“When you and Dad are really old, I’m the one who will take care of you,” my son, Atticus, tells me over dinner. It’s just the two of us out for burgers, because his dad is out of town.
“Well, that’s a relief, because one of your sisters said she would put us in her basement and feed us cat food.”
“Yeah, I won’t do that. I’ll feed you applesauce and leave some food within reach.”
“No problem,” he says, munching a fry and smiling.
“You are a pretty great nurse.”
“I know—lots of practice.”
I think of myself as healthy—migraines from time to time, a creaky knee, recently rehabbed frozen shoulders. But although my cholesterol high, my blood pressure is low, and I am not, in my own mind, sickly. Yet twice last year, my 12 year-old son honed his Florence Nightingale skills.
One January morning, I felt off. Rosacea, which typically afflicts my face after a glass of red wine, flushed my cheeks. I felt achy, odd. After a midday nap, I returned to the school I lead for a meeting. The conversation swirled around me as if I were floating above it. Struggling to attend and to contribute, but knowing I was not okay, I excused myself. The expanse between my school and driveway stretched like an inky prairie. In the dark, I shivered uncontrollably, worried I might fall and be left to freeze. Once inside the back door, I called for Atticus.
“Can you help me upstairs, honey?” I asked in more of a whimper than I’d hoped.
“Mom, what’s wrong with you?” he asked.
“I don’t really know. I just don’t feel right.”
Up the stairs we went, Atticus puzzled that I didn’t even want to change into my nightgown. I clambered into bed and asked him to pull up the blankets.
“Need some ginger ale?” he asked.
In our family, it is a well-known fact that I believe ginger ale can cure almost any ailment. When my husband once suggested it was just a soft drink without medicinal value, I refuted his heresy, chugging the amber elixir, which I secret in a corner cupboard, so as never to be without it if someone wakes in the night feeling ill.
Off he went, returning quickly with a tall glass of ice and the dark green bottle. He twisted off the cap and poured my drug of choice. I struggled up to take a sip.
“Let’s call the doctor, Mom,” Atticus suggested, taking my cell phone. “Dr. M., right?”
Too sick to care, I nodded.
“Where’s Daddy?” I muttered.
“Having a massage. He won’t be finished for a long time.”
In a moment, I heard him, “Dr. M., this is Atticus, Ann Klotz’ son. Mom’s really sick.” A pause. Then, “Mom, do you have a fever?”
His older sister—the one with my basement future mapped out—arrived in my bedroom, still home from college on winter vacation. Atticus briefed her, briskly returning to his conversation with the doctor.
I asked for more blankets, then surrendered to the wooziness that enveloped me.
My daughter tucked several more quilts around me. Ending the call, my son announced, “I’m going to find the thermometer. Force fluids.”
The flu flattened me; I was appalled by how listless I became, how uninterested I was in my school, my family, in anything but sleeping. A visit to the doctor landed me in the ER a few days later to remedy the dehydration, but real recovery took several weeks. Humbled by my frailty, I was heartened by the memory of Atticus taking charge. Doing homework may not be his favorite past time, but, in a crisis, he is a boy to have nearby.
Only a few months after my bout with the flu, at about 5 a.m., I felt the room tilting. “Why am I spinning if I’m asleep?” I wondered, drowsy. When I started to sit up, the bed fell away from me. Startled, I dropped back on my pillows. What was happening? A few minutes later, I sat again, swung my legs over the bed and half-crawled, half-staggered to the bathroom. I had never felt so odd. Dr. M. was, I knew, out of town, as was my husband. I had an important school event later in the day—our alumnae were returning for a weekend of festivities. What would I do? Back in bed, I texted a senior in my school who could take Atticus to school. At seven, I texted my boy.
“Come in here, could you?”
“What’s wrong?” he pinged back, arriving by my bed a few minutes later.
“I seem to be ill again,” I shrugged, downplaying how weird I felt. “Anna is going to take you to school; I need you to feed all the animals and figure out some breakfast. And can you bring me some ginger ale?”
“Yep,” he left, competent, experienced.
A few minutes later, I heard him on the phone talking.
“Okay, thanks, Dr. R. Got it.”
He hung up as he came into the room.
“You called Dr. R.?”
“Someone has to take charge of this situation, Mom. She says you’re probably dehydrated again, and you need a lot of water. I’m going back down to get you some. Stay in bed; she’s prescribing an anti-dizzy drug; I’ve phoned Erin, who will pick it up when she gets to work.”
I was agog. Dr. R. is Atticus’ pediatrician and a family friend, who tends to us when our grown up doctor isn’t available. Erin is my assistant at work.
“Thank you,” I managed. My son, who who leaves his clothes in a heap, who walks our tiny dogs grudgingly, who has to be cajoled into showering and who often watches TV while playing games on his Nintendo Switch, was a competent, confident problem-solver and caretaker. He has always been verbal, expressive, empathetic, but I am staggered by his new take-charge attitude. He can manage himself; he can manage me.
Five glasses of water later, I began to feel human. Dehydration is no joke.
In the midst of these bizarre illnesses, I met another version of my youngest child. Doted upon through babyhood by two much older sisters, he did little for himself for years. He still asks for me to bring him a glass of water when he could easily get it for himself. He has been catered to, and I’ve worried we have rendered him dependent. Yet, in these illnesses, he showed he was calm in a crisis, competent, compassionate but matter of fact. He is what my mother used to call an old soul. I glimpsed the self he was growing into and saw, to my delight and with some surprise that my late-life bonus baby would be fine.
I asked him if he ever thought about being a doctor.
“No way,” Atticus scoffed. “I don’t like dealing with sick people.”
When I feel impatient about tasks he has left undone, I remember that when it counts, Atticus is a better problem solver than I ever was at twelve. He may not enjoy caretaking, but he’s good at it. Since I have no desire to eat cat food, I’m hopeful that when we are in our dotage, he will be the child who cares for us, bearing ginger ale and smiling benignly at his decrepit parents.
Guest post written by Ann V. Klotz. Ann is a writer and mother who lives in Shaker Heights, OH, where she is Head of Laurel School, a girls' school. Her house is full of books and tiny rescue dogs. Recent work has appeared in the Brevity Blog, Literary Mama, Mothers Always Write, Mutha, and Mamalode. Her essay about becoming a teacher has just been included in the anthology What I Didn't Know, published by Creative Nonfiction. She blogs semi-regularly for the Huffington Post. Read more of her work at www.AnnVKlotz.com or follow her on Twitter.
Photo by Jennifer Batchelor.