Currently, and at all times, I carry around a scrap of paper that has jotted on it everything I need to do before my family shows up Christmas Eve. You see, I'm hosting. In our new home. That we just moved into a little over a month ago.
I'm excited and anxious. And also worried that I won't know how to properly cook a ham, should the need arise.
There's a lot to be done. So much so that the casual observer (and the Starbucks barista) might ask, "Why put yourself through all that?" To answer that, I'd have to take you back in time a bit....
I had awoken as I always do--begrudgingly. It was early in the morning and late in the summer. I was more tired than normal. As I went to change out of my pajamas, I noticed something on my stomach. A red splotch. Like a mosquito bite but the size of a grape. I rolled my eyes and moved on. There were children on which to force toothpaste and shoes.
Later in the day, I lifted my dress in the bathroom at work to see if the bite had calmed any, only to discover I had another one. This one was shaped differently, and felt bumpy and hard to the touch. I snapped a picture of them and texted it to my father. I have long used his animal medicine doctorate to diagnosis many illnesses I had no time or interest in getting officially examined. Looks like an allergic reaction, my dad texted back. Perhaps an allergy to the bites.
To me, that shook out.
Later that day I didn't feel quite right. Shaky, but no fever, a headache that wouldn't quit, and a small bout of nausea. I had to teach that evening, so I decided to run home to grab some pain meds and maybe, if time permitted, lie down for a few minutes.
By the time I got home, my body was tingling. Alone in the bedroom, I checked on my skin. The bites were multiplying. How was this possible? I wasn't feeling any biting. And also, they didn't itch.
Oh. My mind focused quickly: I have bedbugs. I stripped the sheets off our bed, and our kids' beds. I searched wildly over all the mattresses, continually referencing a helpful bedbug webpage on my phone. While in a fury to scour our entire home for these parasites, I began to feel a jabbing pain in my side. The bites on my abdomen were pulsing.
I told myself I was fine. I just needed to sit for a minute. As I sat down, I realized how much pain I was in. But I couldn't place the source. Was it hurting from the inside out? Or was something causing pain from the outside in? All I knew was I was hesitating to put my dress back on.
Then I had an idea. I could put gauze around my midsection. Wrap it really tightly to keep the dress from touching my bites, taking away the pain from the outside in. Then I'd take a double dose of Advil to address any pain from the inside out.
An hour later I was in the classroom, holding my breath through sharp stinging jabs in my side, but otherwise nailing it.
The next day, when I took a shower, I leaned my head into the water, but I couldn't let my midsection get so much as a drop on it. I couldn't even towel off. It would be a double gauze day. At work, walking a bit like Frankenstein's monster due to my tight binding job, a coworker stopped me.
"What's with you?" she asked, pointing her finger up and down my body.
"I am having an allergic reaction to mosquito bites." I winced as I spoke.
"Are you sure they are mosquito bites?" she asked, skeptical.
"Yeah, I know what you are thinking. But they aren't bed bugs. I checked. And no one else at home has them."
"Are the bites only on one side of your body?" she asked.
"Yes..." I whispered, concerned what she would say next.
"Yeah. You've got shingles."
I headed into my next meeting with my head spinning. Shingles? I'm 34! And a pistol at that! There was no way. But as the meeting progressed I realized it was highly unlikely mosquito bites would ever require pain meds, gauze, and biting on my purse strap. But now I had a bigger problem. Jim was out of town for work. It was already 4:30 in the afternoon. I had to finish this meeting, get my kids from their summer camp, and figure out a way to get to urgent care. The searing pain was amping up with each passing minute. I needed to get these clothes off of my body. The boardroom didn't seem appropriate.
I waited until the meeting was over, got in my car--unable to lean back in the driver's seat--and sped to get my kids. While on my way, I phoned my mother-in-law, screamed into the phone in short bursts of words and noises, which she must have understood meant I needed help. She said she was on her way.
When my daughters were safely in the car, I began to cry without abandon. The pain was severe.
"Mom...?" Lowery spoke through a cracking voice. "Why are you crying?"
"Lowery," I was taking breaths like a woman in labor. "I can't talk right now. Mama's in a lot of pain and I need to focus on driving."
My elbows were parallel to the dash board. My chest was almost touching the steering wheel. Both girls were in hysterics because they were confused by my crying and my periodic outbursts of "Ow! Ow! Ow!", "He-he-hoooo!" and, "Jesus take the wheel!"
Somehow, though there might have been a small blackout in there, I found myself in the waiting room of the urgent care. My children were safely with their grandparents. Jim was up to speed. I sat on a plastic bench, my eyes closed, as I rocked slowly back and forth. I was in the kind of pain that made me completely unsympathetic to the snot-nosed children who filled the room. They better not get called before me, I thought without shame.
Back in the exam room, the doctor came in and tried to introduce herself.
"There's no time!" I yelled.
"So let's have a look," she said. "Go ahead and take off your dress."
"And unwrap the gauze."
"And untape the ice packs."
"And remove the cotton balls."
And once she saw the rash ravaging the right side of my body--which in just two days had transformed from one red spot into an angry array of blisters, she exclaimed:
"Oh. That's a whole lotta shingles."
"But I'm youngish!" I exclaimed, breathing like I was crowning.
"In cases with younger people, it's almost always a result of stress."
"I'm not stressed."
"You have shingles."
"And that's stressful."
"What else is going on?"
"Nothing. I was fine before the shingles and, if you can medicate me, I'll be fine after."
Eventually, I left with a stack of prescriptions (one of which would require an explanation when Jim saw it upon returning home), and encouragement from a medical professional to "take it slow."
Much like my rash, news of my diagnosis spread to my friends, family, and coworkers, and over the next few weeks, a very funny thing happened. People backed away from me.
Not because I was covered in a rash that gets its name from what it absolutely looks like. And not because I was clearly on herpes medication. But because my shingles were an outward symbol of stress. A sign to give me space.
Emails slowed down. Texts messages stopped. I was told to skip meetings. I had people offering to help with the kids. One person even brought us dinner. Oddly, people were so accommodating when I got shingles, but seemed less willing to accommodate in an effort to prevent them.
But it all felt silly to me. I didn't need space. This isn't the kind of thing that keeps you from grocery shopping or paying bills or The Crown. Yet everyone acted as if they didn't want to contribute further to my stress. Or perhaps they were worried they'd been part of it all along. Either way, I resented my shingles, not because they were a terribly disgusting constellation on top of my body, but because people believed they represented something deeper within it.
Almost without variance upon hearing I had shingles the response was: "Of course you do."
Now, I will say this. When I got shingles this was what was happening in my life: I was on a very tight deadline (of 90 days) to write a 75,000-word manuscript for a book deal I was offered from a major book publisher; I was in the middle of teaching a summer course; I was chairing a search committee to find a CEO for a major nonprofit agency; and Jim and I were in tough negotiations over a house we very much wanted to buy. Also, I was going through a bit of a hair crisis.
But I wasn't drowning. I had a lot going on but it all energized me. And until I got shingles, I was unaware others were perceiving me as a person who would absolutely be susceptible to them. Undeniably, I do take on a lot. But I do not glorify busy. I do not wear my stress like a badge. There's no part of the harried, high-powered woman in movies that appeals to me (except her clothes and bank account). I'm not striving to plant my flag on the top of Mount Overwhelmed. And I certainly don't want my children, my students, or those close to me thinking that the stuff I do is without a purpose. Or that I'm not enjoying it as much as I am stressed by it.
Which brings me back to Christmas.
Whether you subscribe to the religion behind Christmas, or just take part in the trappings of it all, it is the most stressful time of the year. There's so much to do. So many presents to buy and wrap. Family pictures to schedule. Holiday cards to mail. Trees to trim. Feasts to make. It sucks up an insane amount of time, money, and energy. And yet, every year we can't wait for it to arrive. We base our traditions around it. We produce albums about it. We compare everything good in life to the level of a child opening a present on it.
If we didn't think all the stress was worth it, we would have just called it quits after Thanksgiving.
So why am I hosting my family for Christmas in a house I've barely unpacked?
Because the joy of the holiday always overcomes the stress it takes to get there.
And, if it doesn't, I have plenty of gauze, and I've gotten really good at wrapping.