Of panic, parenting and puke

It’s 2 a.m., do you know where your children are?

I do. My youngest is sleeping fitfully next to me, slightly feverish and flushed, little hands folded beneath still toddler-chubby cheeks, and the hair on her forehead still damp from the cool washcloth that I just took to the bathroom and exchanged for one that smells a bit less like vomit.

Ah, the joys of parenthood.

When you’re thinking about becoming a parent, talking excitedly about it with your spouse, dreaming of the possibilities – 2 a.m. feedings with snuggly newborns that still smell fresh from their evening baths are generally the trials that come to mind. The late nights spent with toddlers, school-aged children and even adult children when they are ill never seem to plague our thoughts. Perhaps it’s for the best that we picture the rosy-cheeked infant, crying for a feeding, instead of the panic, self-doubt and indecision that goes along with caring for a sick child.

The Princess, or as we’ve also come to call her “The Vomit Comet,” was a beautiful baby. The kind of pretty little thing whose infant and toddler pictures could rival Liz Taylor’s. But, I swear the child can hork with the best of them. She was a baby prone to spitting up. My former coworkers from my advertising creative days can tell you of many times I came to work with unnoticed spit-up on my suits and dresses. By the age of two, she had so much practice puking she could accurately hit a trash can or the loo from yard’s distance, while running and yelling “MOM!” Now, the Princess is six-years-old. We’ve been at it since about 11 p.m. Her face, even in repose, is weary. I can see a faint redness ringing her eyes, shadowed by those eyelashes that go on forever. Her legs, positioned as if to be instantly ready for the next round, have kicked off the covers. She is hot but would likely only throw up any medicine I give her, so I stick to the old methods such as damp washcloths tonight. Every movement catches my eye and every whimper earns a cool hand on her forehead.

Just to check. Again.

It’s a simple thing, tonight. It’s not always so simple. Some nights, you hear THAT cough, and it won’t stop. You medicate, you crush ice for crunching, you make cups of hot broth for sipping – all to no avail. You wonder and doubt and think and debate and then you finally cart yourself and your child to the Emergency Room, where, after waiting for two hours the cough has subsided and the little darling has fallen into an exhausted sleep. Heavy in your tired arms, but finally resting. “Just Croup, Mom,” says the doctor. “Don’t worry, it’s not Whooping Cough or worse. Go home.” So you go, you tuck your child in the “big bed” between your spouse and you – just so you can keep an eye on them – and snuggle up close to doze, badly, until dawn.

Dawn. That is the time I dream of, strive to reach, on nights like this. I’m sure there is a scientific reason for it, but every mom knows the fact: Fevers peak at night, children become more ill and every ear infection is at its worst during the darkest of hours. I dread the night when a child is ill. I look forward to dawn so we can both, finally, get some sleep as the rest of the household begins its day.

My eldest has reached the age that I’m not as needed when she’s ill. Teens seem to have less issues with the vomit thing, but when she has a sore throat or cold, she really just wants quiet, her own bed, some popcorn and the password so she can rent movies to watch. I hesitate to hover, though I’m sure she would say that I still do. I can’t help it. I know someday, I may wish I could pick up one of my daughters, tuck her into the big bed and snuggle her into good health again. I’ve realized recently that this job is never finished. This mom, this caregiver gig that I so casually fell into with no real caution, without an appropriate maturity level and definitely without a clue, I will live it until I die. Just like the mother of a high school friend of mine who has cancer. I love his entire family and I can’t help but pray for his mother as fervently as I am praying for his healing. I imagine she is in a panic beyond anything of which I could ever dream. I’m certain it is difficult to stand back and allow his wife to tend to him – that is her baby, after all. I also imagine she wishes she could simply scoop him up, make the pain and the sickness brought on by chemo go away for just a few minutes, tuck him into her big bed and make everything better. Just for those few minutes. I bet she’d exchange her own life for those few minutes of peace for her child.

I know I would.

It’s one of those things they don’t really warn you about when you’re about to become a parent. Oh, sure, people talk about spit-up, they talk about late nights, how kids are germ factories and so on. I even had one brilliant bit of advice from one of my sisters, Michelle, who said when your little one is going to throw up and you’re somewhere that can’t be easily cleaned, turn them and let them puke all over your shirt. Smart one she is, that tidbit of advice has saved my sofa several times over, while the chunk-and-slime residue on the shirt went neatly down the drain of the washer. But, even that handy piece of advice didn’t give me a clue. There are few things in life that make my blood run cold. A sick child is one of them. Am I handling this right? Did I give her the right medicine or did I give her enough? When do I call the doctor? Should we go to the ER? Good God, what if it is something like meningitis? All those thoughts – and worse – plague a parent when their child is ill.

The Princess has turned over onto her back now. Sleeping deeply, breathing more normally. Her face is no longer bright red. The virus must be near its end. Tonight at least, I made the right choices as a parent. Tomorrow, I will keep her out of school, just in case. She’ll spend the day wrapped up in extra blankets in the big bed, watching Stawberry Shortcake or Sofia the First to her heart’s content. I’ll get a few things done, maybe work a bit more on that big project I’m writing, maybe do some laundry to eradicate all the vomit-scented items. But, for the most part, I plan to snuggle up with the Princess.

And maybe, just maybe, I’ll even sneak in a nap. Just in case, when the sun goes down again, we need to fight this bug yet again. But, for the moment, I’m turning the television off, logging off my computer, and settling down under the sheets that smell vaguely of last night’s dinner and puke. I’m sure I’ll spend the next hour or two staring at her. I’ll check her forehead a dozen more times. And, I’ll leave the light on, too.

Just in case. Just in case.