When my daughter, Ellie, was a baby, she had an uncanny knack for ruining almost every planned event by getting sick. The more special the occasion, the more impressive her ailment. Long-awaited date night? She’ll see you with a 102 fever and unexplained rash. Fancy dinner and concert to celebrate my parents’ 39th wedding anniversary? She’ll raise you simultaneous bronchiolitis, RSV, croup, and an ear infection. I think we celebrated every holiday of 2014 with her pediatrician.
You could argue that I should’ve known better, but one fall weekend when she was a little over a year old, I planned a trip to my family’s lake cabin with two friends for a girls’ getaway. We’d been looking forward to it for weeks, divvying up food responsibilities and deciding on activities. The night before our departure, the chocolate chip pumpkin bread I had baked for my breakfast contribution was cooling on the kitchen counter, its scent wafting through the house. My bag was packed and sitting on the bench in our bedroom. See you at 9! I texted to my friends, ecstatic over a full 36 hours of no responsibilities and lots of good girl talk and fun.
At 1:34 a.m., I woke up to the sound of Ellie crying. I went to check on her, telling myself that perhaps she’d just knocked her pacifier out of her crib or gotten her chubby little leg stuck between the slats again. It could be anything. I opened the door to her room and she was sitting up in her bed. Even in the dim glow of the nightlight I could see her flushed cheeks and glassy eyes. My heart sank as I bent down to press my lips to her forehead—the patented mom-temperature check. She was burning hot. As I lifted her from her crib, I noticed her breathing was heavy and rapid, and I could hear the congestion in her chest.
The thermometer read 104.5, and my shoulders rolled forward in defeat. Mechanically, I gave her ibuprofen, then tylenol a half hour later—by then I’d learned the combination of the two was the only way to nudge down her stubborn high fevers. We sat on the floor of the bathroom with the shower turned on as hot as it will go; the same thing we’d done countless nights before. Her breathing became less raspy, and she started to fall asleep in my arms as the steam rose around us, sticking the wisps of my hair to my forehead and fogging up my glasses. Shifting her weight to one arm, I thumb typed a text.
“E woke up during the night really sick. I can’t leave her. Have to cancel. I’m so sorry. :(“
Tears pricked my eyes as I leaned my head back against the wall. My friends would understand, of course; that’s not what had me so upset. It was frustration that bubbled up within me. More plans canceled. Another disappointment. Why did I bother planning special things at all, when more often than not I didn’t get to do them? I fumed at the injustice of always coming in second, and then my thoughts took an even more selfish turn.
“It’s not fair. If this was Jon’s trip, he could still go. But I’m her mama, and she’s sick and needs me. They always need me.”
The steam made the air so thick, I felt like I could scoop up a handful of it. The weight of it pressed in on me, and I felt trapped—by the steam, by the sleeping baby in my arms, by the responsibilities that wouldn’t let me leave with my friends in the morning. I bowed my head and the tears fell fast and furious, until I couldn’t tell what had been soaked by steam and what bore the stains of my sadness.
Eventually the water began to cool and the steam dissipated. I shut off the shower and wiped my face on the towel hanging above the commode. Quietly, carefully, I tiptoed across the dark room to my side of the bed, slipped between the covers and settled Ellie next to me.
As I lay awake in bed, sandwiched between the sleeping forms of my husband and daughter, I listened carefully to Ellie’s breathing, making sure it stayed deep and even. She coughed once and stirred slightly, reaching out a hand to grasp a handful of my shirt. Keeping me within reach of her.
I kissed the top of her now-cool head and sighed.
“You know, sweet girl,” I whispered. “Sometimes, you’re a real ruiner of fun.”
The next day, the day I was supposed to be headed out on the girls’ trip, I spent snuggling a sick baby instead. I wiped her nose a hundred times and used the Nose Frida like a pro. We did breathing treatments and watched an unholy amount of Curious George, while I drank coffee and ate the pumpkin bread I’d baked the night before. Outside, the sun shone brightly against a deep blue sky. It would’ve been a beautiful weekend to be up at the cabin, I noted.
After her nap, we ventured outside—my son and husband were playing on the swingset, and I figured the fresh air would do Ellie good. She squealed at the sight of her boys as we crunched through the leaves blanketing the yard. The air was cold and crisp; fall had arrived in full force.
I watched my son fly down the slide into a pile of leaves, his peals of laughter bouncing off the deep blue sky. Jon showed Ellie the fall leaves, naming each of the colors in turn. The golden light that belongs to afternoons in November fell on my family, and it hit me.
There’s nowhere else I’d rather be.
Three years later, there is no end to the list of the things my children have ruined. Weekends away. Date nights. Surprises. My body. The couch in our living room.
We’ve never taken a vacation where Ellie hasn’t gotten sick. The last two times I’ve attempted to plan a day of self-care, the school nurse has called me before 10 a.m. to pick up Nathan from school. Jon gets nervous anytime I plan a trip out of town, wondering which child is going fall ill in my absence and how bad it’s going to be.
It’s become a running joke, almost—this gift they have for laying waste to my best-laid plans. At the very least, it’s the best metaphor for motherhood that I have at my disposal.
It costs me everything, and yet somehow I’m not left with nothing. Somehow, I still have all that I need.