Preexisting Panic

Regular flu is embarrassing, but swine flu is really humiliating for someone who only likes pigs on her plate or in stories.

Like a bolt of lightning out of the clear blue sky, I was stunned by the report of the first death from swine flu of someone who was previously completely healthy. Women with self-awareness have taught themselves never to leave the house with mismatched undergarments or stockings with runs in them, even if no one sees these things, lest they suddenly pass out in a coffee shop or get run over at a crosswalk. Because then, as they are taken to the hospital unconscious or even dead, the real humiliation will set in. As if the grief caused by injury or even death, in extreme cases, weren't enough, the poor woman also has to suffer the ultimate mortification of being seen with runs or weird underwear or, heaven forfend, toenails in dire need of a pedicure.

Of course, there are always some naive women who insist: "What do I care? If I'm dead anyway, then what's it to me what the medical staff thinks of my taste in lingerie?" And others will airily retort: "As if, while they're attaching that electric-shock device to my chest and shouting for the rest of the crew to back away, the rescue team is really going to care whether the red nail polish inside my boots is starting to chip!" But we also know that inside all of us, no matter which walk of life we hail from, our own private little "Fashion Channel" is always turned on and the what-will-people-say goblins work overtime just when we're at our most helpless - i.e. after death.

A big part of my anxiety over the thought that I might one day end up in a women's prison or be tempted to take part in "Celebrity Big Brother" has to do with fateful questions such as the availability of hair dye, nail files and tweezers in those places, or whether I would be granted enough privacy in the bathrooms there to restore myself to a more human form. And what will my cell mate at Neve Tirza - a serial murderess whose weapons of choice are rolling pin, kitchen spoon and Primus stove - think if I lounge around in Delta cotton panties from a supermarket economy pack? And what will Guy Pines say about me if I show up on "Big Brother" with the nail polish on the little toe of my right foot in need of retouching?

One of my worst childhood memories involves a chemistry experiment conducted by my brother and a friend, which resulted in a loud explosion, the collapse of a wall in the house and a puddle of blood, and brought my mother - in red mesh underwear and flesh-colored bra, hair all disheveled - rushing in a panic out of the bedroom where she'd been indulging in a well-deserved afternoon nap. My brother had to spend six months in the hospital to recover from his serious injuries, but for many more years, the image of my true saint of a mother, of blessed memory, in her silk underwear, remained vivid in my own mind.

For the information of anyone who might be contemplating suicide, the phobia surrounding "What will people say?" and the general fear of the future does not simply end with your death. Even a natural demise is no guarantee that one can escape such worry. "Lucky your father didn't have cancer," Mrs. Rosen consoled me at the funeral of both my parents - and despite the awful circumstances, I couldn't help but chuckle.

Which reminds me of the popular joke: "What did your wife die of?" Yankel asks Berl, who's just become a widower. "The flu," says Berl. "Ah, that's lucky," replies Yankel. "The flu's not that serious."

To go from popular jokes to more serious literature, we can't help but cite that masterpiece by Gail Parent, "Sheila Levine is Dead and Living in New York," in which the protagonist, while planning her suicide, goes on a quest for the perfect dress for the occasion and finds it in a department store. "I can't breathe in it," Sheila complains to her gay friend, who immediately retorts: "Why do you need to breathe when you're killing yourself?"

Yes, yes, with us Jews, it's not only whether you live or die that matters, but also how you die.

That whole long preface ought to make the explanation as to why I absolutely refuse to die from swine flu superfluous. Regular flu is embarrassing enough, but swine flu is really humiliating for someone who only likes pigs when they're on her plate, or in the form of a piggy bank in an Etgar Keret story. Indeed, the very thought of getting stuck with this label for all eternity is enough to stir up all the anxieties that make me prone to eating disorders. For the same reason, I have no desire to die of foot-and-mouth disease. Undernourishment or sacrificing my life for my children's sake seem to me the only two acceptable causes of death, since, as Boaz Sharabi sings: "No one dies from love anymore."

Even scarier is the thought of dying from swine flu with no preexisting illness, since the implication is that one must be a real loser in such a case because, as always, the patient is to blame. Like, it wasn't the preexisting conditions that killed him but his lousy character. Because after all, for someone with no other medical problems, say the doctors, this disease is no more dangerous than ordinary, run-of-the-mill flu.

No wonder the public is confused: If this flu is no more dangerous than regular flu and if preexisting medical conditions are a must in order to die from it, and if getting over it is dependent on one's character, then what's the point in getting vaccinated? But one needn't go as far as dying from this flu; just suffering from it could be quite unpleasant, or so I thought during that miserable week when I was lying in bed enduring my yearly bout of regular flu plus sore throat.

"That's all I need," I said to myself in Polish (even though I don't speak the language). "Dying of swine flu with no preexisting illness."

And so when my agony receded and I got well, I immediately raced to the nurse at the HMO in the early afternoon and I couldn't believe my eyes when I saw there was no one ahead of me in line. The nurse asked about preexisting medical conditions and drug allergies and I had nothing to say. She recommended physical activity, vitamin C and sexual activity ("but don't overdo it," she added in her endearing American accent). I then asked for and received a regular flu shot in one arm and a swine flu shot in the other. And just to be on the safe side, I hurried from there right to the cosmetician, the hairdresser and the lingerie sale.