Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Suburban Man: Sick of Sick

By Rick Kaempfer

When a child gets sick, he or she wants Mom. It’s a genetic, biological fact.

This is even true in my house, despite the fact that I’m the one home with the boys. There are probably a dozen reasons why, but I think the most obvious reason is the caring/nurturing gene that most women possess, and most men do not.

Count me among those who do not have it...especially when it comes to illness. I probably have it less than most. I was brought up in a German household, and if I wasn’t coughing up blood or projectile vomiting, I wasn’t considered sick. I still hold myself to the same standard. If I have a fever or a cough or a cold, I simply pretend that I’m not sick, and go at full speed (granted—for me that’s still pretty slow) until I qualify as sick under my ridiculous code.

While this kind of self abuse isn’t healthy (in so many ways), at least I’m only doing it to myself. When my family gets sick, it’s completely different. The boys still need to be coddled and nurtured and cared for, and telling them to suck it up and rub some dirt in it isn’t the best approach. And though I’ve gotten much better at playing nursemaid, I’m still not their mom.

That’s why Bridget and I have an agreement. When the boys get sick, Bridget takes over. She still goes to work, but she's in command from a remote location, telling me what to do and when to do it. I follow orders without questioning her, and when she comes home, I'm usually told to go away. You can see the relief in the eyes of her boys as soon as she walks in the door. They start to feel better immediately under her care. When they're sick, they need their mom.

But what happens when Mom is sick too?

Unfortunately, I know the answer to this all too well. I’ve been living it for two months now. This horrible cycle started in mid-January when Bridget developed a terrible cough. She was nearly incapacitated by it, and missed almost a week of work. While she was at home, I did my best to help take care of her, but I’ll admit it, I basically let her work it out for herself while I feverishly tried to make sure the boys didn’t get it.

Boys are Petri dishes for disease. I think it’s safe to say that they don’t exactly consider hygiene a top priority, but during that week, I had the boys washing their hands about fifty times a day. I was also using disinfectant wipes on any and everything that is used by all of us (doorknobs, faucets, etc.). When they touched a glass that I had seen Bridget touch, I actually made them take showers.

I think you can see where this is going. I was completely and utterly unsuccessful.

First Johnny got it. Johnny is the toughest one to care for because he’s a big faker, and I never know when he’s really sick or when he’s faking. I always assume he’s faking. The few times I’ve buckled in the past, he made a remarkable recovery after Tommy left for school.

This time he didn’t. He was really sick. I took him to the doctor to make sure he didn't have strep throat, and he didn't, but he still wasn't recovering. One night his hacking cough was so bad that we took him to the emergency room. The doctors there also told us not to worry about it. Something nasty was going around.

Was it ever. Tommy got it next. Then Sean. Then Bridget again.

The entire month of February was one big sickie-fest. This time Bridget decided to be proactive, and went to the doctor to get an antibiotic. Wouldn’t you know it, the doctor tried a different antibiotic than usual, and Bridget had an allergic reaction. After two days of not being able to control her fever, she broke out with a rash from head to toe. This time she had to be taken to the emergency room. It took a full week to recover from that one, but she finally regained her health just as March began.

Then something amazing happened. The first week of March was glorious. The weather got nice, and everything was looking up. Everyone recovered. No hacking cough. No gigantic pile of Kleenexes left in every corner of the house. No frantic scrubbing and disinfecting of every doorknob and faucet. We even managed to have a birthday party for Johnny with most of the family present, and nobody was sick.

But Tommy was not himself at the party. He sort of went into a corner and wouldn’t interact with his cousins or his aunts and uncles. I thought it was just another case of “Videogame-itis,” (the childhood disease that shuts down all brain matter when a child plays with his Gameboy DS a little too much), and I scolded him for his anti-social behavior. However, when I put him to bed that night, I felt his forehead.

Oh no. Sure enough, he had a fever.

The next morning, Sean started sniffling. The next day Bridget started hacking. The day after that Johnny’s cough was back. Now all of them are sick, and the most unqualified nursemaid in America is caring for them once again. Badly.

So why haven’t I gotten sick despite the disease floating in the air all around me for the past two months? The same reason my mom never seemed to get sick when I was a kid. I can’t. My family needs me. Even though my level of care is woeful, at least I’m there for them.

But mark my words, as soon as they recover again, it will be my turn. I may even expand my definition of sick to include things beyond the usual coughing up blood and projectile vomiting. Or I may just rub some dirt in it and pretend like everything’s fine.

Old habits die hard.

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