Only When I Laugh
by Elouise Bell

Sickbed Sidekicks

 [p.65]Let’s be honest: there are worse things than having to take a day or two off work and stay in bed. Ordinarily, there are compensations, you must admit. But when you have a temperature of 102, you’re in no shape to take advantage of the compensations. When I took my turn at the community flu recently, I was uncomfortable enough that I could neither read nor watch television, and for me, that’s pretty bad.

By the third day, however, doom had mitigated to mild gloom, and I was even able to shuffle downstairs and respond to the mailman’s thump on the door. He had a package from my book club. A package of assorted laughs, so it turned out. Actually, the fun began as I opened the cardboard box and tried to extricate the book from its protective styrofoam packaging. Roughly two thousand cashew-sized bits of styrofoam had built up a lot of static electricity on the long trip from Garden City; hence when I reached into the box to get the book, the little foam chips clung to my hands no matter what I did. In a few minutes, I looked like someone auditioning for a stand-up comedy slot at the Improv. I did five minutes of the sticky-fingers [p.66] routine and found myself grinning at the waste of this perfectly executed schtick for an audience of none.

The book turned out to be Garrison Keillor’s Leaving Home. May I recommend it for your next under-the-weather occasion. Except that the hardcover edition is a little large to manipulate while lying supine in bed, this book is a great companion for the ailing. Keillor doesn’t demand anything of you; you can just lie there and be entertained. If you have a good imagination, you can almost hear his voice, and envision his lanky frame stretched out in a straight chair at your bedside while he gives you the latest news. The chapters of the book, originally Lake Wobegone monologues from the radio program, are just the right length: they hold your attention for fifteen or twenty minutes at a time (longer if you’re an especially deliberate reader), getting your mind off your headache or scratchy throat, and then they’re finished before you start to feel restless or prematurely well. And nicely scattered through the pages are various laughs, from little ones the size of very early peas to a few as large as a melon. In fact, I had to learn how to manage the laughs in my weakened condition. More than once, I started out with a feeble, flu-impaired heh-heh-heh, only to have it escalate without warning: hee-hee-hee-hee-ho-ho-ho-Ho, a-ha-ha-HA-HA-Koff-Koff-hack-hack-BARK-BARK-BARK! All of this accompanied by the usual stage business of struggling to an upright position, searching for the cough syrup.

Yes, laughs are nicely therapeutic, taken in moderation. But that word “moderation” is important. Family members who have just finished giving a properly grave and only mildly embroidered medical report to your superiors at work and returned just moments ago from a drug store run, and who are even now preparing your supper tray—these loved ones are NOT likely to listen in benign silence to uncontrolled peals of laughter coming from your sickroom. Enjoy, but keep it sotto voce.

One more suggestion for those days that are less than prime: indulge yourself with whatever comfort foods the child within may ask for. Unless you had a particularly momentous tonsil operation, this is not likely to be ice cream or any calorie-laden sweet. For most of us, these “comfort foods” will be the items Mother produced to soothe us through childhood illnesses. I have one friend who is a gourmet cook: she makes marvelous pop-overs, exquisite French onion soup, and cheesecake that [p.67] would unlock the gates of Paradise. And what does she want when she is sick? Campbell’s chicken noodle soup. That’s her comfort food because when she was a farm girl, Campbell’s was a luxury, reserved for times of illness.

Another friend was taken aback when I offered her a glass of ginger ale one day. To her, ginger ale is still a special occasion beverage, permitted only when one’s tummy goes awry. For another, the “comfort foods” are cinnamon toast and herb tea. For me, they are tapioca pudding and custard.

So if you wake up one morning and find that Type A (for Atrocious) Flu has come to pay a call at your house, hoist our good Prairie Home Companion Garrison Keillor aboard, brew up a cup of hot chocolate or whatever spells TLC to you, and ride it out.