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  Ellen Davignon: Lives of Quiet Desperation

“…Aunt Freida’s enjoying poor health.”

January 15, 2004

We were a music-loving bunch back in the olden-golden days of my kidhood.  Our mother was a wonderful pianist and as a family that tended to cluster ‘round the piano at the slightest of invitations, we children developed an ear for music, any kind of music, at a very early age, absorbing tunes and lyrics like thirsty sponges.  Ma had a standing order at Stewart MacPherson’s Drugstore for a copy of every new piece of sheet music that arrived in Whitehorse and upon its arrival, each was incorporated into our already large musical repertoire.  In addition, we gleaned every melody we could from movies and the radio and sang them, a cappella, as we walked or hiked on family outings.  I still remember a few novelty numbers that tickled our collective fancies, such as “Gram-maw’s  Lye Soap (…good for everything in the home; and the secret was in the scrubbing, it would suds and wouldn’t foam…)” and “Lena and the Red-headed Swede.”  One of my  absolute favourites was a song by Harry Stewart singing as Yogi Yorgesson, the Scandinavian Swami, a musical letter relaying all the family news and each stanza ending with “Aunt Freida’s enjoying poor health.”  That oxymoronic line really tickled my funny bone, the thought that some could have a good time being sick…

Friends, I gotta tell you…For the past ten days, I, too, have been enjoying poor health.

Oh, I know, I know.   I hear you all twittering and nattering amongst yourselves…”What on earth does she mean, poor health?  Ellen?  Ellen’s never been sick a day in her life, and if she’s acknowledging being under the weather, well, she must be at death’s door and you can bet your teakettle that she’s hating every minute…”

Sorry.  As the new McDonald’s catchphrase goes, “I’m lovin’ it.”

It’s true that for the best part of my life I have delighted in rude good health, evincing a jolly nature and a robustious heartiness that has enabled me to careen along life’s corridors, full speed ahead and damn the consequences, leaving in my path a jumble of life works, some of which were pretty fine and a few, the less of which we speak, the better.  The people with whom I share a common route, are, for the most part, pleased to accept me as I am and take comfort in knowing that they can depend on me being always the same and usually on time.  And so I completely understood their unease, a while ago, when I made the pronouncement that I was ill, withdrew from job and family, and settled, with apparent good humour, into my battered old recliner for the duration.

I have to admit, the first couple of days weren’t so much fun.  I felt really dreadful with a fiery sore throat and upper chest, a general feeling of malaise.  To be honest, in my stupidity and lack of  practice, I thought I might be experiencing “last days.” 

I fumbled around in my (so-called) filing system, looking for wills and other papers that I thought my poor, bereaved family might require, began composing my obituary in order to save someone the trouble of trying to remember the good bits, and burned several paperbacks that might have raised the eyebrows of those who would have to muck out the house in the event of my obviously immediate demise. I wrote DON”T MORN FOR ME, in my best handwriting on th big bathroom mirror but had to erase it with paper towels and a lot of Mr. Clean when I noticed I’d left out the “u” in mourn and made a mess trying to squeeze it in.  And finally, I sat down and wrote long lists of instructions for my family and my colleagues at work, what to do and how to get along.  I wept as I did so, in pity for myself and in pity for them, trying, in their misery, to manage without me.

It wasn’t until at last I subsided into the recliner with my trusty Better Homes and Gardens medical advisor, circa 1955, hoping to determine what I could expect in my final hours, that I  that I discovered that I was not only not in my final anything.  All I was, apparently, was smack in the initial stages of acute bronchitis, a disease that sounds impressive but is relatively insignificant in the grand scheme of possible life-threatening illnesses.  “Usually there is mild fever for a day or so,” wrote J.A.Meyers, M.D., PH.D, D.Ph., B.S. in Ch.E., and an honoured member of the P.G.A. “a burning sensation in the throat and windpipe and abundant sputum.  Symptoms gradually disappear without after effects.”  He suggested bed rest, drinking plenty of fluids, and eating a light and nourishing diet, and, finally, not to hurry back into the usual routine, implying that re-entry might result in a relapse.

So.  Not dying, apparently.  But sick enough that there was a separate little section on my malady.  How…fun.  Now, how did one deal with such a phenomenon, I wondered.  I re-read J.A.Meyers advised treatment.  Bed rest.  Recliner, I interpreted.  Fluids?  Hmm, there was plenty of Bailey’s, a half bottle of…well, suffice it to say, I had fluids. The nourishing was being taken care of even as I studied with the good doctor, thanks to a big pot of soup that was coaxing the last bit of flavour from a tough old stewing fowl I’d dug out of the ice in the bottom of my freezer when I’d defrosted it earlier in a frenzy of pre- departure housecleaning.  Finally, I phoned key people and, in between hacking coughs and anguished moans, gave them instructions for coping with my absence during the next week or so.

 OK, I thought, pillow, afghan, stack of books, TV remote.  Check.  Lots of fluids of choice, soup ready for re-heating, a big can of nourishing shortbreads leftover from Christmas close to hand.  The woodbox filled to overflowing, courtesy of Keel, ditto the medicine chest thanks to every friend and  family member who’d had some form of illness in the past year and were sure their contribution to my cause would be the key ingredient in my recovery.

At last, my work was done and I was good to go.  Hot diggety, I thought, laissez les bons temps roullez!

Well, it didn’t take long to realize that any notion of  the good times rocking and rolling was going to have a similar effect upon my stomach but it was nice to be able to sit and doze or read, just as I chose, with no thought of guilt or recrimination.  After all, hadn’t the good doctor suggested I take my own sweet time in returning to work?  And after the first few days of real discomfort, the worst symptoms I had to deal with was the cough, which I handled efficiently with a spoonful or two of cherry-flavoured cough syrup with a nice alcohol base, and a tendency to sweat through my t-shirt  whenever I attempted anything more strenuous than rearranging the blanket over my knees.  Sometimes, I chatted desultorily on the phone and once in a while I’d turn on the noon hour new, just for forms sake. But mostly, I just sat in a pleasantly lethargic daze and enjoyed poor health.

I wish I’d known about all this good stuff before.  I spent sixty-six years watching everyone else soak up care and attention while I toted and heaved in their place, bringing tea and sympathy and hot lemonade, pitying them, for heaven’s sake, as I did so and wishing my own good health upon them. 

Unfortunately, all that enjoyment had to come to an end and on Monday I woke up hungry and wondering what I’d been missing at Mac’s.  I jumped out of bed and got back into the old routine: the desk heaped with mail, the never-ending cycle of pulls and returns and books for “sale-ing” and the overflowing pallets of receiving.  Jeez.

 It’s been a couple of days now and guess what?  I think I feel a relapse coming on.

I wonder how long it took for Aunt Freida to figure it all out.

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