When my own mother was 43, I was a know-it-all college student, and to my jaded eyes, she was hopelessly, desperately old. After all, she chain-smoked Merit menthols, watched Hill Street Blues, and listened to Eric Clapton records on a Pioneer stereo system as big as a Japanese car. But my friends begged to differ. “She’s so young,” they’d sigh, for their folks were mostly pushing 60, too square to smoke anything, and still suspicious of Clapton for once being in a band called Cream.
Now I am 43, with two know-it-all children of my own. I flatter myself that with the assistance of Miss Clairol and the stubborn patch of blackheads on my nose, I appear younger. I dress younger, having stuck to the same Converse and hoodie uniform since the days I rolled my eyes at my geezer mom. I certainly act younger, as I like to cuss, and I still laugh when my kids fart.
Today I was diagnosed with a condition that I thought only afflicted the terribly old. It’s on my 43-years-young back, and it hurts like a motherf***er.
As a child I remember an announcement, in a hushed and sympathetic tone, that my poor grandmother was suffering a flare-up of a horrible skin condition named after the stuff that kept our roof from leaking during a rainstorm: shingles. I imagined Grandma Rose’s skin scaling off into pieces that layered on top of another until her back resembled a pitched roof.
When I’m at the pharmacy and the battery on my Samsung Galaxy is dead, I kill time in the inevitable line by reading the ever-present pamphlet by the counter that explains all about shingles prevention. Page after page shows senior citizens in emotional states ranging from concern to outright panic as they consider whether or not they ought to talk to their doctors about this matter, as Merck pharmaceuticals (publisher of said pamphlet and producer of a shingles vaccine) very strongly suggests. Like poor bladder control and osteoporosis, I thought, this shingles thing was only a problem for old people.
Or I used to think this until I asked my husband to check out the hot rash I found on the left side of my back. “Oh my God,” he shrieked in typically supportive fashion.
“Whoa, Mom,” my teenage son said, after demanding to know what the fuss was about. “That looks disgusting. Are you dying?”
“Gross,” my tween daughter squealed.
Since my family failed to support me, I turned to Google, good old nonjudgmental Google, and entered the search terms “hot rash back lumpy.” The amateur diagnosis? Shingles.
I am too young for shingles!
Yet when the nurse practitioner at the Minute Clinic took a peek, the first word out of her mouth was “herpes.”
I am too old for herpes!
“Herpes zoster,” she corrected. “The medical name for shingles.”
I called the old lady. “Mom,” I said, “how old were you when you first got shingles?”
“Shingles?” she asked, bewildered. At 65, after two kids, four grandkids and too many cartons of cigarettes to count, this is more or less her natural state. “You must be mistaken, Shannon. I’ve never had shingles. Your grandmother, on the other hand ….”
I gritted my teeth during the entire drive to my pharmacy, where the Merck pamphlet mocked me from its stack near the blood pressure machine (mine was 166/72. Is that good for an old person? Or bad for a young person?). The pharmacist apologized for having to fill my prescription with a name brand, not the generic, as the latter was out of stock. “What, did everyone get shingles all at the same time?” I cracked. I hoped to prove that being able to joke about my sorry condition proved that I was still young.
The pharmacist shook his pale, hairless head and whispered, “We’re sold out of generic valacyclovir because so many people came in for, well … you know … outbreaks.” His tone was low, almost conspiratorial, as if he were welcoming me into his circle—and not just out of confidence.
I like this pharmacist. I’ve trusted him with my prescriptions for years. He’s as helpful as can be, but the man is 60 if he’s a day. He’s old. With apologies to Groucho Marx (a man so old he’s dead), I don’t want to be in any club that has him as a member. And what made him think that I wasn’t a libidinous tart who caught a sexually transmitted infection at a very hip, very happening swingers’ party? Even trollops wear hoodies when they need to pick up their prescriptions!
“It’s pretty painful, isn’t it?” he said, noting my watering eyes. I nodded. I asked if he had a preference among the various products that claimed to soothe aggravated skin. “I like the Aveeno oatmeal bath, and you can never go wrong with calamine lotion,” he said.
I bought them both, with a six-pack of Ensure just to be safe.
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