I pulled the cream cheese out of the fridge and showed it to my sister, Heather, the birthday girl who loves Key Lime Cheesecake.
How was I going to make her cake with rock-hard cream cheese? I had to mix the ingredients by hand.
I’m not that strong.
We couldn’t bring her favorite cake on the plane to Turks & Caicos (a small country close to the Bahamas.), and we couldn’t buy one there, so we imported the ingredients in our suitcases.
Heather brought the wet ingredients in her checked luggage –which is permissible, I tucked the dry ingredients and the cake pan into my day pack, my only luggage for this three-night visit—also legal.
Heather worried she would be questioned about transporting key lime juice, so she wrapped the recipe around the bottle in case the international baggage handlers became suspicious. I was concerned that someone would see my bag of sugar and think it was drugs.
Both of us flew without incident, but isn’t it funny the way innocent people feel guilty when doing innocent things?
My sister announced to our friends in the beach condo, “We’re keeping the cream cheese on the counter for a reason.”
Laughter erupted in the next room as three friends argued over who put the cream cheese back into the refrigerator again and again.
Gayle fessed up and then Julie said that she’d manhandled the cream cheese, too.
I added five eggs to a bowl on the counter so they could warm to room temperature.
Linda came into the kitchen and asked if I wanted her to put the eggs back in the fridge.
“No!” I whined.
She giggled. “Oh, are they for the cake, too?”
Five longtime friends had come to Turks & Caicos to help Heather celebrate her 55th birthday. We rented a condo overlooking Grace Bay, right in front of the coral reef with the best snorkeling on the island.
Though several in my group had come for a week, I was only here for three nights, so I didn’t want to waste time inside.
Actually, it’s tough to call the inside of the condo “inside.”
Two of the walls had a fancy sliding-glass-door system. The entire wall of windows folded back and forth against the far walls, creating an open space where we were both inside and outside at the same time.
This was paradise.
There was enough outdoor furniture for all of us to breakfast around the table on the deck, lounge on chairs and gaze out to sea or spy on people swimming in the pool below us.
This was paradise.
And since it was a balmy 85-degree day, the cream cheese warmed quickly.
I made the cake and listened to the waves crashing against the shore while the condo filled with a hint of lime. You never know how long a cake will take to cook in a strange oven; but this oven held no surprises.
The cake came out perfectly.
I turned off the oven, set the cake on the stove top and joined my friends at the pool.
My girls saved me a spot of shade, my preference. I reclined on my lounge chair and watched them splashing around in the water.
It was a tough decision, but I didn’t bring a bathing suit.
I busted my eardrum a month ago and the ear specialist said that I couldn’t get that ear wet. I was pretty sure that if I was in the pool hanging out with friends, I would forget to keep my head above water.
Did they have some kind of Ear-Alert-warning alarms for women who forgot the “No Underwater” rule? If so, I needed one. Maybe you, kind reader, would like to invent this device for those of us in need.
If I got my ear wet, it could push my ear infection into my brain. An infection in my brain could be life-dimming.
That’s not the kind of medical drama I care to entertain.
It was too early to tell whether I would suffer a permanent hearing loss from the infection that infected my idea of health. (If you missed that story, read the blog, My Ear Exploded.)
My ear doctor said I needed a few more weeks for the ear to heal, then we would know more about damage.
Most noises distorted in my ear and sounded shrill. My students humming while working in the classroom made me hyperventilate; their yelling games on the playground unnerved me.
Quiet sounds were a problem, too.
If I held the phone up to the troubled ear, it sounded like the person I was talking to was speaking from underwater. This made talking to my eighty-three-year-old mother more interesting as I listened to her repeating her favorite stories--from under water.
My mother as a mermaid.
On my flight to Turks & Caicos, every word the flight attendants spoke into the microphone sounded like someone screeching into my ear.
My only defense was to hold my hand against the damaged ear like a petulant child who refused to learn about the best way to buckle a seatbelt.
Swimming could wait until I went to South America for Christmas. I could swim then, or so the ear doctor said.
I watched my friends swimming laps as I marveled that I was on a tropical island in December.
This was amazing.
As an elementary school teacher, I get three personal days a year. Most teachers use these days to go to the department of motor vehicles, work on a house project or attend their child’s school event.
I took two personal days and connected them to a weekend so I could fly to the tropics from Saturday through Tuesday.
I listened to the waves dancing along the shore and wondered if paradise was a place, an idea or a feeling.
Was paradise always recognizable, or did you have to be in a good mood to align with the paradise effect? Or is paradise more like a timer counting down to the eventuality of loss: you’d better enjoy it now?
Does paradise last?
Later I would wonder if contemplating paradise was a hint that the tide of my vacation was about to turn.
I woke from a nap and slowly refocused on my surroundings.
Oh, yes. The pool. It was so beautiful there.
My arms felt funny. From my reclined position, I held one arm in front of my face so I could study it. Why did it feel so strange?
There was a layer of something dark brown all over it.
What? What was it?
I sat up.
My legs were also covered in the same brown something. So were my clothes.
I hid my panic. The thick brown layer didn’t appear to be moving. Was it bugs? Ants? Spiders?
I had to hold myself back from jumping into the pool to take a chlorine bath.
No, Holly: a wet ear = a life-dimming brain infection, remember?
I nonchalantly called my sister over.
After a quick inspection she diagnosed me with a massive case of…
I stared into her face waiting for an ounce of understanding.
Nope. Not getting the connection.
She pointed to the construction site next door where a group of men were mostly standing around while clouds of sawdust blew off the deck.
Covered in sawdust?
It was a relief that it wasn’t some tropical flesh-eating bugs, but—sawdust seemed preventable at a resort.
We decided that it was time to move to the beach—where we would be away from the construction zone’s orb and I could rinse off in the ocean.
This is how we passed our days. From pool to beach to lower beach with car rides for sunrise, a meal, a walk through town, a flamingo search (not one in sight) and a sunset so brilliant that it appeared to be a celebration of our lucky days.
Our only plan was to decide last minute what we wanted to do next.
That’s my kind of long weekend.
I set up a lounge chair on the beach on my last full day on the island.
I noticed right away that I had another layer of sawdust all over my body.
I walked by the construction site to get to the beach.
Yes, sawdust again.
The thin layer of wood fragments absorbed my sunscreen and left me feeling like a paper mâché art project: gritty, slimy, smelly.
My skin felt like sandpaper.
Well. At least I was in paradise?
The water was the bluest blue and the waves had small white accents that splattered as they crashed onto the white, sandy beach. The shore was littered with pieces of dried coral and scattered shells, as if Baby God wanted to decorate the beach himself.
I collected dried coral and broken shells into a bag for my classroom; my students love to study the things I find on the beaches of the world.
I splashed around on the shore for a bit, rinsing off, while instructing the salty ocean water that I was washing away the wood dust, not my sunscreen.
Normally I travel alone, which I love to do. But spending time with good friends in a new location was exhilarating, too. And we got to feast on leftover key lime cheesecake day after day.
Everything about the trip, minus that sawdust, was perfect.
Tonight was our last night on the island. We would head out in a few hours to see the sunset on the other side of the island, and then to dinner at a new restaurant. Tomorrow we would fly home to snow flurries, and work, and life.
I would miss this 80-degree tropical day.
Julie was ready to snorkel.
She prepared her mask, put on the flippers and backed into the water.
About two feet into the water, she lay on her stomach, put her mask into the waves and swam. She swam a few feet in knee-deep water, then stood suddenly.
It was too shallow for sharks. Right?
She took off her mask and turned to me. “There are all these fish. Right here. Striped fish.”
She put her mask back into the water, swam a few feet, then popped out to give me another report.
“There’s yellow fish here and more of the striped fish.”
It satisfied the explorer in me to hear about the fishes beyond my reach.
Before we moved down the beach, Heather turned up the music on her speaker and suggested that we have a dance party to one of her favorite songs.
As if the switch above our heads was set to “Dance,” we danced. I can’t remember the song, but we sang along and kicked around a little sand and laughed at our moves and copied each other’s facial expressions while we giggled and laughed.
Bored people lounging in the sand around us watched our silliness. They probably thought we were drunk.
That’s how it is when we’re together. Silly. Funny. Easy. With a lot of laughing.
We snuggled onto our respective chairs—where we could order cold drinks from the restaurant, and I napped, then walked along the shore for a bit then napped again.
I didn’t question my many naps; I was probably tired from traveling.
I felt cold. There was a breeze off the water, but it was eighty degrees out. Why would I feel cold?
I wrapped my towel around me to warm up; it didn’t work.
I walked in the sun to warm up.
I sat on the beach shivering.
I was mad at the wind for freezing me away from the water.
I told the girls that I was heading back to the condo, which surprised them.
I was leaving the beach. My favorite place in the world.
I jogged to the condo along the stone path, hoping to warm myself: it didn’t work. I put on my fleece jacket, did some jumping jacks and wrote in my journal for a few minutes.
I felt colder.
The others came back to the condo to gussy up for our last night on the island.
As they showered and dressed for a night out, I shivered from the cold as if the freezing temperatures from New York had time traveled here and dumped a bucket of icy air over my head.
I blew my nose and rubbed my sore neck; it must be sore from carrying my fifteen-pound daypack.
Wait. Why was my body so sore?
Wait. Wait. Wait.
I sat on the far corner of the deck and told the girls that I was going to hang out at the condo.
Me missing a sunset on my last night was as startling as me leaving the beach on my last full day.
What? Why? What’s wrong?
I pointed to my beautiful surroundings and told them that I was going to stare out to sea.
After they left, I returned to the deck.
No way. Too cold in that wind.
I closed the walls.
It helped. A little.
My friend Anne called to wish Heather a happy birthday and hear about the fun she was missing. After a few minutes, I got off the phone with her and noticed the shivering stopped and now I was—hot?
Last summer I traveled with a thermometer because I was so worried about Covid. Since it was so easy to pack, I left it in my toiletry bag for this trip.
I wiped the thermometer clean and stuck it into my mouth.
Man, it was hot inside the condo.
The thermometer made a series of fast high-pitched beeps that I hadn’t heard before. The beeps reminded me of a little dog barking.
It must be broken. Battery low?
I checked the reading: 102.2.
Oh. My thermometer was barking at me because I had a high fever.
Got the message, thanks.
Did I have covid, or was the infection in my ear worse and making my me sick?
Had my ear infection worked its way into my brain?
Was this going to be my last thought? Or this thought right now?
Maybe this thought would be my last.
Maybe now wasn’t the best time to vacation, while my ear was healing.
I opened the walls for a few minutes to air out the living room where I had been sitting, then went to the bedroom and packed up Julie’s things from around her single bed.
I put her day pack and bathroom supplies in the living room and quarantined myself into the bedroom.
Now I was quarantined in paradise without an ocean view.
Last summer I got Covid in Europe. Did I get it again?
I have been spending a lot of money flying around the world where I lay in bed with my eyes closed.
I’d never gotten sick while traveling before. Why now?
When my friends returned, they donned masks and doctored me: one had meds to bring down the fever. Someone else had something to take away the congestion. Someone else handed me a Covid test kit that showed I didn’t have that virus.
All together, we had everything we needed.
It was a sleepless night: my body ached, the fever returned, and I spent a lot of time sitting on the toilet while anything I’d eaten for the past few days left my body in a hurry.
In the morning I lay in bed and wept at having to miss my sunrise walk on the beach.
How was I going to fly home when I was feeling this crappy? There was no other option: I couldn’t afford to stay on the island until I felt better.
I had to get on that plane.
Was I too sick to fly? Could I make other people sick?
I didn’t have Covid. I might have a worsening ear infection—not contagious. Or food poisoning—not contagious.
I worried about flying home. If the airline found out I was sick with an undefined illness, they didn’t have to let me on the plane. If the USA found out I was sick and didn’t know why, they could refuse me entry to my home country. If I got sicker on the plane, they could turn the plane back to the islands.
There was no way I could afford an $800 a night room by myself.
The next day when we were all masked up and on our way to the airport, we agreed that nobody would joke about me being sick, lest someone with the airline overhear and take action against me boarding the plane.
I wore two masks but stood apart from everyone at the airport: just in case.
On the plane, I found my seat and talked to Julie who sat across the aisle.
My fever returned: I’d forgotten to pack the fever-reducing meds for the flight home. My neck and back hurt. I was hoping I could make the three-hour flight without my stomach requiring extra bathroom visits.
If the plane took off, there was a good chance they wouldn’t notice how sick I was. Especially since I was wearing a double mask.
I breathed shallowly and listened for the crew to ready our flight. As a former flight attendant, I knew what to listen for.
Good. They closed the door. Good they set the doors.
Good. The plane backed away from the gate.
Good the flight attendants did their safety checks.
Good. The pilot told the flight attendants to prepare for takeoff: it was time for them to sit down.
Good. The plane took off.
The chimes beeped at 10,000 feet and the flight attendants got to work passing out snacks to the people who had prepaid.
I closed my eyes.
I made it on the plane.
I made it out of the country.
I would make it home.
My stomach rumbled. I opened my eyes.
Why was my stomach acting up? There wasn’t any turbulence.
I sat still. Closed my eyes. Relaxed my body.
But vomit isn’t something you can stop.
No way. There was no way I was vomiting on the plane.
I clenched my mouth, closed my lips and held both hands firmly over the double masks. I was pretty sure my hand-blockade would stop anything that tried to leave my body.
With almost no warning, the vomit pushed through my masks and my hand-wall. In one swell plop, a sickly goo covered most of my upper body.
My efforts at flying incognito hadn’t worked. It’s as if there was a pulsing neon sign pointing to me that flashed, “Sick. Sick. Sick.”
I softly called to Julie.
She looked up from her book, reached into her daypack and without losing a beat, handed me a cotton shirt. “It’s clean,” she said. “I washed it last night.”
She could have given me a dirty sock and I would have been grateful.
Her t-shirt was perfect for mopping up vomit chunks.
I wanted to wipe myself clean before the flight attendants came around. If they knew how sick I was, they might turn the plane back.
Yes, they do that.
I took the balled-up, dirty shirt and threw it into my carryon.
Julie reached into her backpack and pulled out an empty gallon-sized Ziplock bag and handed it to me while saying that it would help mask the smell.
I looked at her. Moms have this superpower where they can anticipate needs before the event.
How do they do that?
I said. “You just happen to have a resealable bag in your daypack? Did you know I was going to be sick? Did you infect me as content for your folly?”
She shrugged and said, “Yeah.” as if she was ready to fight me.
We both laughed.
To me her gifts felt like small miracles in a weak moment.
She handed me another cotton t-shirt. “This one’s clean, too.”
I wiped; she directed, “There’s more on the seatbelt. On your pants. More over there.”
The man sitting behind her appeared to be watching my Vomit Show, but I wasn’t sure; I never turned around to look. The people sitting next to me were so engrossed in their phones, that they never noticed.
Or maybe they did notice and were being polite.
I shoved my soiled clothing into the bag, sealed it and tucked it into my carryon. I put on two fresh masks and sat up straight, as if I would get bonus points for good posture after vomiting.
The flight attendants didn’t notice. They appeared to be a younger, newer crew. Trust me: experienced flight attendants notice everything.
It’s uncomfortable to be cold and have a fever at the same time; it’s sort of like getting brain freeze from eating a popsicle on a hot, summer day.
My thickest layers of clothes were jammed into that Ziplock bag. There was no way I could get another layer of clothes dirty, or I would be navigating my way in the blustery winter’s night of New Jersey, where we parked the car, in a t-shirt.
It was a miserable flight. When we landed my friends asked me how I felt.
“A little better.” I lied.
I didn’t want to bring down their jolly moods. I didn’t tell the others about the vomit until several days later.
It was an excruciating ninety-minute ride to Julie’s house, where I picked up my car, then another hour on to my house where I turned up the heat and settled into bed without showering first.
No way. I. Just. Couldn’t. Shower. Tonight.
Vomit be damned.
In the morning I logged a sick day at work and made an online appointment at the Urgent Care and took a hot shower.
Maybe it was imagination, but I swore I could still smell wood chips around me.
I got an early appointment at the medical office. After testing me for flu A/B, Covid and RSV, the nurse practitioner left my examination room.
When she returned, she woke me.
At first I thought I was on the airplane and reached for my seatbelt.
Nope. Not the airplane. The urgent care.
Before she told me the results of my testing, I asked her to check my good ear and my bad ear, just to be sure.
“It’s healing nicely.” She said of the bad ear.
Good to know.
“And you have Flu A.”
I nodded, happy that this illness had nothing to do with my ear infection and happy that it had a name.
Good. Good. Good.
She asked for my symptoms.
Diarrhea. Fever. Chills. Aching. Vomiting. Tired. Disrupted sleep.
She asked me the last time I vomited.
“Yesterday. On the plane. All over myself.”
Though I wasn’t looking for pity, I sure appreciated it.
She wrote a note that I couldn’t return to work for five days.
I drove home, changed the sheets on my bed, and crawled in. My pile of laundry would wait till later.
I lay my head on my pillow, pulled up the covers, and sank into the mattress.
This was good.
If I had to be sick, let me be home.
I repositioned my pillow for supreme comfort and closed my eyes.
This? This being sick at home?
It was paradise at its best.
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