Sick Days

It was a perfectly coordinated rendezvous. We had a map, a meeting place, a dropping-off point, and our names on the guest list for Los Lonely Boys at an outdoor music spot my husband and I hadn’t visited in about a decade. Driving home from work early, I imagined swapping quickly into my favorite jeans, a halter top and dangly earrings, and heading back out the door with my date. But when I walked in I was met by my seven-year-old son who looked like an extra from a zombie movie. “I don’t feel good.” Suddenly, I didn’t feel quite as good either. After getting Cope settled in bed with the thermometer under his tongue, I changed into shorts for the new evening agenda while my husband searched for the Motrin bottle. 

It reminded me of our first Valentine’s Day as parents. The childcare he attended in the mornings was hosting a rare evening of babysitting. Our guilt at giving our eleven-month-old another stint in the Duck room was offset by how much we liked his teacher and he liked the toys. We planned some extravagance—dinner at the Italian place in the little old house . . . or something like that. I don’t recall our plan because it never happened. On February 13th our son developed a fever and we spent our romantic evening watching a mediocre rented movie while I rocked our nursing baby. Though it wasn’t what we’d planned it was deeply romantic to swap glances and stare with concern at our little duck. My memories of grown-up dinners get lost in a whirl of escargot, glazed tenderloin, and chocolate mousse but I will never forget that Valentine’s. 

Strep throat. Many shudder at the idea, but we welcome a little dose of strep like we embrace the postman at Christmas. Especially now that we are seven. Nobody likes a sick baby and a feverish toddler is hardly cause for celebration. But at age seven, a mild fleeting sickness is a time to kick back. Homework becomes irrelevant. Spelling lists head straight for the trash. Shoes get lost under the bed. We know we only have three or four days, so we make the most of them. Piling pillows on the couch, we watch movies back-to-back. I read the current Harry Potter until my voice hurts. At low moments, we just stare at the ceiling and listen to Beethoven. 

Sickness is a ticket into the past. My son develops an appetite for cuddling he hasn’t had for years. He allows me to sing the song we used to do when he was a baby, and before that when he was inside me. “Oh my dear, our love is here to stay…” goes that old Gershwin tune. He wants to hear stories of his past, and mine. He wants to make cookies and, if he’s not too terribly sick, go outside and make a hut out of bamboo sticks. Sickness brings time to play chess or teach gin-rummy. Sickness is a poor family’s vacation. 

I don’t remember being sick as a child. With a single working mother, I did not have the luxury of two parents who could flip-flop their work days or telecommute. So perhaps I was one of those runny-nosed children who sniffled through class. Photos prove me wrong. There I am as an ecstatic four-year-old sitting up in bed wearing a summer nightie. The photo is marked in my mother’s hand “Mumps, 1966.” But it could just as easily been named “Happiest Day of My Life – Paper dolls!” Sickness made me feel special. I remember no pain from the removal of my tonsils, only the gorgeous colors of the Jell-O I ate and the Christmas lights on the hospital lawn. 

Once I was out on my own, I seemed to get sick more often. The first time I got the flu I trudged home from my job relishing the care my live-in boyfriend would lavish on me, only to discover him already home in bed moaning. The second time I got the flu I lived alone in a cold city where I had few friends. I spent my days watching the Poindexter-North trial, the only thing on all four channels, until I finally broke down and called a kindly acquaintance who came over and read Chekhov aloud to me. After we earned our MFAs in Creative Writing he went on to medical school. The third time I got the flu, a few years later, I headed to the neighborhood drug store on my way home from work to stock up on meds and munchies. “We’re at war,” the hippie-looking guy at the cash-register said. Clearly, I was sicker than I thought. “Yup, you can see it on TV. We’re bombing Iraq.” My flu lasted exactly the same amount of time it took for Bush the elder to put Sadham in his place. As scud missiles flew I lived on garlic pizza and salad delivered every-other day from the gourmet joint down the street. I cried for the Iraqis over cups of echinacea tea. 

Though it doesn’t happen often now, being a sick adult is both inconvenient and depressing. When I am sick I often believe I will die. Sometimes I pray for it. Light hurts, books are impenetrable, TV is too busy. Yet lying still is so incredibly lonely. I would cry but it’s too much effort. But a few days later, when energy starts to surge through my limbs and my eyes feel like staying open, I emerge into the world with a new appreciation for all the things I was denied. I fall in love with driving. I adore the radio. I am so hungry to read I wonder why I didn’t take better advantage of my down time. And I love being with people. I venture with awe toward a glass of wine. 

Sick days give us a chance to catch up on life which keeps lurching forward whether we’re ready or not. With just one child, I am particularly aware of our son’s young life speeding by before our eyes. There will be no reruns. The teeth we birthed in his first year now sit in a jar. Massaging his aching legs, I can feel the rough strength of a man’s limbs growing there. Even the dosage of pink liquid we give him has grown. So, after we’ve called the school secretary and after-school care, we crawl back into bed. With no schedule, no purpose, no energy, and no visitors, we are free to lie under the covers and remember, imagine, and dream all day. We swap bad riddles, compare the size of our hands, pet the cat’s tummy and see how high we can count in Spanish before giggles take over. That should cure nearly anything life throws our way.
Robin Bradford, an award-winning short story writer and essayist, has published in Brain, Child, Glimmer Train, and many other places. You can find her in two new anthologies -- Mother Knows: 24 Tales of Motherhood and Three-Ring-Circus: How Real Couples Balance Marriage, Work and Family. Bradford works as a communications and development director for a nonprofit affordable housing provider in Austin. She lives with her husband and son, three cats and a dog in a tiny fifties house. Being the mother—of a child over the age of three!—is the best thing that ever happened to her. Visit her site at www.robinbradford.net