Swine Whine

I had all the items in my purse that I usually took to a book signing: wallet, phone, Sharpie, tissues, lip balm. There was one new addition: hand sanitizer.  H1N1 had come to South Jersey.

The event was a benefit at Braddock’s Tavern in Medford for the Literacy Volunteers of Burlington County, which for 25 years has been teaching adults how to read. A dozen local authors signed books and then sat down to dinner with the attendees, one author to a table.

Right before I walked out of my house, I heard that five cases of H1N1 (a.k.a. swine flu) had been confirmed in New Jersey, three in Burlington County — where I was heading.

Lovely.

I’ve had the flu. I’m allergic to part of the flu vaccine, so I don’t have a choice but to gamble every winter. It’s awful. During my last go-round, I hallucinated. I thought I could see the virus infecting healthy cells in my arm, using them as virus incubators, and then exploding to infect more healthy cells. I called my mom, panicked. She told me to go to sleep, and I did – for 12 hours.

Since the outbreak, I’d stuck close to home, which isn’t hard to do when your office is in your home. If I didn’t have to go out, I stayed put. I’d skipped the gym, too. Even though cases of H1N1 in the U.S. have been, for the most part, mild, I still worried. I’ve read Wickett’s Remedy by Myla Goldberg, a novel about the 1918 flu pandemic. I read what she imagined ghosts of flu victims would say while watching the new victims struggle to stay alive. If I had to skip the gym to stay healthy, so be it.

But I couldn’t totally avoid contact, especially at a book event, where you’re talking to dozens of people, shaking dozens of hands and, in this case, sharing a meal.

When I walked into Braddock’s, I said my hellos, box of my books in my hands — the perfect excuse not to shake. When I sat down to sign, I kept a pen in one hand and a book in the other. After every book sold, I reached into my purse for the hand sanitizer. I didn’t touch anything if I didn’t have to in the bathroom, and pushed open the door with my arm.

But as the night proceeded, I let down my guard. I started talking to the people at my table, and stopped worrying every time I touched my face. I didn’t even worry when someone passed the rolls. And when one of the organizers gave me a hug goodbye, I didn’t pull away or reach for the hand sanitizer. I used it when I got in my car, but I had stopped obsessing, and started breathing freely again.

We have a lot to worry about as this flu plays out, and, yes, a lot more people are probably going to get sick. But the cases of swine flu in Burlington County at the time I signed books at Braddock’s were mild. No one reported hallucinating, or falling asleep for twelve hours after talking to a wise mom.

I’m still worried. I almost skipped running the Broad Street Run for fear of being sweat on by someone with the bug. I steer clear of the gym (where people don’t always wipe down their machines), but I’m still out running — and living. I might even get sick and need my mother to yell at me to “GO TO BED.” But I can’t stop living because of fear. A lot can be lost in the obsessing.

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