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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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