In sickness and in health

A little over a month ago both Jon and I volunteered to participate in a whooping cough vaccination research study. WARNING: SHAMEFUL MENTION OF THAT TINY SPOT OF SKIN CANCER FORTHCOMING. I had just had my arm cut open to remove a tiny, insignificant, not-at-all worth mentioning area of skin cancer, and I could get a tetanus shot for free if I agreed to the whooping cough study. Jon participated because we were going to be paid $50 at the end of the study, and he needed the money because I’ve been stingy with his allowance.

One of us was injected with one strain of the vaccination, the other with a completely different strain, and we were instructed to keep a diary of our experience on a small green form, including a record of our nightly temperature and any swelling or pain that resulted from the shot. At first I thought I got the killer strain because my shoulder swelled to the size of a cantaloupe, and I could barely lift my arm to dress myself. Those first few days were miserable, and I feverishly recorded my experience on the green form, including a note in the OTHER SYMPTOMS area at the bottom right corner that said, “Arm is about to fall off. Will be dead by morning. If I’m lucky.”

After the fourth day, however, the swelling and pain suddenly subsided and I forgot about the little green piece of paper. I did take my temperature here and there, it was always the same, never abnormal, and I kept reminding myself that I needed to mark it down on the form. I just never got around to it because other things kept getting in the way. Like air.

There really is no excuse for this, only that I used to approach all my school work in exactly the same way. I’d write papers three hours before they were due, study for tests as I walked to the room where they were being given, finish my homework as the teacher was collecting it. I performed best under that kind of pressure, and my teachers often told me that they wished all their students would work as hard as I did. If I could patent my technique I would call it Laziness™.

Jon, on the other hand, filled out that form every night before he went to bed as studiously as if that piece of paper was the one thing the world would remember about him after he died. And then he got sick, terribly sick, lay in bed for eleven days and moaned like a menstruating whale. Even that didn’t stop him from filling out that form. Every time he wrote down his temperature he would look at me disapprovingly and mumble something about how the doctors were going to know that I had cheated, that I wouldn’t get away with this like I had in high school and college. You might be able to trick an English professor, but you can’t lie to a person who has looked at your cervix with a flashlight. That person knows everything.

Yesterday morning I filled out the the remaining parts of my green form in the car on the way to the doctor’s office, and the entire time Jon shook his head. He continued his silent moral indignation long after one of the doctors came into our room and asked us questions about our experiences: did we ever have an elevated temperature, did either of us get sick? Both of us gave a detailed description of what Jon had been through in the last month, and then continued to complain about it even as a lab technician came in to draw our blood. Both of them assured us that the symptoms Jon had suffered couldn’t have been caused by this study, but hey! What a funny coincidence! Funny? Yes, about as funny as someone ending up with a black eye because, coincidentally, that’s the exact place I threw my fist.

“I’ll have you know that I continued to fill out that form even on those nights when I thought I was going to die,” Jon said to the doctor. The lab technician then picked up Jon’s green form and looked it over with a smirk on her face that indicated she was terribly impressed. Then she picked up mine and eyed it top to bottom. That’s when I started to sweat.

“Yours is good,” she said to Jon, “but I have to be honest and say that, after looking at both of these, your wife did a much better job.”

My husband has suffered quite a few things in his life — death of a loved one, heartbreak, unemployment — but this specific injustice was almost too much for him to bear. I saw him release his bottom lip from his teeth and then squeeze his right thigh with his hand in an effort to hold himself up under the weight of it.

“There’s a good reason for that!” he said too loudly, and both the doctor and lab technician stopped tinkering with the blood samples to let him finish his outburst. I could see as he sat there shaking that the secret was trying to explode out the top of his head.

“What reason is that?” asked the doctor.

Jon looked at me and blinked. I could feel the beat of his eyelids in my chest, and I knew that this moment of hesitation was his way of saying he wouldn’t rat me out, but that later, when we were alone, he might force me to confess as he threatened to shove my hand into the blender.

“The reason?” said Jon as he cleared his throat and rolled his eyes. “She’s the Valedictorian OF EVERYTHING.”