I am continually amazed at the ribbons of recollection, gathered from early childhood, that float back into my memory now that there’s a little one in my life.
This week, my family has been under house arrest. The flu snuck in on the edge of a little sniffly nose and proceeded to keep us captive for a solid week. Every cranny of the couch has been explored. Every tissue box has been emptied. The last bottle of baby Tylenol has been drained. And thankfully, finally, we’re all standing on two feet again. A little wobbly, but at least vertical.
Sick babies present a curious parental paradox. Sick babies are needy, and clingy, and sleepy, and want to cuddle all the time. Watching your normally nonstop child loiter idly on the pillow-laden sidelines of a normally nonstop day is heartbreaking. It is just so not right. Yet between the catnaps and Sesame Streets, the clinging and whining too, there’s something about a sick kid that revitalizes a parent’s soul.
I was reminded of this all week. Elle and I snuggled on the couch together for hours, and remained in our pajamas all day. We left our dirty dishes in the sink for someone else to come along and deal with, and shuffled around in slippers on rugs littered with a feathery dusting of crumpled tissues. Curled up fetal-style under a blanket, a dozing baby coiled against my side, I linger in an in-between state where I am both child and mother, equal parts caregiver and caretaker.
When I was 4, I contracted Rocky Mountain spotted fever. This is a tick-borne disease that is as nasty as the creature that carries it. I don’t know how long this bug trampled me, but I remember interminable days spent curled on the funky floral design couch my parents used to own. The one that boasted that weird gold mustard color that was popular in upholstery for a period in the early 1980s. That couch was my three-cushion life-raft, the boundaries of which I dared not investigate for fear that one wrong move would cause this tenuous safety net to capsize, sending me whimpering into the spotted fever cycle-spin. That’s where the slightest movement – bending a knee, tucking a chin – elicits agony. Severe muscle pain is one of spotted fever’s most recognizable calling cards. I remember feeling paralyzed by it. It was the sickest I’ve ever been.
Throughout that awful couch-bound trip, in which I was physically miserable, there arose one soft and comfortable corner into which I could huddle to find reprieve. That was my mom. Her breath, her smell, the way her fingertips could stroke my forehead and not make it hurt; Amid the firestorm of that fever, the mere presence of my mother was cool and soothing.
In every sickness since, that mom-delivered comfort has been what I unconsciously seek. To be curled on a couch with a soft and thin blanket draped around my shoulders… I need not even be sick to crave that feeling. In the midst of yuckiness, it is this soft and fuzzy sanctuary. And I got to live there all week this week. This time, as the mom of a sick daughter.
Of course, I am relieved, very relieved, that Elle is now feeling better and we can move on with our lives. Pick up the tissues and run the dishwasher, brush our hair and get out of sweatpants. It feels good. It feels healthy. But unlike the first time Elle was sick, when I wallowed in first-time-parent apprehension and guilt about her illness, this time around I let myself enjoy it. That’s right. I enjoyed snuggling my sick baby on the couch, and stroking her forehead, and watching Sesame Street. (That show is still virtually the same as it was when I was watching it as a kid!) It is so infrequent, these days, that the child slows down long enough for me to change her diaper, much less press her forehead against my chest and rock her to sleep. I enjoyed returning to the funky floral couch, splattered with gold mustard, where I first discovered the haven of a mother’s gentle touch.