Fear is a ham-fisted motivator. It is what prompts us to meekly and incrementally give up bits of liberty in exchange for safety; build walls instead of bridges; play it safe instead of taking a chance; hide from our parents, each other and health professionals when we have the sniffles.
As a child, I was no more sickly than the average youth. I had my fair share of colds. Usually a few days of bed rest — typically over the weekend as luck would have it — would have me up and about and back to class.
But there must have been a time when my cold was particularly virulent, an episode in which not only was I knocking at death’s door but ventured inside and had a cup of hot cocoa. What else could explain the extreme way in which I was subsequently treated?
Those who were not there to bear witness might conclude what I describe as fever dreams. Hallucinations brought on by extreme temperature.
No. This happened.
One night as I lay miserably on my bed a shadowy figure — a parent or grandparent perhaps because surely a medical professional is oathed to follow the Geneva Convention and avoid all forms of torture — entered my room, removed my shirt and slathered me in Vicks vapor rub.
With the generosity and precision of a novice bricklayer, layer upon layer of the sticky and gelatinous curative was administered over my chest and back. I was then wrapped in newspaper so that my entire torso resembled the first layer of a piñata.
The shabby treatment was not completed until my feet were also covered in Vicks and swaddled in two pairs of socks before I was ultimately cocooned in a wool blanket that left me as helpless and immobile as a wounded pupa.
Each movement, no matter how slight, resulted in the deafening crackling of newspaper as it clung to my chest as I labored for breath, while at the same time trying to escape the confines of blankets and thermal pajamas.
The treatment lasted for two days and occurred once or twice more in the following years. But as I grew older I learned to downplay my symptoms or hide until the severest part of my cold passed.
To this day the thought of catching a cold fills me with dread not because of the very real threat of death — any reasonable person will tell you that a man-cold is more severe than anything a woman or child could ever contract — but because the memory of that years-old family palliative still brings tears to my eyes caused by the phantom burny vapors of eucalyptus rub and the torture of a newspaper wrap.
So as we approach the flu and cold season, it is with fear the past will somehow repeat itself that I implore one and all to get their flu shots and even then avoid contact with me until the coming spring.