Kids get sick all the time. Sam has been, by all accounts, an extremely healthy baby. No birth complications. No ER trips. Clean bill of health with every check-up. The occasional cold and one ear infection, but that’s it.
Yesterday, around four o’clock, after a day of perfectly happy eating, pooping, napping and crawling, he suddenly had a meltdown. His temperature spiked. He wouldn’t eat anything. All he did was cry.
I (Ben) heard about all this from work. Erin was the one who had to calm him down, try to feed him, and rock him to bed. When I got home, he was sound asleep — and, I hoped, just in need of a little extra rest.
I tend to be oblivious about what life-changing episodes are like until they happen to me. Marriage, buying a home, having kids — numerous friends beat me to all these milestones, and although I celebrated with them, it has always been difficult for me to make the empathic leap to really, truly share in that moment of celebration.
Of course, then these things happen to you, and you think to yourself, “Wow! This is a big deal!” I remember the first wedding Erin and I attended after our own, and how completely different it was from any wedding I’d previously attended. The ritual you’re commemorating means something different once you’ve done it yourself.
Last night, at two in the morning, I understood what it meant to be the parent of a sick child.
Sam woke up throughout the night, and sometime after midnight we went into his room to check on him. He was boiling. His hair was matted and his face was red and he felt like he’d just come out of the oven. We took his temperature (102.6), gave him tylenol and peeled him out of his sleep sack. He went back down for another hour or so.
At two I went in to check on him. He was crying, and still hot. I picked him up and we sat down in the glider. I started to rock him. He was sitting in my lap facing me. His arms were splayed out around my neck. He held his head up for a second to look at me, in a manner that suggested this was the hardest thing he had ever done in his life, and then — in one swift, dramatic motion — plopped it down against my chest.
That thud against my breastbone; the uncomfortable warmth of his whole body, like holding a giant eighteen pound hot water bottle with arms and legs; the utter dependence he had on me in that moment; and my heart just broke.
So now I know what this feels like.
Erin has written about the experience of breastfeeding Sam, and I’ve wondered what connection I’ve missed since he doesn’t depend on me physically the way he does his mom. Last night was a little glimpse of that for me. I know this is just a fever, with maybe another ear infection thrown in. Tomorrow I’ll take him in to see the doctor, and she’ll prescribe something to make him better, and within days he’ll be back to chasing the cat and dropping food on the floor. I know all of this.
Still, there’s the part of me that wishes no harm would ever come to him. There’s also the part of me that knows babies get sick, and grow up to become teenagers who will make terrible decisions (because that is, by definition, what all teenagers do sooner or later). Just the other day we were talking with friends who are parents of toddlers about the need for kids to experience pain. Our friends have a four-year-old who wanted to touch a hot tea kettle. They told her repeatedly not to; she kept testing them by moving her finger inches away from it. Finally they let her touch it, with the results you’d expect. “She needed to understand the boundaries of pain,” our friends said, “and she had to learn it herself.”
I know I cannot stop my son from getting sick. I cannot stop him from growing up and feeling pain. But I can, when he needs me at two in the morning, rock him until he falls asleep, and whisper in his ear. It’s all right, Sammy. It’s all right. Your dad is here.