When I was a sick kid, I would stay in bed and my mom would put a plastic cup of 7-up and a wrapped stack of saltines by my bedside. She would often come in, sit beside me, and take a cool wet cloth and press it to my forehead. That cool damp cloth absorbed all the heat. That sensation lasted much longer than is physically possible from a wet cloth because her presence was really doing all the absorbing.
The bedroom can be the place of recovery. Studies show that sleep heals. Getting enough sleep is important to proper brain function, but also helps the body do its work while we are busy dreaming. But in case of a greater illness, the bedroom is where we gather our strength among all our sacred and familiar objects. Many of us have spent quite a long time in our bedrooms feeling sick, especially these last few years. Except, with COVID, it was difficult to be able to tend to each other because it was highly contagious.
During the plague in the Dark Ages, people who tended the sick, or stayed with those who were dying, would catch it and bring it back with them. They didn’t know how it was spread. Our very acts of compassion and community were being attacked. Still–(though not the plague)–my mom would stay with me through the flu or strep throat or whatever else knocks a kid off his feet. She endangered herself in order to care for me. I don’t remember if she ever caught the flu from us. I don’t think so. But she didn’t know she wouldn’t.
No one likes being sick. Some of us don’t like to bother the people near us with our sickness either–we choose to bear it alone so that no one has to be endangered because of us. Deep down, though, we want someone with us–someone who doesn’t mind us at our worst, or helpless, or dependent. These are traits that are so strongly hated in America today that we are embarrassed by our need and desire for each other. But we ache with needing each other too.
I remember every person who stayed with me when I was sick. I have forgotten a LOT of things… but I remember Dave in the ER when they couldn’t find a good vein and poked me three or four times in each elbow and on both hands and how I cried. I remember my mother standing beside the dentist when I had three wisdom teeth removed. I remember Doug who sat most of the night with me as I dealt with kidney stones in the ER of Whitehorse Hospital. I remember the first doctor who gave me lots of morphine when I had my first kidney stones. Thank you thank you. I have a skill at making them. (I should sell them!) My Dean of Student Services followed the ambulance when I had a panic attack (which we thought was a heart attack) in college. He was there when they told me to breathe in a paper bag after all of that drama and fuss. My heart remembered these people staying with me when I was hurt.
It seems like such a small thing, doesn’t it? To sit with someone. To be with someone. Not to entertain them, but just to endure with them the space of time that hurts. That time counts. It means everything. Maybe we don’t feel abandoned. Maybe we feel protected. Maybe we feel safe. But that presence beside us when we sleep binds our injuries, holds our bodies together, so they can heal.
The bedroom is a place of healing. And caregiving. And love expressed through easing each other’s pain. We hate when it happens, but it does open up a way to love each other that no other moment offers. It does not embarrass us to see each other dependent or make us hate them. Instead, it makes us value each other more, and each other’s health more. For a fortnight, we become a sentry, guarding each other, fighting off the illness together, till stealthy health comes sneaking back through the gates again.