Lessons From Laryngitis

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I get sick once a year.

Without fail, I get The December Glurg with a side order of cough that generally lasts until Groundhog Day.

Sadly, this year, things are off to the same hideous predictable pattern.

On the second to last day of classes, I showed up with serious laryngitis.

It’s a good thing my students were doing presentations; otherwise, I would have been sunk. Overnight my normally robust voice had changed into the squeak of a zit-faced boy going through puberty.

And I knew the cough was bad when my husband — who is ultra-tolerant when it comes to illness — moved all three of his striped pillows and disappeared into the guestroom.

None of this would have even been a big deal if I could have just gone home and gone to bed and rested for a week. Or three.

Except, I couldn’t.

I had to catch a plane to Florida the day after classes ended.

It was not a trip that could be rescheduled.

So I became one of those passengers.

The ones we all hate.

The ones who cough and snurgle and hork up luggies during the entire trip.

And remember, my voice was gone.

I carried around a small pad of paper upon which I had written this message:

I figured it would come in handy.

Inadvertently, I had become a walking, coughing sociological experiment. Because I soon discovered that when a person can’t talk, people respond with an awkwardish awkward awkwardness. Which is ultra-weird: kind of like layering the word awkward three times.

Folks fell into four categories:

1. The Avoiders

These people could see I was crazy mad-cow sick and kept a wide girth. They avoided me and my pile of balled up tissues. They pointed me out to their children and said words I couldn’t hear but I imagined were something like: Stay away from that lady, darling. She is sick — maybe even dying — and I don’t want you to get whatever she has. The unfortunate woman who had to sit next to me on the airplane pleaded loudly with the attendant to have her seat changed. Alas, the aircraft was full, so she leaned away — her face toward the aisle — during the entire duration of the flight. Actually, I’m, not sure if that is true. I fell asleep about 13 minutes after takeoff.

2. The Whisperers

When I got to Enterprise to rent my car, I took out my confirmation materials and my little pad of paper. While I tried to whisper, no sound came out. I pointed to my sign. Strangely, the agent – lovely as she was — began whispering to me. She whispered all the rules about renting the car. She whispered my options for insurance. She whispered for me to sign here. And here. And here, too. I was amazed my her bizarre mimicry, which made me prompt her:

She laughed and corrected herself. But this happened several times during my time in Florida. Still, I would pick The Whisperers over the next group any day of the week.

3. The Shouters

While the whisperers adjusted their volume to low, the shouters went the other way. They seemed to assume that my lack of-speech meant that I was deaf and that by screeching at me, they might be able to break through my silence – or something. Or maybe they thought I would be better able to read their lips if they were screaming at thrash rock concert decibel. Again, I took out my little pad of paper:

One day, in need of tissues and cough syrup, I went to the closest Publix. A stock-boy was replenishing the inventory near the pharmacy, and I figured he would be the best able to help me. I showed him my note, and I could tell he was befuddled. It became obvious that the stock-boy was not a native speaker of English, and I wondered if he did not know what “laryngitis” meant, so I added:

I wondered if maybe the colloquialism of “losing my voice” confused him. (You never know.) So I turned a page on my pad and added:

His melodic accent had a musical lilt.

“Are we on hidden camera?”

I shook my head to indicate that we were not. He frowned, disappointed. I began frantically scribbling a message about what I was trying to find in the store, but before I could show him my words, he became hysterical. He shouted: “I don’t know how to help you! Go find someone else!”

4. The Rescuers

Thankfully, there are always people who try to help.

Amazingly, an elderly woman who actually knew American Sign Language materialized in the Publix and offered to interpret for me. I showed her my pad of paper indicating that I wasn’t deaf, that I simply had laryngitis.

She looked at the stock-boy at Publix like he had eleventeen heads.

“For goodness sake,” she said, “This girl has laryngitis! Just read what she writes on the pad and answer her questions.” She looked at me with gentle eyes and offered advice: “Drink lots of tea and rest up.” Then she doddered away.

Like the elderly woman willing to act as my interpreter, help also came in the form of a black man with a broad mustache who helped to lift my small bag into the trunk of my rental car. And a patient tattooed girl in Chipotle, who waited for me to write out my order — even though a line was thronging behind me. Help was the housekeeper in my hotel who gave me a few  extra towels: the Latino man at the main desk in the hospital who helped me find a certain room. He was at the gas station when the pump didn’t work, and she was in the airport when I really needed a Snickers bar.

Now that my voice has returned to normalcy and my husband has come back to our bedroom, I see that having temporary laryngitis was a gift. Being sick away from home made me think about the role I want to play in other people’s lives when I see them struggling: the roles we choose to take on every day in each others’ lives.

Back in 5th grade, I learned about the Holocaust and was amazed by the different choices people made. Later, as I taught novels like Lord of the Flies, I have tried to help students recognize that each of us has the capacity for awesome goodness as well as tremendous cruelty: that we can all be bystanders, victims, perpetrators and rescuers. It is like putting on an outfit: How much bystander do you want to wear today? How does cruel look on you? What about kind? How do you look when you slip into a little kindness? It is simply up to us as to which role we wish to play.

In general, I want to help.

Sometimes, helping wears me a little thin. But I am willing to get a meal and deliver it, pick up a few groceries for a friend: even if I get coughed on or exposed to her germiest germs. Even if there are no germs, just ugly, scary illness, I want to help if I can because I know how much I appreciate those little moments where people go out of their way to make things a little easier for me.

How do you respond when you see someone struggling? Do you try to avoid the interaction altogether? Do you get angry? Or try to help?

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32 thoughts on “Lessons From Laryngitis

  1. I try to help whenever I can, since I remember a time when I needed help and no one stopped to see what I needed. I had been grocery shopping after work one day – I had uncharacteristically worn heels to work that day – and fell in the parking lot, dropping my bags and ending up on my hands and knees, scraped up a bit and stunned to the point that I couldn’t get up right away. Several people just walked by. I couldn’t believe that no one would even say “Are you OK? Can I help?”

    So yes, I always try to recognize when someone needs a hand (whether it is directions for someone standing in a convenience store trying to figure out a local map or a single stamp from my wallet for someone standing in a pre-Christmas line a the Post Office just to mail a letter – or even a poor woman standing in a pharmacy with a pad of paper, trying to find chapstick). 🙂

    1. Chrystal:

      Like you, I tend to be a “Rescuer” Type.

      This totally bugs my husband who likes to get in and get out of places quickly and my “helping” tends to prolong things. Still, I could have never left you in the parking lot on your hands and knees.

      And I’ll bet you would have figured out I needed Chapstick a lot faster than the people at Publix. 😉

  2. The day I lost my voice in my first year of teaching was awesome! The girls were quiet as mice and super helpful. Still, not something I’d want to repeat.

  3. I will go out of my way to help someone in need. I am sorry you are so sick. I’ve had several bouts with laryngitis and strangely enough, my husband doesn’t complain that I can’t talk. Next time I’ll be sure to tell my kids to whisper everything, great idea!

  4. One time I lost my voice and went to a party in Milwaukee. All night I tried to talk and people did the same thing; either they shouted back or whispered! DUH!
    Funny post! I hope you are feeling better… : D

  5. I love those notes! Seriously–laryngitis is the WORST. I get it a few times a year. I can always feel it coming and there’s really nothing you can do but let it runs its course. You really do feel incredibly helpless and sort of imprisoned in your body. I like how you made it a lesson in compassion. You have a good heart! I usually just complain about “poor me” when I have it.

  6. I tptally love your sense of humor and attention to detail.
    As to your question, I am a helper too. I actually seem to rise to the occasion when another person is in need.

  7. I think I could be either one of these four categories depending on the person in need and the circumstances.

    For you, I’d be a rescuer.

    Feel better, my friend.
    And may your bed see the return of all three striped pillows and one husband.



  8. This is awesome. I’m definitely a rescuer. In fact I find myself rescuing people that doen’t need rescued. Then I’m embarrassed. 🙂

    That cough thing is such a pain, isn’t it? Thankfully, it didn’t hang around our house long this year.

  9. The part about Avoiders made me laugh because that’s how I feel when I fly with my 2 year old son. People look at us like we are lepers, especially the poor souls sentenced to sit next to us for 4 hours. On a flight once, a woman saw us already seated in her row and asked to be changed/made a stink. Within an hour she asked if she could hold my Little Dude. Buzz off, lady.

    Hope you feel better, Renee!

    JJ – The Dude of the House
    Twitter: @DudeOfTheHouse

    Check out my new blog post: All I Want for Christmas is Jews.

    1. Dude:

      We’ve all been Avoiders at one time or another, right? The key is not to be those people most of the time.

      Truth be told, I was pretty snurgly. I mean, I would have wanted to avoid me.


      I saw your post and commented! So glad that I am following you now. Will need you for #PesachPalooza. Or something. 😉

  10. Hi,

    I hope you’re feeling better. Just a thought…why didn’t your note just say: “Where is the chapstick/cough medicine” or a list of whatever you needed? They didn’t need to know you had laryngitis. Might have been more fun to make them think you were a mime! 🙂

    1. Larisa:

      That is a very good question. And in an earlier draft, I actually explained it at great length. But it was really boring, so I cut it out. Here’s the deal. At that point during my brief stay, I was pretty low on paper, so I was just using stock statements that I had used before. You know, to conserve paper. And I had forgotten my pen!

      Right before the stock-guy freaked out, I borrowed his pen and started scribbling on the back side of one of the used sheets: “Can you point me to the Chapstick?”

      I never got to show him that sign.

      Dude flipped out.

      Next time I lose my voice like that, I’ll know I need to bring a bigger pad, that I always need to carry a pen. And I will absolutely not forget my Chapstick. 😉

  11. I love this. It’s funny and elegantly constructed and it turns what would be an everyday thing into a fascinating exploration of the human psyche. Oh . . . and a good lesson was snurgled in there as well! Chuckling. I am usually a gallant rescuer and I am not afraid of getting ill because with three children it is pretty damn inevitable, but sometimes incessant coughing (sigh) does annoy me a tad. Never tossed my man out of bed for it, not yet. Dang it, I am supposed to be writing my novel, not reading your awesome blog!!

  12. I’m so glad you are feeling better, friend! And glad you shared your experience with us–lessons to be learned for sure about how to help in a real way.

    I think the smiley faces on those notes say a lot about you. Love!

  13. I have always been the helper. I am the food bringer, the midnight talker, the one there when a loved one passes, the listener, the one to help a stranger and the one to try and pick others up as they struggle. I have no regrets doing what I do. However, I learned that not all are helpers, supporters and there when I needed it. That my friend blows my mind and hurts. That is when you learn who is really there and who is not. When my nephew passed away this past July I was shocked with many people I called my friend. No phone calls, no sympathy cards, no stopping by with something and I was so hurt and focused on that. My mind is clearer now and I look at who did step up. My friend Robin who took care of my house and dog. She even cleaned my house so when I got back from Syracuse I didn’t have to worry about it. The support I received in my inbox on fb from friends I have had forever and do not live near me. The one that made me cry the hardest and I am forever grateful is Mary and Maggie. They showed up in the darkest hour and attended the wake. I hadn’t seen Mary since my wedding in 1990. She was there for my wedding on the 28th when Joey was my ring bearer and then she was there 21 years later on the same day to help me say good-bye to my nephew. You know I am crying as I write this. I will never ever forget that! With all this being said, will I still do what I do? Yes I will! I will not change who I am because of others.

    1. Melissa! I had no idea about your nephew! And you are right. It is really painful when the people you expect to be there let you down. Sometimes people don’t know what to do and their absence is less about you and their feelings for you than it is about their inability to know what to do in a particular moment.

      I’ll bet people assumed you were surrounded by loved ones.

      I’m glad Mary and Mags were there for you!

      And I’m glad you know just how much people DO need people during those dark days.

  14. I’m so glad you’ve recovered; I’m sorry you were sick, but what a cool post this made! (I always used to get sick every Dec, too, but I haven’t in the past few years. I think no longer commuting into the city or working with small children played a hand in that!)

    The hidden camera thing cracked me up. I’d like to say I’m never a bystander, but I think that’s far from true. I’m usually willing to lend a helping hand, though, and always hold the door or offer help when someone’s struggling to carrying something/reach something on a top shelf (I’m tall, LOL, and I think it’s my civic duty), etc.

    1. I involve myself to the point of annoyance, methinks. I don’t do it to b annoying. I really am trying to help. That said, I have crossed over the line, especially when people feel they can do things independently. Ooops.

      And for all the short folk out there: thanks for reaching those cereals they always put on the top shelves. 😉

      I actually wish more people would think of helping as their civic duty.

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