There is a small child sleep sobbing next to me on the daybed in our dark and quiet playroom. The curtains are drawn on all but one window and a fan circulates warm air filled with filthy Silicon Valley particulate and smog. In the other room, the six year old trades coughs with Dad as they cuddle on the couch playing Minecraft together. The toddler beside me doesn’t even stir as my lungs seize and I cough until I feel I have no more air to expel. But he cries out in nightmares about the third antibiotic injection site on his leg: “No thank you Mama! No more doctor!”
Whatever this virus was/is/will be has laid waste to us. We are beat. Croup, bronchitis, pneumonia, flu. Steroids, anti-inflammatories, antibiotics. ER visits, injections, IVs, CAT scans, X-Rays. I have nearly no memory of these holidays. I wish it all to be done. Over. Moving on to a better 2014. Please.
Now that we are finally on the upswing from it all, it is apparent that things could have been dramatically worse. I have had great practice over the past year in learning to count my blessings. We are so lucky in so many ways. We have friends who reached out every day to see what we needed, and my parents who came to care for us even though they knew we were ill. Who cooked, cleaned, and provisioned us through the worst of it all with cheer and patience for our moans and groans, tantrums and tears. We have exceptional health care that is quick, affordable, accessible and responsive. And despite Patrick’s injury, we all are a rather healthy bunch. Without all that, and sheer luck, it could have been much worse.
After all of the viruses and infections I have had in my life, this one finally gave me some understanding of why the flu is a deadly killer. Learning about historical epidemics that ravaged continents, killing millions, never connected to a real experience for me. A part of history, I thought, a product of times where modern medicine wasn’t as effective or accessible.
I keep dwelling on the question of why this got so bad. It feels a little like the time Patrick and I went to a financial planner back before kids, in the midst of grad school, and said “What are we doing wrong?” We looked around us and saw our peers buying houses and boats, ATVs and cars. And we could barely afford health insurance. It feels painfully ironic now that he told us “Nothing. You are doing nothing wrong. It’s the system that’s broken.” Sure enough, skip forward a few years to total economic collapse, repos and foreclosures. We escaped, in better shape than most.
I asked my doctor a similar question last week. “What are we doing wrong? Why are we getting so sick, so often?” Her answer was blasé – it is what it is. Kids get sick. But I can’t help but think it’s more than that. What am I doing wrong? Is it what I eat, what I feed my kids, the places we go, the sloppy enforcement of hand washing, Sean’s & my history of asthma, stress, sleep, environmental pollutants, mold, super bugs? What is it?? Am I just a wimp with blinders on who can’t recognize that this is just the way parenthood goes?
For years after Sean was diagnosed with Reactive Airway Disease, I was a horrible germophobe. I would avoid any indoor space where other children congregated. I wiped every surface Sean would touch with antibacterial soap before putting him a car or shopping cart. I canceled family trips if anyone else attending showed any sign of a runny nose. Our family and friends thought we were overreacting, but they tolerated our insanity as though we were just in need of some time to come to our senses. We joked, more seriously than we let on to even each other, about moving away from people and living off the grid. Alone. Where no contagion could reach us.
Because when it did, any time runny nose caught up with us, we were the parents who watched our kid turn blue at the lips while he coughed so hard for so long that he threw up for the fifth time in a night. We would sit for hours at a time in the steamy bathroom, ruining board books from the repeated humidity. Then a shot of espresso to vasodilate his alveoli, and a quick bundle outside to breathe the cold air to shock his lungs open, just so we could make it the extra few minutes between nebulizer treatments. Just so that we wouldn’t have to take him to Urgent Care…again.
I pulled him out of preschool because every month, Sean would attend one day and then get sick and stay home for three weeks. It was like saying “Take my money so that you can get my kid so sick that we fear for his life.” My heart just couldn’t take it. And eventually his lungs did get stronger, with several years of corticosteroids that further suppressed his immune system. And now, he is an active, rosy-cheeked, goofy kid who goes to school and picks his nose and licks frosting from public table tops when he drops his cupcake.
Wyatt came along nearly two years ago and screamed lustily for an hour solid after being born. Patrick and I nodded our heads and said to each other, “Oh, this is what a healthy child sounds like.” His coughs are just coughs. His colds are just colds. And we realized just how sick Sean had been so many years ago by the sheer comparison of their health.
But this flu – this bout of knock you down, sit on your chest, narrow your vision, terrify you to your very core – spared no one in the house. Not even the spinal patient who can barely stand the pain from coughing. Or the nursing toddler. Or me, desperately trying to keep it all together.
I have taken a very mellow approach to our family diet. It befuddles me that people can muster the energy to be vehement and proselytizing about anything with two young children to raise and a household to support. Is that what I’m missing? The adamant militant declarations of only whole foods, no sugars, non-gmos, fully organic, high fiber diets? I mean, we’re nearly vegan, and we enjoy the decent food that makes it to our table. We eat conveniently but not poorly. We nourish well and indulge when our bodies say we should, avoiding most of the general ills of bad nutrition that common society recognizes. The kids have never tasted MacDonalds, they don’t beg for soda or candy. They like goldfish and hummus, strawberries and yogurt, beans and chips, peanut butter and spaghetti. Our kids are growing fast and heartily, with energy and vigor. And yes, we are data geeks – of course we occasionally food chart every ounce of their nutritional intake. Graphs are sexy, people.
I chafe at the thought that something as simple as adding a probiotic to our daily routine will fix everything. Or cod liver oil. Or meat. Or echinacea. Or that one panacea of restorative snake oil cure all that works to perfect and maintain the health of the entire population of the rest of the world. People, please. I am an intelligent, reasonably skeptical mother. I can read and comprehend research. I feed my family a balanced and healthy diet and there are few to no fights at my table about what we eat, unless Wyatt wants to dump his hummus on Sean’s hair. And well, everybody likes a good laugh and a bubble bath. I cannot envision a better approach to food than to learn early and reinforce often that food is not a fight, it is our fuel to be who we want to be. Eat well, be well. Right?
I want it to be that simple – am I doing it wrong? I want to be the kind of mother who shrugs and moves on with the belief that it will get better with exposure and time. That all these illnesses really are building my son’s immune systems up to be the ultimate force of health in their adult lives. My own mother and I were reminiscing recently – we don’t remember the colds and flus each year being quite this virulent or dangerous in my childhood. Is it just our selective perception, in hindsight?
I’m at a loss of what to do better or different while still raising children who are not fearful or conditioned with my own reflexive anxieties. I let my kid chew on the cart handle at Target, or lick ice cream off the bottom of his shoe. But the moment I see it, I have to stop myself from screaming in horror and setting up the pop-up decontamination chamber I wish I carried in my backpack. I try to make sure that Sean keeps his hands in his pockets while we are at the pharmacy, or that Wyatt stays in his stroller while at the doctor’s office. But kids are kids and life is unpredictable.
We were warned when we moved to Silicon Valley that the air quality here would cause us all to get lung infections and asthma. But we thought, how bad can it be, after suffering through the humidity, molds and allergens of the extreme Virginia and Minnesota climates?
I am exhausted from the circuitous, self-doubting, illogical panic of trying to figure it out. Please be gentle with us. If I start to cry when you innocently ask me if everyone’s feeling better, please spray yourself with Clorox before handing me a tissue. And forget the hugs for a while. You’re only going to label yourself as an uncontrollable infectious vector in my eyes. And so help me if you let your sniveling, snot-nosed child lean over my kid’s shoulder to get a better look at his iPad, I will not be held responsible when your spawn learns several creative curses that could get him arrested in Singapore from me.
Until I make my first billion by inventing antibiotics that taste like Willy Wonka chocolate and the world’s first painless hypospray of instant euphoria and complete viral and bacterial immunity, I suppose we’ll just keep at it all with equal measures of humor and exasperation. Because, geeze 2014, we could really use a rebalancing of the karmic scale, just a titch, if you please.