My children have been taking turns getting sick since October. The pattern typically goes like this: first, my four-year-old daughter Ellie sneezes at breakfast. I eye her suspiciously and swap her milk for orange juice (vitamin C, do your thing, I pray). By the time I pick her up from preschool, she’s blowing her nose every 90 seconds.
I give her Benadryl at bedtime and precisely four hours later she’s up again, which happens to be right when I am crawling into bed myself. My husband Jon meets her in the hallway, and I hear him ask her what’s wrong. She doesn’t bother with Dad when she’s sick; she simply asks “where’s Mama?”
Jon brings Ellie into our room. Without a backward glance, she climbs into our bed, shoving me off my own pillow. Her eyes already closed, she waves her hand vaguely at Jon and commands, “go get my stuffies.”
Whether it’s at her confident direction or his own baffled bemusement, he leaves and returns momentarily bearing an armload of stuffed animals from her bed. She tucks them in close and burrows more firmly under the covers. My covers. Jon and I lock eyes, half-chuckling, and he shrugs. He’ll spend the night on the couch.
Two days later, Ellie’s viral-induced asthma is in full effect and she’s coughing like a 60-year-old who smokes two packs a day. The inhaler I administer twice daily is rendered useless; we need oral steroids. By now it’s Wednesday, which is our pediatrician’s day off, of course (such is the state of our perpetual sickness, that we know the pediatrician’s day off). I’ll need to take Ellie in; the on-call doctor won’t call in a prescription without seeing her.
I don’t have to give the receptionist our last name. She knows us by sight and clucks maternally over Ellie’s flushed cheeks and glassy eyes as she checks us in.
“Address and insurance still the same, I’m assuming?”
“Haven’t moved since last Thursday,” I affirm—trying, and failing, for humor. Twenty minutes in the germ-infested waiting room. Thirty minutes in the germ-infested examination room. Seven minutes with the actual doctor who nods at my rote description of Ellie’s symptoms, does a cursory check of her ears and throat, and listens with the stethoscope to her lungs with a frown.
We leave with our third prescription for oral steroids in two months.
Ellie misses Thursday and Friday of preschool. On Saturday, her eight-year-old brother, Nathan, sneezes at breakfast. Sighing, my shoulders slumping, I mechanically pour him a glass of orange juice. I set it down on the kitchen table and on my way to the linen closet for another box of tissues, I preemptively text the babysitter we had scheduled for that night.
“Sorry; we have to cancel. The kids are sick.”
Stop me when this sounds familiar.
My intimate knowledge of the germiness of kids began my son’s first week at daycare—which, coincidentally, was also the week of his first cold. He was 12 weeks old.
He was particularly prone to ear infections; his sister’s disease of choice has been croup. I promise we wash our hands, and I swipe a Clorox wipe over anything that stands still, but the germs seem to find us anyway.
So far our high score has been four pediatrician visits in a seven-day span, but a new year always brings potential for topping that. After receiving our last health insurance EOB—which rivaled a Christmas catalog in thickness—I texted my slightly hippie, Southern California friend.
“Gimme all your wellness product recs,” I pleaded. Within 15 minutes I had $93 worth of vitamins, supplements, and bone broth in my Amazon cart, all of dubious medicinal value but I was willing to try anything for a 14-day stretch of moderate healthiness.
The truth is, I’m frustrated—with the sickness, with the doctor visits, with the expense and the inconvenience of it all. I’m worried—about the sickness, the doctor visits, the expense and inconvenience of it all. And I’m tired.
Lord, I’m so very tired.
But I’m also not unaware of our relative good fortune. My children’s illnesses, despite significantly overstaying their welcome, will go away—whether it’s thanks to a 10 day dose of antibiotics or just that ancient combination of fluids, comfort, and time. We live in a place where modern medicine and good hygiene are accessible and affordable. When we go to our local children’s hospital—one of the best in the nation—it’s just to visit a specialist to talk about the best approach to manage Ellie’s asthma. When I walk out of a children’s hospital holding the hand of my (relatively) healthy child, there is always a prayer on my lips.
Father, for an illness that is only an inconvenience, I give you thanks.
When Ellie was two, she woke in the middle of the night (it is always the middle of the night) blazing to the touch with a rash over her torso. In the morning, the pediatrician matter-of-factly diagnosed her with scarlet fever, as I gasped and clutched my now-dozing toddler in fear.
“Oh my God. Isn’t that what killed Beth in Little Women?”
“Well, yes,” the doctor replied, amused. “But that was before penicillin. Scarlet fever is just strep throat with a rash.”
“Wait … Beth died of strep throat?”
“Technically she died because the strep went untreated and untreated strep can inflame the heart muscle and weaken it,” she explained. “But … yes.”
She clicked a couple of boxes on her laptop and without lifting her eyes asked, “do you want the prescription sent to Walgreens or Publix?”
Thirty minutes later, I picked up the amoxicillin that would cure my daughter’s scarlet fever in less than 48 hours. I took her home, and she snuggled into the curve of my side to watch Frozen for the 87th time. The list of modern advantages I’m grateful for over the way of life in the late 1800s is not a short one—air conditioning, indoor plumbing, and washing machines among them. But on that day, antibiotics were right at the very top.
This winter, it’s not scarlet fever. It’s colds and sore throats and pneumonia and asthma attacks. Small worries in the grand scheme of things. Sooner or later, these illnesses will leave and stay gone. But I’ll also readily admit that I wouldn’t mind if it’s sooner.
For now, we’re taking the Elderberry gummies and the Vitamin D and the other vitamins with something else—zinc, maybe?—and rubbing on oils and diffusing oils and even swallowing oils. I made last night’s rice in bone broth and it was the single most expensive batch of rice I’ve ever cooked in my life, but since it cost less than the $87 we pay for each pediatrician visit I’m calling it a bargain. It’s been exactly 14 days since our last doctor visit, and you better believe I knocked on wood the second I wrote that sentence.
Maybe the hippie wellness products are working. Maybe my complete aversion to public places and people in general is working. Could be that it’s just luck or timing or there’s also the chance my daughter is going to wake up at 2 a.m. with a fever and we’ll be sitting in an exam room this time tomorrow, our streak of health coming to an abrupt end.
It’s winter. It feels like the sun will never shine again, the trees will always be bare, and my kids are going to be sick forever. But spring, while sometimes late, has never failed to show entirely. My children, while seemingly locked in perpetual low-grade illness, will eventually get better. I am not so mired in my own mucus-encrusted misery that I miss that miracle. And it’s no small thing to be thankful for.
Photo by N’tima Preusser.