By Valerie Schultz
Issue 104, January - February 2001
A random germ has plucked this day from the parade of usual days. The list of things I planned to do today remains just that--an unchecked-off list. This morning my two year old (whom I still think of as "the baby") vomited raisin bran down the front of my shirt. That was all she wrote. All my scheduled errands, chores, and goals evaporated. Left in their place, to fill the hours, was a sick child.
Some of my clearest childhood memories are of sick days, with my mother's cool, satin cheek against my burning forehead, and a vaporizer steaming in time to her soothing words. I remember the thermometer glassy under my tongue, and damp washcloths, and chalky pink prescriptions. Once there was a new medicine on the market that tasted like hot lemonade. (It didn't work.)
I realized, as I stroked my daughter's hair after fetching us both clean shirts, that she will remember the odd sick day at home with me. The smell of chamomile steeping may remind her of a stomachache chased away. Someday she may be the nurse, the angel of mercy, with cool hands and ginger ale. Along with the cycle of the seasons, and the progression of mother/daughter/mother, there is the turning of illness to health. So many cycles converge on our smallest action.
My daughter is so rarely ill that she has had to augment her vocabulary at a time when her brain least feels like assimilating information. She has mastered "spit up" and "belly hurt" and "I sick, Mom." I hope her next new phrase will be "all better."
I've done nothing today and yet everything. It's exhausting to be ever present, to be unfailingly patient and solicitous for a whole day. It is against parenting rules to upset or deny a sick child. My little girl wanted me with her constantly, to hold her or lie with her. While it is lovely to be so trusted and desired, a solitary trip to the bathroom provided me a giddy taste of freedom. In those stolen moments, the mirror revealed that my hair needed brushing, my eyes needed fortitude.
By midafternoon my stomach directed me to make myself a sandwich in the kitchen. I had to be surreptitious, because my wee patient was talking of hunger, even as she continued to purge all attempts at hydration. She demanded orange juice, pickles, milk, and to each item I had to say no. She did not understand my lack of generosity today. I felt disloyal, needing to eat when her stomach was so mournfully empty. We compromised, after some apple juice stayed down successfully, on toast, no jam.
Ten minutes later, the toast was back. She cried at this unjust betrayal by her body, by this organ that can normally accommodate any unlikely combination of foods. More clean shirts all around. We watched Dumbo. I rubbed her back, and soon she was asleep, looking like an ad for world peace. When my older children got home, they helped make a fast dinner, covering for an out-of-town father. Then they quietly stayed clear of the sickroom. They all deserve a party for their excellence.
Now, at 10 p.m. , I try to catch up. The washing machine churns away the badges of our day. I water plants, put away dishes, write in my journal. I gingerly check my own stomach for signs of contagious distress. No, nothing. I will be fit to cope with the next bout, when my sweet dreamer stirs from her nest on my bed. I am hoping that we have turned the corner on whatever this bug is.
I have just spent a whole day simply being with my daughter. That was absolutely all I did. I feel frazzled, restless, yet under these currents, calm and centered. It is a spiritual experience to serve your child in sickness, to let fly all your important tasks, to coax her small system back to health. A day like this teaches me to prize the flow of normal, seemingly uneventful days with my inquisitive, energetic, beaming daughter.
Perhaps tomorrow, if we're blessed, will be such a day.
Valerie Schultz is a writer whose essays have appeared in Mothering, Midwifery Today, the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, and Family Fun. She lives in Tehachapi , California , with her husband, Randy, a schoolteacher, and their children Morgan Eve (18), Zoe Elizabeth (16), Raven Emma (12), and Mariah Earth (9)--the "baby"!