The problem with staying home sick from work is that it is impossible to tell if you're really sick, or if your mind has convinced you that you are sick just so you can have a day off.
When I was a teenager, first starting out as a working fry chef at a fast food restaurant chain, I remember those first few heady days of learning how to fry chicken. I was a short kid in middle school, so I had to stand on a milk carton to reach all the places on the breading station, and when I dumped the chicken into the vat of hot grease, it would splash up and scald the crud out of my arms. But still, I was thrilled. I was working.
I had reclaimed control from my parents over my destiny.
Of course, what I had really done was taken the time I spent goofing off at home and with my friends and exchanged it with the drudgery of work.
But what did I care? I was making $2.25 per hour, and when I walked away with my $72 that first pay period, I actually felt like a rich man.
It was amazing what 72 bucks would get you at the time, especially when you didn't have to pay rent, healthcare, or purchase your own food and clothing.
I bought a Walkman, the latest Boston cassette, and I went to McDonalds just because I wanted too.
The thrill of a job, the pride of joining the valiant people who keep this country going, and the pleasure of paying taxes quickly faded with the realization that I was working like a rented mule.
Soon after that epiphany, I came down with a stomachache. It was an awful ache too. In fact, it was so bad it apparently affected my mind and personality, causing me to lose any sense of how a grown-up behaves.
I recall the conversation on the phone with my boss. Even though I was suffering from a stomachache, it also made my voice hoarse and weak.
“Mr. Sanders,” I started out, almost whispering.
In the background on his end of the line, I could hear the sounds of the lunch rush hour reaching a peak. My boss responded to my opening with what I now recognize as a sigh of disdainful stoicism based on hundreds of conversations just like the one he was about to have with me. “Yes, what is it?”
“I don't think I can make it to work today.”
And the careful explanation I gave to Mr. Sanders, with my detailed list of symptoms and possible contagions, actually meant only one thing. He was going to have to work harder, because I was talking on the phone like a three-year-old.
It was the most difficult conversation I have ever had. But I think it must have been cathartic, even therapeutic, because as soon as I hung up the phone, I felt better.
In fact, I felt so much better that I decided to go hang out with my friends, who I hadn't seen in several weeks.
As I was running out the front door, my mom grabbed my arm and swung me around so that I was back inside the house.
“Not so fast, young man. If you are feeling well enough to go out, then you are well enough to catch up on all the chores you've been missing.”
“But Mom, I have a stomachache.”
“Then I'll tell you what, son. After you take the trash out, mow the lawn, clean the garage and stack some wood, you can get back in bed until it is time to help set the table for dinner. While the rest of us eat our spaghetti and homemade pecan pie, I will bring you some crackers and water so you won't upset your stomach anymore.
“How does that sound, kid?”
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