This Normal Life: Foiled by the flu

It was the flu that finally broke me.

THE FLU was my cherry on top of an already unpalatable series of unfortunate events. (photo credit: TNS)
THE FLU was my cherry on top of an already unpalatable series of unfortunate events.
(photo credit: TNS)
The past two years have not been easy, to say the least: chronic stomach pains leading to a diagnosis of cancer, followed by a year and a half of treatments, a relapse, and then the need for cataract surgery, the latter a probable complication of chemo.
I coped with each as best I could, trying to spin adversity into life lessons. I got sad sometimes, to be sure, but remained stoic for the most part.
That was until the flu felled me.
This winter’s strain has been particularly virulent (and that’s not even considering the new coronavirus raging in China). I’ve never gotten the flu shot – not because I’m opposed to vaccines but because my immune system has always been strong. Even last year, when I was in the midst of cancer treatment, I didn’t catch a bug. So, despite our HMO sending out repeated reminders, I dithered.
Until it was too late.
“Everyone feels like they’re dying when they have the flu,” my son, Amir, reassured me as I was massaging my sinuses in a vain attempt to reduce some of the pressure.
I nodded weakly. But inside, I was panicking.
Was this it – the virus that finally sends me to the hospital like so many of my fellow follicular lymphoma voyagers? Maybe my compromised immune system won’t be able to fight this one off on its own. Should I have been wearing a mask when I went out in public?
The flu was my cherry on top of an already unpalatable series of unfortunate events. The most recent: cataracts gone wrong.
When I found out I’d need eye surgery, I was actually looking forward. If it worked properly, I’d be able to see without glasses for the first time in 52 years!
But the process of swapping out the clouded lens in one eye for a clear new artificial one loosened some flecks of collagen that began bobbing across my field of vision in the gel-like fluid of the eye called the vitreous.
You may have experienced this, too. Most people will develop so-called “floaters” as they age, although cataract surgery ups your chances.
Floaters don’t indicate anything is medically wrong, but they can be maddening – like a swarm of flies buzzing in front of you except you can’t swat them away because they’re literally in your eyes.
And there’s not much you can do, my ophthalmologist explained, other than wait to see if they “settle” out of sight or if the brain “neuro-adapts” so they don’t bother you so much.
In the meantime, I could barely work. I said no to meet-ups with friends because I was so distracted. About the only time the floaters didn’t bother me was while watching TV when, for some reason, they would move off to the side.
I’ve been watching a lot of TV.
I NEVER FELT disabled the entire time I was going through chemo. I had various aches and pains and fatigue, but I was still able to haul myself in front of my computer and write. I never imagined, as a result of cancer, I would become visually impaired.
Combine that with the fact that, with my cancer no longer in remission, I’ll have no choice but to restart treatments at some point, add in the misery of the flu, and I finally felt defeated by my body.
And for one of the only times in this somber saga, I broke down and sobbed.
My wife, Jody, was there to contain me. She stayed silent for a long time, holding my shaking body.
“What are you scared of?” she asked eventually.
The answer surprised me.
“I’m scared that I’ll become like my father,” I replied.
My father contracted polio as a teenager. He recovered and was able to walk with barely a limp until he was later beset by “post-polio syndrome.” Eventually, he required a wheelchair to get around.
My father was no stranger to kvetching, but I never heard him complain about the hand he was dealt regarding the polio. Still, I could imagine the conversations that must have taken place behind closed doors between him and my mother. I surmised how my mother resented having to become his caretaker. I didn’t want that for Jody.
“You’ve got cancer, floaters and the flu,” Jody comforted me. “You’re far from disabled.”
“But I don’t know what’s coming next,” I bemoaned.
“Then I’ll take care of you,” Jody said. “Will you let me take care of you?”
What could I say? That you didn’t sign up for this, Jody? But she did – it’s one of the vows we took when we got married. (OK, we didn’t actually recite vows at our huppah, but it was implied.)
Now Jody was asking – pleading with me – to not go through this alone.
I nodded reluctantly for the second time that day.
The flu turned out to be not just the flu but pneumonia. It took another two weeks and antibiotics but it finally passed, and I never went to the hospital.
The floaters are still with me, but there’s a laser treatment I’ve been reading about that’s supposed to have good results. As for the cancer treatments – they’re still coming, I just don’t know when.
I reached a low point with the flu. But I also forged a renewed understanding with my wife – and maybe an added appreciation for what my parents silently suffered through.
This may not be what we signed up for – but it’s what we’ve got. The alternative is unquestionably worse.
The writer recently edited and published his late father’s book, The Bell Tower, available on Amazon (bluepepperpress.com).


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