Recently a friend of my husband’s came to stay for a friend’s wedding. The night before the wedding – a showy event with ex-media-colleagues – she came down with bronchitis, and so never got to step out in her new dress. Instead there she was, struck down with a sore throat and a cough, seriously unwell in the house of people she didn’t know terribly well.
I didn’t mind a bit, and made her chicken soup and hot lemon and honey as a matter of course. On her second afternoon here I woke her from an afternoon sleep with mint tea. ‘Thank you so much’, she said, pleased but clearly awkward. ‘Please don’t worry’, I returned. ‘This is what I do for all my family, so you mustn’t feel embarrassed’, I replied. She smiled, coughed some more, and reached for a tissue.
Looking after my family when they’re sick is, for me, an extension of how I look after them the rest of the time. I don’t say this aloud, but I see this as an intrinsic part of my job as a mother and wife. I look after my family in a way that makes them feel okay about being unwell – rather than fretting about what they’re missing out on, or feeling guilty at putting me out. I’m no saint, but for me it’s completely natural to cook for them, and to dream up things things for them to do. And, with any luck, one day my children will do the same for whoever they end up loving.
First it was my daughter who came down with a bad cold. A change of season, a morning of getting soaked sailing, and friends coughing all over the place at school (her expression). Then my son came down with it, the germs of which he – disdaining tissues – generously slathered over everything he touched. All the while I had my own little cold, suppressed by garlic, a work deadline – and a refusal to lie down.
Then it was my husband’s turn. ‘I think I’ve got the bug’, he says, putting his head round the kitchen door, looking mournful. He mutters something about heading up to bed, his computer and a stack of The West Wing DVDs tucked under his arm. And there he stays, waiting hopefully for food to appear on a tray – which I obligingly bring. ‘I’m going to reform my life’, he tells me late afternoon, as I perch on the end of our bed. ‘I’ve wasted so much time’, he continues, in clear need of sympathy – which, of course, he instantly rebuts when I offer it.
Meanwhile my suppressed cold takes a turn for the worse, making me sweat and tightening my chest. Now I have no choice but to look after myself. But instead of going to bed early – and telling my husband it’s time to stop watching The West Wing – I stay up late, basking in the quiet that my sleeping children give me. I forget that I’m unwell and instead get caught up with facebook – and Sheryl Sandburg’s Lean In storm – along with the links put up by generous friends.
Brushing my teeth in the bathroom, a question comes to me. What does Sheryl Sandberg do when everyone in her home falls ill at the same time? Does she privately panic – as I do? Or does she soldier on with painkillers – and ask her nanny to stay late? Does she feel more indispensible in her facebook office, than at home?
I fall into bed, hug the back of my snuffling husband, and sleep deeply, rain pouring down on our corrugated iron roof. In my dream I wake, get out of bed, and cross the hall landing. Barack Obama is reading my son a poem in Alex’s bedroom. Obama is reading thoughtfully, with no sense of hurry, and I think how lucky Alex is to have a poem read to him in this way.
When the alarm really does go off, I take comfort in my dream. It’s not just us. My family and I are part of the wider world. I’m not the sole skipper of our ship. My children, now teenagers, can find something of what they need from other people (albeit not Barack Obama). As can I.
And yet the stubborn question remains. Who, I wonder, looks after me when I’m feeling lousy? Who takes over the breakfast shift and the school run? My plaintiff answer is no-one. There is no-one else who looks after me, takes over from me, when I’m sick. No-one who brings cups of tea to my bedside, takes over the housekeeping, and cooks dinner.
But I know in my heart this isn’t quite true. Certainly the woman at the compound pharmacy, who makes a special brew for me to take three times a day, looks after me. And there is always me. I can look after myself when I’m feeling lousy. It’s harder than looking after the people I love – shepherding them into early bed and making honey, mint and lemon drinks. But it’s the same principle. After all, I am one of the people I love. What better excuse – than a bad cold – can there be for buying six oysters, and eating them idly on the docks?