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Barb, MD

A squawky, unintelligible, robot voice emanated from my phone — my latest ring tone. When I answered, my sister Heather said, “Well, I guess you need to let me know what night is good for you and David to come up here for dinner.” But I knew that what she meant was that she had been officially diagnosed with shingles.

“I’m sorry you’re suffering, but at least you’re on the road to being better,” I said. “Also, I can’t wait to see what Sean cooks for us.”

The day before, the family was gathered at Mom’s for a weekend barbecue. Minutes after she’d arrived, Heather lifted her shirt a few inches to show me the small rash on her left hip. “I don’t know what this is, but it hurts like hell,” she said.

“It’s shingles,” I proclaimed.

Once she got a peek, Jane — our eldest sister — backed me up. “Oh, yeah, that’s definitely shingles.” Though I was the first to call it, Jane’s opinion had clout; she used to sell Famvir, the drug used to treat the irritating reactivation of chicken pox.

“How can you be so sure?” Sean asked. “There are hundreds of things that could cause irritation like that.”

I smiled at my brother-in-law. “Because both my father and my friend Jordan had shingles in the last year, and I recognize the symptoms. Heather, you’ve been super stressed lately, yeah?” Heather nodded. Working full time, going to school at night for a master’s degree, mother of two kids…it would have been surprising for her immune system to be cool with it all.

“You guys, I’m an expert on this,” Jane insisted. “It’s shingles. I used to have to describe the symptoms every day as part of my job.” She huffed when Sean and I continued as though she hadn’t said anything.

“Just go to a doctor tomorrow and get the meds you need, and in the meantime, don’t go touching the baby without washing your hands first,” I said. This prompted nods all around and a side discussion about whether or not anyone should mention Heather’s condition to Jenny, our youngest sister and mother to a two-year-old and a newborn. Some argued Jenny had a right to know, while others maintained her Mama Grizzly instincts might cause a freak-out. In the end, she was told, and Heather steered clear of the baby, though it killed her to forego holding her littlest nephew.

When we circled back to the topic, Sean remained unconvinced. “You know Heather has a ridiculously low pain threshold,” he said, “so when she says it hurts, it’s probably not the level of pain that your father and friend described. Shingles is supposed to be very painful.”

“I’m telling you, it hurts,” Heather argued.

“Okay, then, let’s make a bet,” I said to Sean. “If Heather has shingles, you have to cook us dinner. And if she has anything else, David will cook you dinner.”

“Whoa,” David said. “You just offering me up like that?”

“Don’t worry, beh-beh. It’s not going to happen. She totally has shingles. The WebMD in me is strong.” It was true, and my man knew it. I’d correctly diagnosed all kinds of friends’ ailments, from strep throat to anal fissures. Still, I was relieved by Heather’s call, because even though I was confident the chances of that rash being anything other than shingles were slim, I didn’t want to have to deal with David’s rolling eyes should he end up having to execute an elaborate menu all because I’d gambled his services.

When I finished talking to Heather (“I’m sorry you’re all shingle-y, but I’m looking forward to an excuse to hang with you guys”), I relayed the call to David. “See? You don’t have to do any work — but, come on, even if I lost the bet, it wouldn’t have been all that bad. You do like to cook.” He could have argued that just because he likes to do something doesn’t mean I get to say when, where, and for whom he does it, but David let it slide — this time.

“That’s three people I know who got shingles after a period of being extra stressed,” I said. “I was just reading an article about how stress has become a status symbol. Gives people a sense of self-worth and importance when they play the ‘I’m Busier Therefore I’m Better’ game. I guess getting shingles makes you a winner. Speaking of which, I’m always stressing myself out for no good reason. Why haven’t I gotten shingles yet?”

“Because you metabolize stress,” David said. “Your superpower is to absorb the energy you get from stress and grow stronger from it.”

“If that were true, I wouldn’t be going to the psych tomorrow for more anti-anxiety meds,” I said. But, quietly, I wondered if it would be possible to drag myself out of bed each morning if it weren’t for a sense of urgency. “Also, despite any stresses I might have, I get tons of sleep. Loss of sleep is the quickest way to a weakened immune system. So, though I may be just as swamped as anyone else, ten hours or so of sleep a night keeps my white blood cells muy fuerte.” I flexed my bicep to illustrate.

“Or maybe you’re not stressed enough,” David said with a playful sparkle in his eye. “Maybe if you were working hard enough or if you really cared about what you did…” He trailed off and showed his dimples in response to my glare.

“It’s true, though, and I do it, too,” I said. “There’s this whole cultural phenomenon that prizes stress. When I tell someone how busy I am, I’m not complaining — I’m bragging.” A butterfly out the window caught my eye; I watched it until it disappeared from view. “You know who really has it right?” I said after looking back to David. “Europeans. Talk about people who know how to relax.”

David smiled, and I knew he was recalling our sojourns in Italy and France, where things like “to-go cups” don’t exist and time seems to slow, as if to accommodate the pleasure taken in every moment.

“Those were great days,” I said in agreement with the look on David’s face. “Maybe if we started priding ourselves in our ability to appreciate leisure time, we wouldn’t feel so guilty about enjoying some.”

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