LAUREL COUNTY, Ky. — Yesterday afternoon, I had a sick little girl on my hands. I had picked her up at the usual time from school and she sunk into the car, putting her head back on the headrest.
“I feel terrible,” she announced weakly.
I looked over and saw that her eyes were watery and her voice sounded like she was talking around a ping-pong ball. She blinked wearily and I realized, with a mild feeling of dread, it was time for the Pauline Lord sickness special.
When I was a kid, my mom was always extremely indulgent when we were sick. Even a faint sore throat meant we were allowed to stay home from school and suck on Sucrets until our tongues were numb and our teeth felt furry. On those days, we were fed two meals: chicken broth with saltines or tea and toast with butter and honey. It also involved spending the day on the couch cuddled in a warm blanket and watching episode after episode of Bob Ross on Prairie Public Television.
So last night, I warmed up some Yogi tea as Gabrielle went upstairs to get her pajamas on. She went to the basement to watch “Glee” as I waited for William to get home.
Unlike my mom Pauline, I am not an especially graceful parent when it comes to Gabrielle being sick. I credit this to the fact that I didn’t come into her life until she was 4, the point at which most parents are pretty old hat at dealing with colds. Instead, I remain bone-deep scared I’m going to underestimate how sick she is, so that by the time I realize it, she’ll have to be taken to the E.R. or airlifted to Lexington to treat some kind of wild bacterial infection. So while she watched TV, I paced around in the kitchen looking at the clock.
It may sound ironic but being married to a doctor is not exactly the most reassuring thing when dealing with sickness. Mostly this stems from the fact that my husband William is pretty much nonplussed by nearly any kind of symptom. Bad headache? “No, you don’t have a brain tumor.” Minor toothache? “No, you aren’t getting an abscess.” Rotator cuff pain? “Your body is just getting older.”
While he is mostly dismissive of my complaints, he is also unafraid of what I would consider major cause for concern. For example, last night when he got home, I told him about Gabrielle’s symptoms.
“Hmm, I hope she isn’t getting the flu,” he said off the cuff and went to change out of his suit.
I thought about it for a second and followed him into the bedroom.
“Like, as in flu, you mean influenza?”
“That would be the longer version of the word, yes.”
“Oh, OK, so the same influenza that killed about 30 million people in 1918.”
“Actually, technically no.”
I ran downstairs to Gabrielle and found her cheeks were blooming red. I looked closer at her and saw there were droplets of sweat sprouting on her nose.
“Do you have a hair band?” she asked. “My head is hot.”
I pulled her upstairs and ran to get the thermometer. I plunged it under her tongue — “Ow, not so hard” — and waited for the beep. When it did, I pulled it out.
“99.8,” I announced. “That’s nearly 100. That’s it — she’s burning up.”
“That’s not a fever,” William said, coming into the kitchen. “Just give her some Tylenol.”
By that point, Gabrielle had started complaining that her stomach felt funny and her head felt “detached from the rest of my body.” Now it is possible she had caught on that I was freaking out and she could use this to her maximal advantage — like, for example, by requesting another piece of beer-batter bread she loves so much to help “soothe” her stomach. But at the point, I didn’t care and handed her the bread, imagining how it would look when she vomited it up in the middle of the night.
Though 13 years old, I put the kid to bed last night at 7:30 p.m., lining up bottles of medicine on her bureau and placing her bathroom trash can beside her bed to help reduce the puke spillage I felt sure was coming. I went downstairs and imagined the vigil that the rest of my night would be, a light sleep hovering over a keen awareness that the flu was developing in the bedroom overhead. At any minute, I could be called to manage the crisis.
But that call never came. Gabrielle slept through the night and at 6:15 I could hear her pop up to take a shower. She came downstairs this morning combing her hair and wearing a peppy pink T-shirt. Her throat was sore, she said, but she felt a lot better.
So disaster was narrowly averted in the Kaprowy/Baker home. And my record for freaked out stepmom in the face of illness remains intact.