I hate being ill.
You do too, I know. Nobody loves it.
The intense vulnerability, fever dreams, the confidence that this last cough dislodged a necessary chunk of your lung, the temple-pounding throb reminding you that every internal system hurts. Spread eagle on my back, bleary-eyed and staring upward, it’s possible for me to believe life will always be this miserable. I forget what it’s like to actually want food.
I spent the last days of my 2012 holiday vacation tormented by the flu, including several memorable nights lying awake all night, watching the hours tick by. One night in particular everyone else in the world was doing that too, since it was New Year’s Eve, but my countdown continued until roughly 7:30 a.m. when I finally decided to end this sleep charade and drag myself out of bed.
I did so, and feeling weak, lay on the floor four feet from the bed where I finally fell asleep.
On January 2nd I decided to visit the doctor and find out if this was the flu or ebola. I wasn’t sure anymore.
They made me wear a mask as soon as I entered the office, which I understood but seemed a little absurd since I was the only one in the reception area. I knew I was feverish but hadn’t appreciated just how feverish until the woman taking my height and weight asked me if I were finished.
I said, “Finished what?”
“Finished arguing with the wall,” she said nervously.
The doctor’s diagnosis was ‘flu’ although he is gay and therefore preferred to use the much more dramatic medical interpretation, influenza. It’s just a dramatical sounding word, right? (Yes, I used the word dramatical.) Influenza sounds like a sexy, intimate Spanish dance but with heavy coughing and mucus.
You’d think after shuffling through the doctors’ offices and my feverish disposition that I would head straight home. Of course, that would be the sane, sensible thing to do. Go. Home. But the problem was that January 2nd was a Wednesday, and everyone knows that Wednesday = New Comics Day.
It’s the day that the week’s new comics are available on the shelf. You walk in, greet the other comic book nerds, and head to the New Books section of the store to see which of your favorite titles showed up. Is there a new Walking Dead? What about Avengers Versus X-men? Did that new story from Locke & Key finally ship? I once had a friend interrupt my explanation of New Comics Day to say, “Wait, you’re telling me new comics come out every single week? Isn’t that overkill?”
We are no longer friends.
I am at a loss to explain what New Comics Day means to nerds like me. I thrill at pulling the brightly-colored copies off the shelf. Each darling book is eye candy and I experience some hard-to-explain tickle to be a responsible adult with this child-like hobby. Yes, this excitement could be saved until Saturday afternoon but showing up on Wednesday is the difference between watching the football game in real time and watching a recording of it later.
I’m not the only nerd to feel this way. The store is packed on Wednesday, all over us concentrating solemnly for five minutes finding our desired books and then suddenly jocular with our neighbors as we delight in the reading feast ahead.
Feverish and focused, I showed up last Wednesday wearing my illness-prevention-spreading mask.
The store employees whom I love razzed me about my mask and asked me the obvious, ‘You sick?’
In my only good zing of the day, I cocked my head and said, “Didn’t you guys read the paper this morning?”
For a split second they fell for it and their faces went blank. Visions of holocaust fallout danced in their heads.
I snickered behind my mask and they called me an asshole. These comic store men are a necessary part of my Wednesday experience.
I picked up my books, paid for them, and headed out with less than the normal fanfare and verbal abuse. They cut me some slack.
On the way out, I encountered a man roughly my age, dark beard. He leaned heavily on a cane. He was helped through the front door by two people who seemed obviously to be his parents. They smiled at me sheepishly and he made it through the doorway. I backed away. Whatever his health issues were, he didn’t need them compounded by the flu and I found myself glad I had continued to wear the mask.
They walked him through the store slowly, an arm on each of their son’s elbows.
Who was he? What was his story?
Two days later when I was mostly healthy, I called my friend at the comic book store to find out. I was right — the guy was my age. He has ALS, commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. He is gradually losing muscular control. One day, he won’t be able to chew his food or speak. He will be unable to turn the pages of his own comics.
I keep thinking about this guy and his parents specifically. They fascinate me. I’m assuming they are his primary caregivers. As primary caregivers, they are responsible for everything — food, medicine, adjusting his pillows, getting him to the doctor’s office/hospital as necessary, every trip to the bathroom. There are vital trips for his care, and non-vital. I would imagine getting him to “New Comics Day” is not a vital trip in their mind.
Yet, they came. They brought him.
Somehow, they understood his desperate need to be part of New Comics Day.
They love him.
January 2nd was icy and cold. The man was frail and using a cane. The three of them had to maneuver icy sidewalks and mini-snow banks to make it to the front door. I know, I did too. Even more reason to stay home or at the very least, having him wait in the car while they conducted his business inside.
But that’s not how New Comic Day works. As a nerd, you have to see those sparkling beauties on the shelf and feel the thrill of pulling them off the shelf yourself.
I kept visualizing the way they carefully shepherded him through the door. Perhaps this was less a hardship on them than I imagined. Maybe they are happy he wants to leave the house. Maybe they anticipate a day when he is no longer around and they want to make sure they did everything in their power to show him their love.
“He’s kinda declining fast,” my comic book store friend told me. “Four months ago he would come in without help. But in the past couple of months, he’s always with a friend or his parents picking up new books. They have to carry the new books to the front counter for him.”
When I get sick, I feel nobody in the world has been sick like this. Nobody understands suffering like me. And yes, having the flu sucks.
But I forget about the world of ongoing suffering, people whose lives aren’t interrupted by illness, they are dominated by illness, thrown into a life trajectory from which there is no ‘getting back to normal.’
There are living rooms out there converted into makeshift bedrooms. Rented hospital beds that will not get returned until there has been a death in the family. Parents who had hoped to escort their son down the wedding aisle now find themselves on a Wednesday in Richfield, Minnesota, summoning the physical courage to walk their son into an ordinary hobby store.
Even as I let these sorrows wash over me, feel the love and pain swirling together in these families, I am oddly heartened by the notion that even muscular degenerative disease cannot stop the thrill of New Comics Day. Until he can manage this no more, this man will show up on Wednesdays in sheer defiance. This Wednesday, he was alive, participating in the world.
Never underestimate the maniacal perseverance of a comic book nerd.