Life’s Fitful Fever

I suppose it was only a matter of time, eh? I mean, mothers are put there for a reason and woe betide those who question them too closely -those who dare to speak youth to power. But I was pretty malleable as a child, and until I was old enough to decipher the Reader’s Digest collection in the bathroom, assumed that my mother was possessed of arcane and largely unassailable knowledge. I understood from a very young age that cracking  your knuckles, especially at the dinner table, would lead to deformed and largely useless hands. Only later, when I grew older, did I realize that I’d never seen anybody with deformed hands. And, to my surprise, not everybody believed that peanut butter and jam sandwiches were bad for you. That not everybody carried a toothbrush with them to use at recess. My mother, it seemed, was not omniscient, and anyway, some things you’re taught you just grow out of -like having to leave the toilet seat down, or never talking to strangers. They just fail to stay relevant.

And some stuff is just plain wrong: you don’t get ticks by sitting under an oak tree (I hope), and you don’t always have to tuck your shirt in unless there’s a button missing. On the other hand, there were some things my mother seemed to know with a preternatural certainty and so they were seared deeply into my soul; they are still imprisoned there today, and I do not gainsay them lightly -not when they still seem to work.

Her treatment for colds, for example. I hated it as a child, but my mother seemed as convinced about it as she was about the knuckles. At the slightest sniffle, she would examine me like a customs agent inspecting a suspicious car crossing the border.

“Is that a cold, that you’re trying to hide, G?”

Of course I was trying to hide it; I knew what would follow if I failed her exacting standards. “I don’t think so,” I would reply, cleverly hiding whichever my sleeve my nose had been visiting. But you can never hide incriminating evidence from a wary mother, and I would feel her eyes creeping along my face and around my upper lip, then flitting across the stains on my shirt and finally back to my cheeks.

“Right then, G. You know the drill,” she would always say, her voice mellifluous and yet strangely unconvincing. She loved power. And in that moment, hearing the excitement in her voice, I would realize that I had once again been outflanked. Attempts at camouflage, or guilty denials merely hardened her resolve.

Her unchanging remedy for colds was to make me sleep with extra blankets over me from head to toe, edges tucked firmly under the mattress so I couldn’t escape. And, because it would make me really hot, I had to take an aspirin, although her explanation for that was always rather sparse.

Applying puppy-eyes to my face was the only weapon in my armament -she loved dogs- but it would merely delay the inevitable as she attempted to solidify her decision.

“It’s for your own good, sweetheart,” she would add, and hug those parts of me unlikely to be contaminated. “Remember, a cold is cause by germs…”

Remember? How could I forget? “They climb into your body when it’s a normal temperature and make you sick. They don’t like it if you get too hot…” She always tried to stay vague.


Her face would get all mother-lovey and she would ignore the interruption. “And the aspirins make sure you don’t get dangerously hot.”

“But…” It would be only a token objection, though -I didn’t want to get dangerously hot either, and she knew it, so I would shrug and head for the bedroom.

So, there it lay -the fever treatment- buried all these years, but never entirely forgotten. Even now, it peeks out menacingly whenever I feel a cold coming on and I still can’t shake the belief that it actually helps, or that my mother had been on to something even better than chicken soup.

And now, almost a lifetime later, I discovered an exculpation of sorts for her. I was catching up on my reading one day when I happened across an article in Nature describing some work by JianFeng Chen at the Shanghai Institute of Biochemistry and Cell Biology in China and his colleagues:

They ‘grew immune cells called T cells from mice, and raised the temperature of these cells from the normal mouse body temperature of 37 °C to 40 °C — the equivalent of a high fever. This heat triggered the T cells to start producing heat-shock proteins (Hsps), which protect cells against stress. The Hsps travelled to the inner surface of cells’ outer membranes, where they bound to the tails of membrane proteins known as integrins… The formation of integrin complexes… triggered the migration of T cells to infection sites.’

Translation? ‘A fever fights infection by helping immune cells to crawl along blood-vessel walls to attack invading microbes.’

I don’t suppose my mother will get any credit, though, so I’m not preparing an acceptance speech for a post mortem Nobel Prize or anything, but I am rather proud of her prescience. I mean, there is sometimes more than one way to solve this kind of problem, eh? One way, is to work in a la di da institute where you have a lot of mice with T cells; another is to figure it out like my mother did, from first principles. I doubt if she’d ever heard of viruses -they may not even have been invented in her day- but she did realize that, whatever germs were, they often got into you while you were feeling okay. I mean, germs will be germs; they’re like most of us: Goldilocks but in smaller dresses. And those were the kind of just-right Baby Bear conditions that allowed them to grow. So, change the conditions, and drive them back out onto the street again. Sort of like getting unwanted tenants to move by turning off the furnace -only different.

It does make me wonder why she never generalized her strategies to make me clean up my room, however.


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