Flat on your back

Yesterday I spent the day in a way that under almost any conditions would have been supremely luxurious and totally enjoyable for me: lying in bed. However, given the circumstances in this particular case, it was anything but a luxury; in fact, it was a miserable necessity.

I had already had a cough for a few days when, two days ago, it began to develop into something more serious. By midday on Monday, I was wheezing like a smoker on his last lung, and my head began to feel as though some giant, malevolent King Kong was crushing it in a death grip. I thought that a solid two-hour nap in the late afternoon would get me back on track, but no such luck; by the end of the night, I hadn’t a leg left to stand on and was in physical pain whenever I tried to speak.

However, being me, I went to bed still optimistic about the next day. A good night’s sleep should do it, I thought. Right?


Yesterday morning, I woke up to discover that King Kong had gotten tired of limiting himself to my head and had now decided to crush my entire upper body instead. Before even getting out of bed, I peered out the blinds to see that heavy snow was pounding down on the outside world, with no signs of stopping. I rolled over and decided that death would be preferable to feeling like this and stepping out into that. There was only one thing to do.

I took a sick day.

Now, for those of you who don’t know me very well, I ought to point out that I have an extreme complex regarding sick days. Growing up, the rule at home was that imminent death might justify a day home from school if we were lucky. We’ve all heard stories of faking chicken pox with carefully-applied magic marker spots or feigning a pallid complexion with a light dusting of baby powder, but in my house we all knew better than to try such tricks on Dr. Mom.

And even if such tricks would have succeeded, my mom cleverly made staying at home so un-fun that it was hardly something to be preferred to a day in school. If you claimed to be sick, then that’s just how you were treated: no games, no TV, no ice cream; just you, your bed, and tightly drawn shades to keep you company for the day (along with The Bucket, if symptoms were flu-like).

It’s amazing how many years can go by before you realize that parents are on to all of your tricks because they were kids once, too…

I do remember one failed attempt at feigning illness on my part. It was either in the fifth or seventh grade. (I’m not sure which; I had the same teacher for both, but the fact that I remember wearing an untucked, unbuttoned denim shirt over a white T-shirt points to the latter—definitely not one of my most stylish periods.)

That day, I had already gone to school, but some bug was going around and a few kids had failed to show up that morning. We had a small class—certainly not more than twenty students—and our school observed a bizarre but functional rule that allowed the entire class to go home if a certain percentage of the students in that class were missing.

Needless to say, our teacher had a vested interest in sending just a few more students home, and the students’ interest corresponded entirely.

One by one, after a bit of subtle prompting from the teacher, a handful of students began “feeling” sick. Parents were called; rides were arranged; seats were vacated. By second recess (at midday), only one more student needed to go home for the coup to be complete. The class was giddy with anticipation.

It all came down to which one of us was willing to take the hit.

By this time, it was incredibly apparent to all parties that the teacher would send anyone home who complained, as long as the student made a plausible showing of feeling ill. We were all familiar with the teacher’s diagnostic method and had already had several chances that day to see it in action: he would place the back of his hand against your forehead for a quick temperature check, declare that you “felt a bit warm,” and send you down to the office to call your parent(s).

Nothing could be simpler.

One way or another (who knows how these things are decided in grade school, really?) a quick recess conference determined that I would be the one to bite the bullet. Proud to serve my country and my kind, I spent most of the remainder of recess running around to work up a sweat, then quickly made my way to the boys’ bathroom, where I folded up a length of paper toweling, ran it under hot water, and held it against my forehead. Then it was back to the classroom for the complaint and the verdict.

All eyes were on me.

I told the teacher I felt funny. His eyes did a very poor job of hiding his excitement at the prospect of half a day of paid vacation. He felt my forehead (as expected), told me I felt a bit warm (as expected), and sent me straight home without even requiring me to call my mother. (I lived within walking distance of the school, so this, too, was to be expected.) The rest of the class got to go home for the rest of the day, as expected.

I think we all felt like we had accomplished something together.

The euphoria lasted until I crossed my threshold and encountered Dr. Mom, who had not expected me to be home and knew enough of my class and our teacher to suspect that something was rotten in the state of Denmark. As I should have expected from my knowledge of the rules at home, my little ploy earned me a healthy dose of skepticism from my mother and a fairly boring day confined to bed. By the end of the day, I was feeling more rotten as a result of my prank than I had claimed to feel in order to carry it out in the first place, and I was definitely feeling healthy enough to return to school the next day.

Looking back, I recognize that as the day on which I decided to only stay home in bed if illness truly required me to do so. In the ten years that have passed since then, I think I’ve cancelled a fully scheduled day only a handful of times. Of course, when you get older, it becomes much more difficult to get out of all your commitments for the day; yesterday, for example, it took me eight e-mails and a couple of phone calls to do so! But at least I know that when I’m staying home in bed, it’s because I really need to do so—because I’m truly flat on my back.

Being flat on your back doesn’t have to be all bad, though. It lends perspective to your life, reminding you that you can’t do it all and (perhaps more importantly) showing you that the world can get on without you for a day. These are always good things to keep in mind, even when you’re in the best of health.

Really, the best thing to ask yourself when you’re flat on your back is what else you can do while you’re down there—as illustrated by a young girl I saw out in the white, white world yesterday.

She was flat on her back, too… but she was giggling and making a snow angel.



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4 responses to “Flat on your back

  1. April Alonte

    It was 5th grade…we tried to pull that trick at least 3 times that year…

  2. James- we must have had the same mother!

  3. EJG

    Boy, your mom sounds pretty cruel, dude. You mean she didn’t want you slacking and staying home if you weren’t really sick? What’s up with that? I feel for you, man. No wonder you’re ‘stuck’ at Harvard Law School. I bet she didn’t want you home ’cause you’d catch her watching soaps, eating bonbons all day. Yeah…that’s it. ;-9
    p.s. I hope and pray you’re up on your feet again soon! My mom always told me to drink lots of orange juice. Try it. Can’t hurt…might help.

  4. Paul

    So many rules were made because of our class, and we were one of the “better” classes to go through there.

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