In the middle of the night my son Hardy yells for me. He is eight, and usually at least one of his parents immediately appears by his bedside if he whimpers in the dark. But tonight I move slowly. After all I am weighed down under three blankets and wearing a sweatshirt, sweatpants, hat and mittens. And yet I am still shivering.
Cathlin is already occupied with Pickle, age four. Cathlin doesn’t have the bone-rattling chills like I do. Her symptoms are exhaustion and an overt phlegminess that makes lying down to sleep futile. Pickle has a high fever and has once again called for water.
When I finally make it to Hardy’s bedroom he grabs my mittened hand and tells me he has to throw up. I walk him to the bathroom and play the part of grizzled corner man, giving him encouragement and handing him gobs of toilet paper to wipe his mouth whenever he says, “clear.”
The flu and its various cousin illnesses arrived at our home all at once. This has never happened before, all of us felled together, and it feels decidedly unfair. We are weak and the enemy is at creative full strength.
The battle metaphors flow readily. We have spent the sickness watching the Lord of the Rings trilogy. The over three-hour long battles between good and evil give us a bit of respite each day and the gory battle scenes and horrid goblins don’t seem to frighten the kids at all. Real life right now is scary enough.
On the second night we move the kids into our room. All the wandering between rooms was too much for Cathlin and me, sick as we are. We place all the mattresses on the floor, each kid within an arm’s distance, so we can check for fevers, administer medicine or rub sweaty backs without leaving our own beds. We have built a fortress of sorts and feel stronger in our solidarity.
On this night I help Pickle throw up and am impressed with her prowess. A year ago, during the great stomach bug of 2012, she was distressed by the experience, the violence to her body and the messiness. This year she takes it in stride. When I tell her how proud I am she smiles and says, “Well, I am four and three quarters now.”
Later in the room together the whole family compares aches and pains, competing to see who can lay down the best metaphor.
“It’s like my face and my skull hate each other,” I say. “And they are using jackhammers to separate themselves.”
No one can top this and I go to bed shivering in my smugness. Hours later Hardy starts yelling.
“I’m down below and the earth is sitting on top of me.”
“Wow, that’s a good one,” I say. “You win.”
Hardy keeps yelling, though and I realize he’s not playing. His eyes are vacant and he is hallucinating. “I’m dead,” he says. “The world is crushing me.”
We take Hardy to the emergency room and he is given the full rundown. Thankfully, nothing more severe than the flu, a high fever and some dehydration is discovered. He has no memory of the image of the world crushing him, but agrees he definitely won the metaphor game. I tell him to prepare for that image to come back and haunt him sometime later, most likely in his 40s. He has no clue what I’m talking about.
As the days continue all lines of normalcy are erased. No one is hungry so there are no mealtimes to delineate the days. No ordinary comings and goings to school or work. No one leaves the house; no one comes by. We barely bathe or change our clothes and we all travel together from room to room, our listless wanderings highlighted by four individual trails of tissues. We also spend a lot of time sitting in the living room listening to Patsy Cline, her life of loneliness and despair a favorite of the kids during this time.
We all complain of the baseline symptoms and then, like super heroes, we each have a unique characteristic. I am Mr. Freeze due to my chills, Hardy is Sweats, Pickle is Snot Girl and Cathlin is The Cough. Cathlin’s symptom’s are the least severe or in her words, “I can stand up without getting dizzy. But I make bad decisions.”
She proves this when we send her out for orange juice and ginger ale and she comes back with milk and cashews.
Eventually, we do get better. Around day four there is a shift and on day five we actually go outside. We shield the sun with our eyes like inmates let out of solitary confinement.
“Man, outdoors is so colorful,” Hardy says.
The family flu experience is not one I ever want to experience again. And yet there was one moment of real beauty. I was reaching down to check Hardy’s fever. I lay my hand on his forehead feeling the heat emanate from his little body. His glazed eyes looked up at me, afraid and yet trusting, and I felt the distinct pressure of time tapping me on my shoulder. I turned around and there stood my parents with their outstretched hands upon my childhood forehead. I remembered it so distinctly, looking up at them and marveling at this ability to read the story of my illness through a laying on of hands.
And now here I was with my own son and daughter, practicing this continuum of care, of hands caressing foreheads and cheeks, of sleepless worry, trips to the emergency room and the awesome understanding that being a parent means there is no such thing as a sick day.