September: Cornell’s campus is warm and breezy with remnants of summer left over, and our local fauna scurry across the quads to pick up fallen crumbs of Zeus’ mac’n’cheese. The returning students can breathe in, and almost absorb, the giddiness around campus that radiates from our puppy-eyed freshmen. They’re still blazing with the recent-grad, on-to-the-next-stage-of-my-life buzz that comes from spending the first couple of weeks on a college campus. Class of 2023, it’s true, college is a blast. You’ve got some wonderful times ahead of you, but if you think Ithaca will always be this fairytale-esque, you’re shit out of luck.
Right when you get into the groove of the school year, when you’re ahead on your classes and have started to form some meaningful friendships, it’ll hit you. That first sneeze or tickle in your throat that reminds you you’re not invincible, despite the newfound autonomy you’ve convinced yourself of after restocking your toiletries all by yourself. Ithacan winters are your kryptonite.
Flu season is well-known by people around the world, whether you’re pro-vaccination or against it. However, Ithaca’s flu season starts early, as the temperature drops once October hits. It’s not quite cold enough to see the flocks of Canada Goose (Geese?) around campus, but cold enough to put some pep in your step on the way to class. You’re not expecting the onslaught of viral germs and bacteria that spread across Cornell like I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter! (but we always believed).
The first time I got sick here was a couple of weeks before Thanksgiving break. My mom and dad had recently left after visiting for Freshman parents’ weekend, and I was pretty happy to see them go. No more family dinners — back to Mongolian grill at RPCC with my hallmates. But I have never missed my mom more than I did the morning I woke up paralyzingly ill. All I could do was remember the times when I was younger and she brought me chicken noodle soup in bed. Those bowls of health were replaced with me using all of my energy to lean over the side of my bed and hack out ungodly colors of phlegm.
During the week, you don’t mind missing some classes, but soon the work piles on and you quickly realize this is a step up from time off in high school. Yet, the weekends are worse. Your phone lights up to the texts from friends figuring out plans for the night while you’re still stuck in bed with a jumbo-sized tissue box held to your chest, which has been generously doused in Vick’s Vaporub.
The sickness in Ithaca isn’t simply bad because you’re forced to miss your responsibilities and weekend adventures. What makes it the worst of your life is its unrelenting intensity. You’ve probably had strep throat, probably a few stomach bugs too, but have you ever tried getting out of bed, then, as if knocked down by a giant, fell back and laid like an action figure bent out of shape?
If you do manage to stand after the initial paralysis has worn off, a good plan of attack is to make the trek over to Cornell Health — one would think. You’ll find yourself sitting in a waiting room surrounded by people wearing masks that make you worry that there might be something even worse you can catch, and students grabbing handfuls of free condoms. Once you’re finally seen, it’ll be a five minute meeting in which you’ll be told you’re fine as long as you “drink plenty of water!” and instructed to purchase a double-priced bottle of Advil at the pharmacy. Maybe not worth the migration from North Campus.
I may have had a worse sickness than others that fall of freshman year, but I know I’m not alone; my friend was the one who gave it to me. Thanks to him I spent days watching the walls move (underlying dizziness), skipping meals (lack of hunger) and mouth-breathing (devastating congestion). He can’t take all the blame, however, freshman dorms are cesspools of germs that the vast majority of you have never been exposed to. Whether you’re coming from California, Louisiana or Illinois, you’re immune systems haven’t evolved to combat Ithacan microbes.
So as not to leave you with just but bad news, I’ll offer you a glimmer of hope: despite the eventual brutality you will face, you’ll come out stronger. It’s a rite of passage. You’re not a full-time Cornellian until you’ve brave-faced a winter and survived your first illness. The next time you feel happy to be away from your parents or guardians, just remember there won’t be anyone to bring you soup and pat your back as you cough your lungs inside out in a few weeks. Time to stock up on those vitamin C gummies.
AJ Stella is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Stellin’ It Like It Is runs every other Friday this semester.