It had been four days of flu as I went to sleep last night, the night before the secondary pneumonia and sinus infections were diagnosed. I fell exhausted into bed, slightly lighter than I have been due to almost a week’s worth of suppressed appetite. My head hit the pillow and as I breathed shallowly, I thought of little else but the feeling of the breath coming in and out. I had experienced this before, the same tightness and weariness in my chest, the same feeling of lightness in my body. I was eight or nine at the time.
My sisters and I were playing on the top bunk, and I was so glad the runny nose and barking cough had finally stopped. In my memory, we had all been sick but were now recovered enough to play, albeit quietly, up there among the blankets. I remember a distinct feeling of peace, when something changed in the arrangement of our bodies up there on the bunk, and it shifted something in my lungs. Suddenly, I could get no air at all.
My sisters called for my mother as I gasped for breath. She entered the room, bug-eyed, and with one motion lifted me from the bunk and threw me over a humidifier on the floor. It wasn’t working. She called an ambulance, and I can remember, even now, the feeling of watching the well-known streets pass quickly and peculiarly behind me from the back of it. First my road, then my neighborhood, then the high school, then the town center. I don’t remember more after that.
I do remember the feeling, many years later, of lifting my daughter, pale and small in her pink long underwear, after a rough stomach bug. She had lost considerable weight and felt like a baby in my arms, though she was probably seven. She would have trusted me to carry her anywhere; she had so little strength, and she knew she was in good hands.
This year, dealing with flu and pneumonia as a grown adult, I’m pretty much taking care of myself. My sweet husband shops from any list I’ll give him, but it’s me who makes sure the fluids go down, me who makes the doctor’s appointments, me who puts my toweled head over steam, me who takes my temperature, me who decides on Advil and Tylenol together, and me who puts together the honey-lemon-ginger concoction that has become my constant companion. I fill two travel mugs with boiling water from the kettle so I won’t have to get up more than I need to. This is what grown-ups do when they’re sick.
Yet somehow, last night when my head hit the pillow and I was so, so sick, I had the distinct feeling of being carried, and I knew my mother was there, counting my breaths with me, in and out. With clarity, I saw that this is her nightly ritual, flying to her husband and daughters and grandchildren, putting her hands on us somehow, helping us in our need. Because we all need it, don’t we, no matter how old we get. A love that knows, lifts, and cares for us as precious, beloved children, even when the road unrolls behind us faster with every day. And the truth of it made my eyes fill with tears, and they dripped down my face and pillow as I breathed in and out, carried in her maternal, protective love which never dies.