughing and sneezing, spreading their mid-winter germs throughout the house. I hide, paranoid and alone in my den, wide eyed reading a book like "Guns, Germs and Steel." I may have lost the germ wars at home, but I am staying informed on epidemics and holding out for the day when they reconsider my years of paranoid hypochondria and say, "My God, he was right."
That's usually about the only time my wife declares she needs to take an aspirin.