Friday, February 06, 2015

Stronger Than Death

"Death and love -- no, I cannot make a poem of them, they don't go together. Love stands opposed to death. It is love, not reason, that is stronger than death."  ~Thomas Mann (from The Magic Mountain)

I can't recall the last time I missed work due to illness. It's been at least a decade, but here I am sick at home. I wasn't able to pull myself from bed until about 4 p.m. yesterday and while I'm a little better today I'm probably not going to leave the house.

Most teachers who are at it for any length of time develop pretty hearty immune systems. I was sick for months on end during my first few years in the game, first as a parent of a preschooler in a cooperative when my child and I caught everything together, and then as a teacher. By now, after 17 years of plunging myself into what a friend once described as a "pit of pink eye" day after day, my body knows how to handle most of the crud that goes around. Irritatingly, this flu is one for which I was unprepared. Classroom attendance has been down for a month or more, not just at our school, but right across the system of cooperatives that operate under the auspices of North Seattle College. I was once again proudly pounding the chest of my immune system, when it got me.

Parents have rallied to hold classes in my absence, which is part of the beauty of the cooperative model, yet I still can't completely fight down these feelings of guilt and shame about not being where I'm supposed to be, doing what I'm supposed to do. I know these feelings are "wrong," but they are part of the reality I face whenever I'm not fulfilling my obligations.

I'm terrible at being sick. I tend to be mean to my loved ones, bridling at their solicitousness. I don't want to engage in conversations about symptoms. I don't want chicken soup. In fact, I just want everyone to leave me alone to wallow in my misery. What makes it worse is knowing that everyone who reaches out is doing so out of genuine concern yet I appear constitutionally incapable of acknowledging it. 

When I'm feeling healthy, I sometimes see the romance in the idea of a day in bed: reading, snoozing, and watching movies. One of the greatest novels ever written, The Magic Mountain (Der Zauberberg), by Thomas Mann, is set in a sanatorium in the Swiss Alps where patients spend large parts of their days bundled up in blankets with low grade fevers dangling thermometers from their lips while discussing art, philosophy, politics, and love, while snow falls outside. The idea is appealing in its cozy simplicity, but the reality is that my body and soul rebel at that sort of confinement. My joints begin to ache, my head to throb, and feelings of self loathing come to plague me.

The only thing that helps at all is to get out of bed, to drink some coffee, to take a shower, and to put on some clothes. Although I could barely breathe, I cleaned the kitchen and tidied the bedroom. That helped a little. But those feelings of guilt and shame still hound me. 

The guilt is the easier one to get my mind around: it never feels good to let someone down and even when they are sympathetic, not showing up to teach my classes is to let someone down. The shame is another matter. There ought not be shame in illness, but there it is nevertheless. I would rather that you not know. There is a part of me that lives outsides my consciousness that cringes, I guess, at the perception that this is a moment of my weakness. I don't like being weak: I like being strong. I'm forced to admit this even as I fancy myself a post-machismo male. I accept weakness in others, I think, or at least I try to, but not in myself. It's probably this groundless shame that makes me such hell on my loved ones.

I will return to health. I will be back at school on Monday. I will be strong again. I know this, like I know that the guilt and shame are "wrong" emotions, yet it's hard in the midst of illness to dwell on anything beyond illness except, perhaps, death.

One of the themes of Mann's masterpiece is that all higher health must have passed through illness and death. We know this is true of the human immune system: what does not kill us makes us stronger. The novel's protagonist startles himself with the speculation that "disease makes men more physical, it leaves them nothing but body," and I experienced that on Wednesday night as I literally moaned through my respiratory agony. I didn't wish for death, of course, but among the few fevered thoughts I recall from the long night included the notion that death would certainly put an end to my suffering, and in that thought I felt no aversion. If you had asked me to pick in that moment, life or death, I could have gone either way.

"Severed from life it (death) becomes a spectre, a distortion and worse. For death, as an independent power, is a lustful power, whose vicious attraction is strong indeed; to feel drawn to it, to feel sympathy with it, is without any doubt at all the most ghastly aberration to which the spirit of man is prone."

I know this sounds overly dramatic, and I was genuinely no where near death's door, but that's where I've been in my illness, wracked not just with fever, but the ghastly aberration of my spirit and "wrongness" of my feelings.

The fever has broken now. I'm reconnecting to life. I'm touched beyond measure by the email chain that tells the story of how our families rallied. There is a "get well" poster on the wall of the classroom awaiting my return. My wife, who knows what kind of sick person I am, has left me alone, yet taken care of me. My daughter as well. I feel loved. Without a doubt, it is love, not reason, that is stronger than death.

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Arianna said...

Next time, get the flu jab :) Problem solved and you won't risk passing flu onto your kids!

Teacher Tom said...

@Arianna . . . This season's flu shot has been entirely ineffective against the strain going around. That's why it's been such a brutal flu season around here.