We’re about 300 miles from Kennebunkport, Maine. I’m sitting in the seat beside my wife, Elysha. She’s happy. I’m happy, too. We’re on vacation. It’s the first vacation we have had in 10 years. The first since our honeymoon. It’s the first time we’ve managed to get away since we had children and they ruined our lives. The monsters don’t allow us to do anything. They take our money and suck away our joy. They steal our freedom. We can’t go anywhere unless we are saddled with these small, awful human beings.
But this is our 10th wedding anniversary. Elysha’s parents have agreed to take our children for four days and three nights so we can head off to Kennebunkport to spend some time alone, together.
Except now we can’t. We’re about halfway into the trip when I suddenly realize that something terrible is happening, and I’m going to have to tell my bride of 10 years that we need to turn around and head home.
The problem is that I’m cold. I’m cold, and it’s the middle of July. I shouldn’t be cold in July.
I’m also finding it hard to breathe. I can barely catch my breath, and all I’m doing is driving a car. And I have a headache. It’s starting to throb between my temples.
I know what this is. It’s happened to me four times in the last dozen years. It’s pneumonia. I have pneumonia. There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that my diagnosis is correct. This insidious disease has waited until this moment on the Mass Pike to clue me in to its presence in my lungs, and I can’t believe it. I can’t believe I’m going to ruin this trip for my wife. Our vacation is over before it even started.
I turn to tell her. She smiles at me. She looks so relaxed and carefree, but that is all about to end because you can’t go on vacation with pneumonia. My mother died of complications from pneumonia. You don’t mess around with this disease. No one can go on vacation with pneumonia…except maybe I can.
If there’s someone in the world who can go on vacation with pneumonia, it’s me. I am a relentless human being. I can plow through anything. As I pilot the car through traffic. I start to think I can do this. I can do anything. I am relentless.
At home, I get up at 4:30 every morning, and after getting dressed and feeding the cats, the first thing I do is sweep the kitchen and dining room floor. I fold a load of laundry. Empty the dishwasher. Feed the kids. Write a chapter of a novel. Pay a bill. Record a podcast. I live a full day while most people are still asleep. I’m a person who teaches children and writes books and consults with corporations and officiates weddings and produces storytelling shows and is constantly looking for the next thing.
If I can do all that and more, I can go on vacation with pneumonia.
But I can’t tell Elysha, because if she knows that I’m sick, she’s going to turn us around immediately. The trick is I have to go on vacation with pneumonia and not let Elysha know.
This becomes my mission.
When we arrive in Kennebunkport, the body aches have begun, so after checking into our hotel, I tell Elysha to go check out the room. “I’ll bring up the bags.”
I do this because there are a dozen steps to the door to our suite, and when you have pneumonia, a dozen steps are a mountain. I don’t want her to see me struggling. So when I finally reach the landing with bags in hand, I take a few minutes to catch my breath before opening the door and entering the room.
“What do you want to do?” Elysha asks.
“Why don’t we just go sit on the porch over there and relax for a while?”
She tilts her head slightly and offers me the kind of look that says, “Is there a raccoon in the room?” She can’t believe it. “You just want to sit?” she says. “No novel writing? No poker playing? No email answering? No podcast recording? You just want to sit and watch the water?”
“Yes,” I say, desperate to sit down. So we do. We sit and watch the water and talk.
Eventually we go for a walk to check out the town. Stroll by Kennebunkport’s famous lobster roll shack. Pop our heads into all of the ice cream places and everything in between. As we walk, I hold Elysha’s hand. We often hold hands anyway, but this time I make sure to hold her hand because I know I can’t keep up with her normal pace. I have adopted the pace of a frail, old man thanks to this pneumonia, so by holding her hand, I can force her into my elderly stroll.
The next day we go kayaking. I know this will be impossible for me, so I make sure we rent a double kayak, and I put myself in the back so that Elysha can’t see me from her position in the front. We’re kayaking on the Kennebunkport River. It’s not a still lake. It’s not easy, but because I can’t catch my breath, Elysha is doing all of the paddling. I just splash my paddle to make it sound like I’m paddling and occasionally dip my paddle into the water to steer, but I do no paddling whatsoever. She’s exhausted by the time we’re done.
That night we go to dinner, and now that the stomachaches have started. I don’t throw up. I just feel sick to my stomach. Hunger disappears. When you have pneumonia, you can go days without eating. Food looks awful. But this is our actual anniversary, Our 10-year anniversary dinner. I can’t just refuse to eat.
I order a bacon cheeseburger. It’s a beautiful burger, but I can’t stand the thought of a single bite. So when Elysha excuses herself to use the restroom, I chop off a hunk of the burger and throw it under the table so that when she comes back it looks like I’ve eaten about a third of the burger. As she eats, I push around the rest. Eventually she asks if I’m going to finish. I say I want to leave room for ice cream.
I’m like a Marine when it comes to burgers: Never leave a man behind, but I leave this burger behind for the first time in my life.
The next morning, I do the unthinkable. I sleep until 9 a.m. I have never slept past six and I am up on most days well before five. And I tried to get up at five when the alarm went off but I can’t, so I try again at six and seven and eight, and finally, when Elysha stirs at 9 a.m. she turns to me and says, “Did you come back to bed?”
“No,” I say. “I just didn’t want to get up. I love lying next to you so much that I couldn’t bring myself to get out of bed.” She believes me. She believes everything.
Mission accomplished. Four days on with pneumonia and she never suspects a thing. I wait until the moment we step back into the house to announce, “Honey, I have pneumonia.”
She doesn’t believe me, but when she takes my temperature, it’s 103 degrees. I go to the doctor’s office the next day. They scan my lungs and confirm my diagnosis. I also receive the pneumonia vaccine. “Usually reserved for 70-year-old women,” I’m told as the nurse sticks me in the arm.
I did it. I preserved the joy of our anniversary vacation despite a life-threatening illness. I think to myself that I’m the greatest husband in the history of the world, and I believe that for about 363 days. One year later, it’s our 11th anniversary. On this night we’re having dinner with friends, and I’m telling them the story of how I went on vacation with pneumonia and I hid it from Elysha for four days. They’re laughing. They can’t believe it.
Then Elysha says, “You know… I kind of like pneumonia Matt more than regular Matt sometimes. He’s a lot easier to live with.”
Suddenly all of that belief that I am the greatest husband that ever lived is gone. For the past year, I have not sat still for a single moment. I have not slept late. I have not walked slow. I’ve spent every day of the past year sweeping my floors and finding a new jobs and piling on responsibilities and dragging Elysha along with me, insisting that we continually and relentlessly move forward at all times, and it occurs to me – for the first time – that maybe it’s not always great to be married to someone who can’t stop for a minute.
If I actually want to be the great husband that I imagined myself to be, perhaps I should find a way to sit down occasionally without a laptop or a notebook or headphones. Maybe I should just sit next to my wife and watch the world pass by. Maybe I should lie in bed in the morning just because lying next to her is a beautiful thing.
Maybe Relentless Matt is not the best husband all the time and maybe a little bit of Pneumonia Matt is the right recipe.
Matthew Dicks is an elementary school teacher, bestselling novelist, and a record 51-time Moth Story SLAM champion. His latest books are Twenty-one Truths About Love and The Other Mother.
Illustrated By Sean Wang. Sean Wang, an MIT architecture graduate, is author of the sci-fi graphic novel series, Runners. Learn more at seanwang.com.