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Insidious Infection

In the nineteenth century, men lost their fear of God and acquired a fear of microbes. — Author Unknown

Swine flu is tearing my family apart. Okay, maybe not the flu itself so much as the fear of it. I guess to be fair to the pigs I should refer to it as H1N1 and acknowledge that this particular strain of influenza — the same kind that killed my great-grandfather in 1918 — is also known as avian flu. Sorry, birds, but you have to share the rap on this one — the porkers aren’t working alone…even humans are partly to blame. But regardless of which and how many species contributed to the nasty bug, the fact remains that H1N1 — the CDC’s top concern and the media’s new pet phobia — is putting a serious damper on my familial relationships.

When my mom phoned and invited me down to her house over Labor Day weekend, I reacted as if she’d asked me to suck on a salmonella pop. I figure the only way to stay healthy is to avoid Petri dishes or anyone who is regularly exposed to what I call “sickness sanctuaries.” Unfortunately, this includes my sister the teacher and her two sons, my mother the school-district employee, my other sister the hospital-hopping pharmaceutical rep, and her two daughters (each of whom attends a different school). They are the ambassadors of at least seven sickness sanctuaries.

After a considerable pause, during which my face went through a series of horrified expressions my mother couldn’t see but probably sensed through the phone, I responded to her invitation with a question: “What’s Heather’s status?”

“Fine,” Mom responded without hesitation.

“And Jane?”

“Jane’s great. And all of the kids.” Then, because she knew what I was getting at, Mom said, with a sardonic lilt, “The strep is gone, but that doesn’t mean we don’t all have swine flu. You might want to wear a mask.”

“Ha,” I said flatly. I found it hard to believe they were all well. As sure as I am that tadpoles have tails, I knew that at least one of the ambassadors had to have some kind of virus. After the last family gathering (to celebrate my nephew Brian’s fifth birthday), Heather had come down with strep throat. She was diagnosed the day after the family party at a small emergency room in Anaheim while Sean and the boys waited for her to go to Disneyland. With a shot of penicillin in her butt and a huge dose of steroids to dull the pain in her throat, Heather was able to power through the weekend and avoid disappointing her sons. A few days of partying it up with Mickey and friends later, Heather returned home, along with a revitalized and debilitating bout of the bacterial infection.

When I returned from my weekend in Santa Barbara, I learned that Jane had also contracted strep and could only surmise that she’d gotten it from Heather. As Jane described her torment to me over the phone, I silently gave thanks for the doctor who excavated my throat when I was 15, thus ridding me of tonsils and adenoids, those nefarious clumps of tissue that pretend to fight infection while serving as incubators to all kinds of bacteria. Growing up, I endured one ENT (ear, nose, throat) infection after another. However, once my throat was stripped bare, my problems vanished. Still, empty esophagus or not, I wasn’t taking any chances.

In a kissy-huggy Irish-Italian family like mine, a sudden aversion to touch does not go unnoticed. My parents taught us not to enter or leave a room without kissing each family member on each cheek. This is still our practice. But now that my sisters’ children are mobile and can spread the diabolical bacteria they collect as they snot and suck their way across the floor, I am more discriminating than ever about where I place my lips.

I’m aware that children need to amass germs in order for their bodies to develop strong immune systems, so I don’t fault them for their grubby ways. But I’m a grown-up. Exposing myself to one virus or another is not going to make me big and strong; it’s going to make me sick.

I’m not a germophobe — not really, not like my dad, who becomes paralyzed when you suggest he tie his shoelaces after they’ve been dragging on the ground. Not like Jane, who pops Airborne tablets like breath mints and goes through a bottle of Purell a day (and yet, despite her precautions, still regularly falls prey to head colds, fevers, and strep). Sure, it’s hard for me to look at a child’s hand without envisioning, in vivid cartoon clarity, hundreds of wormy-looking E. coli bacteria partying it up between every soiled crevice of skin. But just the other day I was hanging out at Tango Wines and offered a taste of my pinot to a woman I’d just met. I let her put her lips on my glass and take a sip, something no germophobe would ever do. I’ve also gotten over my obsessive imaginings of all the contaminated fingers that have surely handled my fruit before it reaches my plate, and I have taken to eating apples and tomatoes, merely rinsed skin and all. So, you see, I’m not a germophobe so much as germaware.

Now that school is back in session and my nieces and nephews will be congregating with masses of potential vectors of disease, I’m thinking the best thing for me to do is lay low until the CDC’s projected 90,000 cases of H1N1 is reached. That number is not so high if you consider: of the 2.4 million people in this country who die of all kinds of causes each year, 75 percent are over 65, and 36,000 die of the regular flu each year, which is 7000 fewer deaths than are caused by car accidents. But projections can be wrong, and it would be imprudent for me to go around licking doorknobs (or shaking hands) when the stakes are so high. Hence, my little problem with large family gatherings.

Because my mother doesn’t understand any two-letter word that begins with N, I found myself sitting in her living room over the holiday weekend despite my better judgment. To the left of me, Bella sneezed. A moment later, to my right, Sean coughed. My eyes widened in trepidation. “Something must have tickled her nose,” Jane said to explain her daughter’s sneeze, while Sean assured me his cough was due to the dry air.

“It’s swine flu,” said Mom, a mischievous gleam in her eye. I pretended not to hear her and surreptitiously put my hand over my nose and mouth and tried not to breathe.

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