Maybe once a year, usually at this season, you quietly vanish from polite society to keep a very private rendezvous under the covers: it's that inevitable winter weekend in bed, trysting with the flu.
The appointment, it seems, has been made for you (probably last August), by some arbitrary power on an entirely different schedule from yours.
"Not now, no time," you mutter that Monday when you first sense that your presence soon will be required. "Not me," you add, defiant, "I jog."
By midweek you're bargaining: "Okay but could we make it some time next month instead?"
By Thursday you're trying to immobilize it with ascorbic acid, alienate it with garlic, steam it out in the shower.
By Friday afternoon preordained, the flu rolls over whereever it's been napping in your system, stretches, yawns and lunges, grabbing you simultaneously by the throat, bronchii and gut. Nothing can touch it now; its will, not yours, be done. The only thing left to you is deciding how you will host it during the next couple of days.
Think fast, while you're still able. Where would you feel most comfortable drinking plenty of liquids, getting lots of rest and keeping warm, aside from Acapulco? In other words, are you a Puritan or a Pamperer? There are no undecideds.
Puritans resist going home sick, refuse going to bed. The very thought unnerves them, depresses them, makes them feel decadent, consumptive, weak. "Nothing wrong with me," they croak, nearly upright, clinging to the door-jamb. "Am not clinging, perfectly fine, all in the mind . . ." they trail off, losing their palce in the sentence, quivering with suppressed coughs.
True Purtians will not only finish out the day at the office, the market, the meeting, they will also try to buy supplies on the way home. Once there, they attempt to carry on, eyes glittering with fever: They rummage through full attache cases, kitchen cabinets, errand lists, social calendars. When at last forced to bed, many compromise by lying down in their jogging suits -- which do keep feverish persons warm -- for reassurance: the stripes are still running down their legs, they were tough once, they'll be tough again.
You have to watch them in the early stages, before the flu attains total control. Turn your back for a moment and the bed is empty, while somewhere in the house is the muffled sound of laborious crawling. That is the Puritan still attempting to get to a cocktail party, or seeking something constructive to do in bed.That crash you hear might be the sound of a drawer wrenched from a desk, to be reorganized on the blanket. These tidy souls will also go in serach of checkbooks to balance, kids' homework to do, even chain letters. Simply doing nothing is distressing to them, as is taking medication. They know they don't need it. Aspirin appalls them; anything stronger horrifies. The preference is for toughing it out, frontier-style, while biting the bedclothes.
And even the bedclothes must be orderly. In a classic example, a woman was awakened in the middle of the night by her flu-stricken husband; it was impossible to avoid noticing that he was changing the sheets.
A Pamperer, by contrast, heads for shelter the instant illness strikes. Advanced types do not go home, they check into the Madison Hotel and immediately dial room service, housekeeping, and the staff physician. Most others veer off toward the bed most familiar to them, and once under the covers, call for help. They will, if left to their own devices, pamper themselves, but if they can they'll get someone else to help them along. Stricken one Friday with a nasty intestinal flu, a man I know lurched home and phoned his wife at her office with a request for "something comforting for dinner." Unclear about his symptoms, she returned with thirty-five dollars worth of Szechuan food. Most Pamperers are more articulate about their symptons. In fact they tend toward eloquence: "It's nausea but worse than nausea, it's like having a hangover on a rolling ship in the third month of pregnancy . . . it's a wheeze but more than a wheeze, it sounds like air going up the chimney if the flue's half-open and a sparrow's caught inside. . ." Or, in Roseanne Roseannadanna-style "There's this funny stuff in my throat, tasts sort of green, like mold maybe, like oil paint before you put the linseed oil in, and it makes a little ball in there, and when I try to cough it up it kind of flattens out like a slug, and. . . "If you are the nurse in this situation, avert your eyes and create distraction by asking what the patient might care to eat. The Pamperers' requests are never simple. They don't want tea. They don't want toast. They want heated pina colada mix, spiked with sage and blackstrap molasses, in a coconut shell, with a floating parasol. wThey want nursery food: graham crackers mashed in milk, butterscotch pudding with Lorna Doones and sparkles, they want Cream of What topped with custard and animal crackers and they want to keep the box to play with. With about the same frequnecy that the Puritan arises to crash about the house, the Pamperer calls for help: wanting to be tucked in, told a story, turned on the other side; they want you to bring them the comics, the Contac, and that robe in the window of Neiman Marcus; they need someone to change the TV channel, move their car, fix their parking tickets. "It's a wonderful escape from reality for a weekend," says an esteemed colleage, who seems to be unusually proficient at staying on reality's cutting edge. "You get to be a little kid again and being sick legitimizes it. How else would you get so many backrubs? When else would anyone grill a banana on peanut butter on toast points for you? Just one thing. It's not a good idea to be sick too long, you can wear out your mate's good will."
Whatever your persuasion in flu customs, many of us do wind up in bed too sick to function and not sick enough to sleep through the entire ordeal. For the patients and their nurses, here are some suggestions, culled from experts, for suffering with a modicum of grace: THE SETTING On Friday you want clean sheets in cheerful patterns, maybe something by Marimekko. You want a lobster bib from the nearest seafood restaurant to protect the sheets from spills. You want a quilt that will hug you through a chill and obligingly sail off during hot flashes. By Saturday evening you don't care about the bib and regard the spillmarks as triumphal marks of meals successfully gotten down; the ochre there is Campbell's tomato, lunch; the earth tones, that's oatmeal twice; the green, that's the guacamole dip brought by a solicitous if misguided neighbor. By Sunday you've shredded the quilt and you want fresh sheets, white ones you can crayon and paint on to relieve the boredom. Amusements Have the slides of your favorite vacation projected on the ceiling over your bed.If you have any mirrors up there, or anywhere else in the room, have them removed. The sight of yourself will only dispirit you further. Send out for a projector and feature film from the local library: You might request Lost Weekend, but pass up Love Story. Television: In your condition, anything on PBS may require too much concentration. Stick with easy things on Friday night: a rerun of The Rockford Files, Dallas. You might want to check with your doctor if on Saturday you find yourself attentively watching The Flintstones, Daffy Duck, Batman, Fat Albert, and cackling deleriously at them all. If you can follow the evening news and at least half of Agronsky & Company, your prognosis is good. However, if you notice a sudden change in viewing habits, there may be cause for concern, especially if, after a lifetime of avoiding Sunday-morning TV, you find yourself holding on only for the Oral Roberts show. READING MATERIAL: If you feel strong enough to hold a bound book with covers and a spine, try Lie Down In Darkness, The Big Sleep, Bedknobs and Broomsticks, and anything by Agatha Christis. Avoid Death in venice. A magazine might be easier to handle, however, and your choices also make good diagnostic tools. If you can read U.S. News & World Report, you're faking. Predictions for frivolities like Gentleman's Quarterly and Glamour indicate a good prognosis; you're interested in getting dressed again. When you start hitting Screen Gems and True Detective, take your temperature again, and if there is a feverish urge only for The National Enquirer, get the number of your local emergency room and keep it on hand. THE TELEPHONE: compare symptons with other sufferes. Try to solicit attention, sympathy and ice cream if you want to be pampered. If you're a Puritan, bark authoritatively into the receiver that you've licked the Big F. DRESS CODE You're supposed to keep warm. If the jogging gear does it for you, suit up. If on the other hand you feel cosseted by flannel and ski socks, wear them. Then again, you may prefer the Victorian Invalid look: this calls for a crocheted lap throw, lace or ascot at the nec, hanky in hand, chaise longue instead of bed, and a hacking cough. In a regressive mood, you might feel a need for the comfort of pajamas with feet and trapdoor seats, teddy bear, your old baseball cap, and a pout. Some people like to keep up appearances, arranging themselves against the pillows in silk, chiffon and maribou, with blusher mandatory for women, bronzing gel for men. Tell these types how marvelous they look, even with thermometers hanging out of their mouths, and they might oblige by swallowing down the Vicks. PACKAGE DEALS THE FIRST-CLASS, ALL-FRILLS FLU (Not for anyone prone to guilt .)
Send yourself flowers. Hire a string quartet to play at your bedside. Have your meals catered by Avignone Freres or Ridgewells. Demand Nyquil in a champagne glass. Dior dressing gown, Cardin smoking jacket are de rigueur. Order in a pair of binoculars with which to play Rear window. Invite a friend over to shave your legs, or your chin. Hire a masseuse, a rolfer, a haridresser, and a person with a kindly voice who is paid to say only, "There, there, I know, I know." Your phoned is answered, your sponge-bath fragrant, your doctor makes housecall. COACH-CLASS FLU This requires a supportive friend or family member to take care of you. If there are kids in your house, they will be amused all weekend, and fed, as well. (In first class, they are taken on a supervised trip to Disneyworld.) You will be brought plain food on plain dishes, and your medication will be placed on your nighttable but not served up in anything but a jelly glass. You will often call, or crawl, for help, which will not be instantaneous. Grooming is up to you, but the towels are clean. Your contact with your doctor is restricted to his answering service. Major amusements: People magazine, the Sunday paper, the nutrition count on the back of the Mapo box. No sponge baths; alcohol is provided, but you have to give yourself your own rub. NO-FRILLS FLU Your menu revolves around TV dinners, order-in chicken and leftovers. Amusements center on Dial-a-Phenomenon, Dial-a-Joke, Dial-an-Ailment, Dial-a-Prayer and, when things take a more serious turn, Dial-a-Saint. Eating is accomplished by crawling to the kitchen, or hot plate, as the case may be, and you consume your meals hanging over the kitchen sink, dining on cold Spaghetti-Os out of the can. Toilet tissue and those prescribed plenty of liquids run out on Saturday night. Your family is away, or disinterested, on nonexistent. Your friends are out of town or at the Kennedy Center. On this plan you get no get-well cards or concerned calls, and your attempts to contact your doctor end in an electronic voice advising you that his number is no longer in service. Sunday morning you put your coat on over your nightclothes and stagger into the 7-Eleven, where you forget what you came for. Your reading material consists of the bills that came in Saturday's mail. All your nighclothes are at the laundry so you spend the weekend in a tattered raincoat, like a flasher. OPTIMISTIC NOTE: People on this plan are found to have an amazingly speedy rate of recovery, possibly because remaining on the plan quickly becomes unbearable. THE FANTASY FLU This is for people who have a low tolerance for pain and the real world. The favorite fantasy is Island Escape, though Cabin in the Woods, Paris and Presidential Mansion are frequent runners-up. For "Island Fantasy" you need a large poster of Negril or St. Thomas to paste over your window, a long-playing record of sound effects featuring surf-breaking-on-beach, and a sun lamp installed over the bed; when you return to work you'll look peaked, but tan. Added touches: fruit-and-coconut-plentya liquids, a fan behind a potted palm, and bamboo serving trays. If this plan, or any of the other Fantasy Flus, works for you, be warned: You may have culture shock when you recover.
One final cautionary note. Recent medical studies warn that too much sleeping may be hazardous to your health. This will make the Puritans happy, believing as they do that taking to one's bed is symptomatic of moral failure and accidie, one of the Seven Deadly Sins; no wonder, they pounce, it's bad for the body as well.
But for the rest of us, temporarily confined to bed with that difficult nesting companion, influenza, perhaps if we host it well, feed it and amuse it, and give it plenty of rest, we won't have to meet again till same time, next year.