Sleeping with swine flu

Would a dangerous virus be enough to break up the cuddle pact between my wife and me?

By Phil McKenna
November 29, 2009

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“If this turns out to be swine flu, would you still sleep with me or would you sleep on the couch?”

My wife had come home from work looking like death warmed over, with barely enough energy to finish her dinner. She’d heard rumors of students and teachers coming down with H1N1 at the school where she works, but nothing had been confirmed. I dismissed her question, saying we’d take it as it comes, and though it wasn’t yet 8 o’clock, I started coaxing her toward bed.

It wasn’t until a few hours later, when I’d met a deadline for the following morning, that I cracked open a cold one and gave her question some thought.

Rachel and I are madly-in-love newlyweds. We cuddle so closely at night that I recently found myself asking her in semiconsciousness to move over after I realized I was breathing in all that she exhaled. No arguments, illnesses, or heavy breathing had put either one of us on the couch yet, and I wasn’t about to let a possible case of swine flu get in the way.

But then again, I have spherocytosis, a rare genetic disease that cost me my spleen. As a result, infectious diseases have the potential to hit me much harder than other people. After a recent and particularly nasty case of stomach flu, I now wash my hands at a rate that borders on obsession and go to great lengths to avoid touching the doors and faucets of public restrooms. Other than that, I’ve never had any serious complications, although my doctor packs me with heavy-duty antibiotics for all overseas trips, just in case.

Yet I’ve found that while I’ll go out of my way to avoid germs spread by random strangers by day, I don’t want to let potential illness or a little discomfort interfere with my bedtime ritual at night.

Soon after we moved to Cambridge four years ago, Rachel came down with a bad case of seasonal flu that left her bedridden for days. At one point I helped her into our bathroom for a soak in the tub. She was so exhausted that 10 minutes later I found her sitting upright in the same position as when I’d left her. I gave her a sponge bath and escorted her back to bed before we both turned in, together, for the night.

Later that same year, I broke my arm in a bike accident and suffered through several nights with her, and a bag of frozen peas, at my side. I remember howling in pain whenever either one of us tossed or turned.

The thing about all of this is that our bed is nothing special. Until a recent upgrade, it was simply a mattress and box spring lying on the floor. I realize now that it was never the bed itself, but a warm partner cuddled beneath the blankets and the possibility of connecting with a stray foot in the middle of the night that had always drawn me in. Somehow this physical closeness while we lay sleeping strengthens the emotional ties that bind our relationship together.

Before turning in with her latest illness, Rachel had recited figures that she’d heard on the news earlier in the day. More than a thousand people had died from swine flu in the United States -- including an otherwise healthy college freshman from Hingham -- and half of all hospitalizations had been for people younger than 25. I took the numbers to mean that we still had relatively little chance of actually contracting swine flu, and even if we did, spherocytosis be damned, our 30-something bodies would probably weather the storm.

Still, should I couch it for my own protection? And how did it become a foregone conclusion that if one of us were to be banished to the living room -- “Would you still sleep with me or would you sleep on the couch?” -- it would be me? I guess if the tables were turned she’d let me have first dibs, and at this point there was no reason to wake her for a relocation.

By now it was nearly midnight. I was exhausted, and when it came down to it, a lone night on the couch without my wife just didn’t sound all that appealing. I decided to cuddle up with her, but not too close -- and with the windows cracked. I just hoped she wouldn’t breathe on me.

Phil McKenna’s wife never came down with swine flu. He’s a freelance environmental writer who divides his time between Cambridge and China. He blogs at Send comments to Story ideas: Send yours to Please note: We do not respond to ideas we will not pursue.

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  • november 29 globe magazine cover
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