I dragged myself to the walk-in clinic over the weekend and the doctor there asked me to take a deep breath while he listened to my lungs. I fell into a coughing fit that left me unable to speak. I walked out bearing the anticipated diagnosis of bronchitis, and a prescription. A Pacific storm was churning offshore, and the downpour and the cold made my feverish view of the city seem a little narrower. Fog clouded the windshield. I worried what the cold, damp air would do to my already-struggling lungs, and I vowed to get inside and stay there.
A metallic taste in my mouth, along with a slight feeling of light-headedness and a relentless, hacking cough have brought back memories. Bronchitis was the illness of my childhood. The taste in my mouth I had often as a kid; I missed weeks of school at a time when a cold would drop into my chest, my fever would rise and the coughing would start. Bronchitis and pneumonia, we go way back.
The taste in my mouth and the time of year have stirred up memories of a childhood Christmas when bronchitis (or was it pneumonia?) also kept me inside. It snowed that year, unusual for mild-mannered Maryland in December, and I’m sure I was disappointed that I couldn’t go out in it. Sick on Christmas, snow in the yard, and my cat had been gone for an unusually long time. Fudge — named for the character in the kids’ books by Judy Blume — was a huntress. She was a petite cat, but a tough one. She tolerated me dressing her up in pearls and doll dresses, but then slunk outside and killed cardinals, baby bunnies and field mice. She rarely brought her quarry home to us, as some cats do. She dined on what she killed, leaving red feathers strewn about the garden, or bits of fur in the grass. She often stayed out all night, stalking her prey, hunting when small creatures stirred, and so it did not seem odd when she didn’t show up for breakfast one morning. Or even that afternoon. But when she did not return the second night we began to worry.
If I had been well, I would have bundled up, trudged outside in heavy winter boots, and marched around the neighborhood, calling for her. Since I couldn’t go out, I opened the back door and yelled “Fudgie” over and over until my mom scolded me for letting cold air in, or until a fit of coughing forced me to stop. I expected to hear Fudgie’s meow in response to my calls — she was a vocal cat and when close to the house would often cry to let us know she was there before she trotted inside. Instead I heard the silence of snow, saw ice forming on branches. Meanwhile Christmas approached, my fever and cough worsened. At some point we probably visited the doctor and I began swallowing spoonfuls of cough syrup and antibiotics. Days passed. I called for Fudgie again and again. Dread combined with my fever made me cry. Because I could not, my mom went out and called for Fudgie, but still no mewing reply.
We made gingerbread men that Christmas. My mom baked cookies every year, but gingerbread men were not one of our staples. I’m not sure why she decided to make them that year, whether it was a plan to distract us both from the fate of our missing cat and my illness, or whether it was just something she wanted to do. I was in charge of decorating them, adding red hots for buttons, silver balls for eyes, a dusting of red or green sprinkles for clothes. We made buttercream frosting that I dyed a garish blue to spread on some of the cookies. I remember my excitement over the cookies battling against the sinking feeling in my stomach, the resulting guilt, and a knot of worry over Fudgie’s absence. I wanted to enjoy those cookies. I expected them to make up for my illness, my missing pet, the snow I could only stare at from our bay window in the kitchen.
My mom imagined the worst, and she suggested that perhaps Fudgie was not well and had gone away to die in peace. She mused that an animal — a dog? a raccoon?– had attacked our little cat. She tried, I suppose, to prepare me, in case Fudgie did not come back. But I didn’t want to believe any of that and I remember my lip quivered with the effort of trying to remain stoic in the face of these possibilities.
Fudgie was not the kind of cat to crawl off to die. I knew this, I think, but did not trust my intuition. A day or two after Christmas, we opened the door to find her there, very thin and yowling for food. She seemed happy to see us. It had been exactly a week since she’d disappeared, and we speculated that she’d gotten locked in a neighbor’s garage while they were away for the holidays. She survived a week with out food, and later other trials, and went on to live a long, full, multitude of cat lives.
Being sick affected my taste buds, and those gingerbread cookies tasted wrong to me. The frosting — something about that awful blue color — was too sweet. I could taste only my illness, my fear of loss, my worry over the possibility of death. I still don’t like frosted cookies.