As a kid, I had to work within three distinct time frames to accomplish staying home from school.
If I was really lucky, evening was accompanied by a fever. My mom would put her hand on my forehead,; once quickly, then a second time for longer and shake her head, “You better stay home tomorrow.” I’ve never replicated the relief I felt when the second press against my forehead lingered long enough to tell me she felt a heat that shouldn’t be there. I knew I’d be able to go bed and sleep without the anxiety that attended every other school night. Disappointed teachers (“Meg is an incredibly smart kid but scattered”), forgotten homework (scattered), relationships that shifted on the walk to from the classroom to the cafeteria (smart about books but not, always, about peers).
If I wasn’t blessed with a pre-bedtime fever, there was always the hope of an early morning sore throat. The unmitigated joy of waking up and having a throat so raw I could hardly swallow! I’d stumble out of my room into my parents’ room, or if things were bad enough, hoarsely call out for my mom to come to me. She’d feel my forehead again. If there wasn’t a fever she’d press her hand along my neck. “You better stay home. I’ll call your school.” I’d close my eyes and bless my swollen lymph nodes.
The hour between eating breakfast and getting in the car to drive to school was the most tenuous time to seek the “You Better Stay Home” benediction. Reaching this hour meant I wasn’t sick enough, or sick at all. Still. There were many mornings when the thought of going to school made me feel my own forehead trying to detect a fever; once quickly, a second time for a bit longer. Sometimes I’d feel my throat swell and I begin coughing at the kitchen table. Sometimes I got a headache that closed my eyes. Real afflictions that were the result of real distress instead of a real virus. Sometimes, I lied, “Mom, I don’t feel good.” On those mornings, she wouldn’t press my forehead or feel for swelling in my neck. She’d just look at me for a minute and say, “Well, you better stay home.”
Some years I stayed home more than others.
I was afraid of being chastised for reading under my desk but could not seem to stop reading under my desk. I was embarrassed twice a week when we played Popcorn: Multiplication Tables. Wait, it wasn’t embarrassment, it was shame. Not the first time I felt shame, but maybe my most routine experience of it. A kid in the class would call out my name and a problem “Popcorn, Megan! 5 times 9!” I’d fumble up to my feet, say the wrong answer and then sit down again when the teacher just said, “No.” My desk was always a mess, it spilled out onto the floor once a week. I just could never catch myself at school.
Staying home meant reading books in my bed, not doing one multiplication table, and making myself toast with too much butter. It also meant watching Live! With Regis and Kathy Lee. Gosh damn, I loved that show. Sometimes I wished I had a Michael Gelman in the wings. My ten year old self thought that life might be easier with a producer, especially one who accepted light, comedic verbal abuse. I could follow the banter of Regis and Kathy Lee so much better than the conversations that happened on the playground. I wanted to be as funny as Regis and have legs as long as Kathy Lee. When they sat on stools to interview guests, Kathy Lee’s high heel shoe always dangled off the foot of her crossed leg and my goodness, I thought that was sophisticated.
The beginning of the show when they sat behind the desk was my favorite. My California kid notions of New York were formed by Home Alone 2 and those mornings with Regis and Kathie Lee. Regis smacking the front page of the New York Post because of particularly pithy pun, Kathie Lee talking about a party at the Russian Tea Room, Regis complaining about taxis, Times Square or an awkward run-in at a restaurant that I sensed was an institution. Maybe I’d go there to run into someone someday too. Guests of the show stayed at the Le Meridien Hotel and into my twenties, I thought that must be the swankiest address in New York.
I knew where the guests stayed because the show announcer told me; right after listing off the sponsored goods “some members of our studio audience will receive”. I never wanted the laundry soap or iced tea the studio audience got, but I desperately wanted to be a guest who stayed in marbled hotel and then sat on a stool while trading quips with Regis. He made me laugh, I felt like I was in on the joke. That was a rare thing for a kid like me. When the show ended, I’d grab my book, my baby blankie (the one I still sleep with 25 years later) and go upstairs to my room. Usually, I managed to go to school the next day. Sometimes I needed one more day at home.
When I heard Regis died this week, I felt some real sadness. I never got to run into him in a hotel and tell him what he did for a weird little girl in Southern California. It’s not nothing to be the boisterous bright spot in the midst of an troubled child’s day. I didn’t know I had an anxiety disorder until Regis had been off the air for years. In the 90s when a child couldn’t function, laziness, lack of grit and faulty character were usually the diagnosis. A therapist told me that as a child I used illness - real and imagined - to cover my inability to move through the world. That feels true. I know now it’s a sad way for a child to cope. But as the child coping that way, I didn’t know it was sad. I was too busy laughing live with Regis.
I don’t hope for illness, real or pretend, anymore. I’ve learned how someone like me can move through a world like this. Still on days when I am ill like today, laid up in bed and waiting to hear if I have Covid-19, I feel a little homesick for those stay at home mornings with Live!
Thanks for helping me get through my childhood, Regis. See you at the Le Meridien in the sky.
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