I shouldn't complain. We got through the entire winter with very mild and small amounts of sickness. We had the typical month-after-christmas-cold-and-flu get us down during January, but who doesn't? Other than that, it's been nothing more than a quick sniffle here and there; for the most part, we've been perfectly healthy.
Still, any time someone comes down with a fever or a sore throat, while the mother side of me coddles and cures, the (less motherly) human part of me is internally groaning, “Heeeeere we go. Great.” Because as any member of a multiple-person-household can tell you, there's nothing simple about a little cough or cold. Oh no. It has sooooooo many different levels of awful.
The first level is the panic when the first one goes down. Literally, I have knots in my stomach when the first person gets sick. Is this something other than a cold? How long is this going to last? How high is the fever going to get? Do I take them to the doctor? Is that gross fluid supposed to be coming out of their eyes? Are they staying hydrated? Maybe it's nothing? All of those questions speed through my mind, and are always punctuated by two thoughts, the first being: This is going to be some rare disease that will end in death; the second being: This is going to go through the entire family and we will have to stay inside for the next three weeks and during that time I will not sleep.
Neither scenario is ideal, of course (although I'd choose the second over the first any day, obviously.) But that's just the first level, the panic that envelopes as soon as you see those rosy cheeks, feel that too-warm forehead, or hear the words, “my tummy hurts.”
The next level is based on the initial panic, and it is the checking off symptoms, keeping diligent track of how the patient is feeling/eating/drinking/breathing obsessively for the first 24 hours. It's keeping the thermometer in your pocket and subjecting all family members, healthy or ill, to random temperature readings. By now my kids are used to the drill of lining up and holding their hair back while I tug on their ears with clammy fingers and jam the little dolphin-shaped nose into their ear canal. (We used to have one that showed smiley faces or frowny faces alongside the temperature. That one broke and the new one just has a little picture of an ear. Not nearly as cute.)
After all that panic at the beginning, the first to fall ill either begins to recover, or is taken to the doctor. This is usually after a couple or three days for us, when whatever it is looks like it could be more than “just a virus.” Maybe it will be a quick prescription cure, or maybe it will be two-to-five days more of fevered waiting. In any case, that doctor visit often only accounts for one family member.
After the first patient has been diagnosed and/or recovered, you've got the circus act of waiting and planning around multiple other family members who are extremely likely to fall ill at any moment. This results in obsessive forehead-feeling, and random interrogations. “How are you feeling? Does your tummy hurt? Are you cold? Does your throat hurt? Here, drink more orange juice.” Depending on the nature of the illness, single parent outings are risky. A fuss from a baby inside as store might mean “leave immediately” or risk a messy and humiliating experience. Someone looking pale in the car? Where's the other grown up to hold the barf bag?! Somebody's got to drive! It is safer to just stay home, where toilets and beds and pajamas and thermometers are readily available.
Of course, this Route of Safety often leads to a different kind of medical diagnosis: cabin fever. Acute Cabin Fever. The kind of cabin fever, which, when under normal circumstances, upon your husband's arrival home from work you would plant on him a quick kiss followed by a low, “you're on your own, pal. See ya!” as you make your escape, now you are trapped at home, no matter how many capable adults are on hand, because only you are Mother, and more often than not, when a child is sick, the only person they really want is you.
Who even knows how long this spiraling toilet bowl of sickness goes on. Days, weeks, months, seasons... No matter the measurement, it feels like eternity. Because that's the last level of this Ride of Awfulness: the fact that it never ends. You think the first victim might be fully recovered, when BAM, down with a new disease. Because the immune systems have been weakened, and now they are susceptible to all kinds of internal viral combat. What started with a case of the sniffles and a mild scratchy throat feeling has spanned the entire contents of the American Medical Association's Family Medical Guide, and Jethro Kloss's Back to Eden, both. Time drags. On. And on. And on.
But then something miraculous happens. You realize one day, after you've given in and have started taking everyone out again, thinking that surely they are no longer contagious, that—it can't be possible!-- No one is sick! After all that time of praying for and sending healing thoughts into the bodies of your children, their healthfulness completely sneaked up on you! And that is the final phase of sickness within families, my friends: gratefulness. You swear you will never, ever take for granted the health of your family, you will never forget the misery of that impassable chasm of sickness, you will be mindfully grateful today and ever after, for a healthy, happy brood. And you will kiss them and snuggle them and soak in their beautiful, radiant, non-sick smiles with such great relief, vowing to always be this mindful of the gift of a day of healthy life.
And a few weeks or months down the line, when normalcy has returned and your life rhythm has been perfected again, out of nowhere, when you were least expecting it, you'll hear... a sneeze.