Sickly characters hold a certain romanticized (sickly) appeal. Mary Lennox in The Secret Garden. Mary Ingalls (once she went blind) in the Little House books. Jane Eyre’s pious childhood friend Helen Burns. Beth in Little Women. Joan Didion in her essay about migraine, “In Bed.”
I thought of them all this morning, as I lay propped up with an ice pack on my forehead. Husband slept solidly next to me, dawn light edged the curtains, and I had to throw up. Yes, a migraine—though not nearly as severe as Didion’s. Mine was banished with a pill, a trip down the hall, and (finally) sleep.
When I woke up able to lift my head, it was 8:15, not so late but late enough to feel indulgent. Why not spend all day in bed? The vision passed before me, tempting and luxurious, and with it the memory of my mother’s cinnamon toast and a pile of books at my side. I stayed home from school a lot as a child. I had a lot of sore throats and ear aches, but I often exaggerated my case. I stuck thermometers next to the light bulb and forced pathetic coughs.
My mother knew when I was faking it, but usually let me stay home. “Only you know how you feel,” she’d say, which went straight to my conscience, but I stayed home anyway. Was I trying out for some martyr role? I didn’t even like Little Women, and had always preferred Laura to Mary. But the opportunity to stay in bed and read all day—TV was forbidden on a sick day—trumped any guilt I felt.
There’s nothing romantic or luxurious about real illness, of course. Mary Ingalls didn’t choose yellow fever in a ploy for attention, and Mary Lennox, once she landed in England’s green and pleasant land, perked right up—and became more likeable, too. The worst I suffered was strep throat and a brief bout of mumps when I was too young to read. Most of the time I stayed home to hide out, to avoid whatever unpleasantness lay in wait on the playground. I read as escape, as salve. And, soon enough, I wrote, too—usually detailed alternate realities involving a popular girl named Kim who attended boarding school.
When a migraine has passed, it leaves in its wake heightened focus and clarity, as though the brain’s wires have been recharged. The person who got up at 8:15 this morning was not the person who had stumbled, groaning, into the kitchen for a glass of milk with which to take the migraine pill at 5:05. Once I’m up and making coffee, the vision of a sick day has faded. Still, it remains, no longer the only option but one that’s handy to keep in reserve.
What about you? What’s your guilty “sick” day pleasure?