I’ve learned to be okay with the fact our oldest two sons are no longer down the hallway.
That whatever, wherever, and whomever they’re up to on a college Friday night is their business.
That in the quiet of their absence, there can be tranquility. (Sure, it might have to be located with a microscope and Hindu breathing exercises some days, but peace can be found.)
But when they’re sick, in bed, victims of a flu epidemic that has claimed a dozen lives statewide, and 75 miles away? There’s no getting used to that one.
Not even when they’re 20, independent, and plenty capable of taking care of themselves.
Maybe not ever.
Certainly not when the flashbacks of their chronic childhood illness are always so quick to knock at the door, jolting me from the slumber of whatever contentment that has dared to comfort me the past 10 years.
Forget his past 10 years of strong health. Forget the gains in height, the added pounds of weight, the broadening of shoulders. Forget that day his metabolic specialist leaned back on the wall, arms folded—his words so miraculous and yet still so perplexing as I sit here 10 years later: Your son appears to be healed,” he shrugs, offering an uncomfortable grin. “No trace of his condition at all. We don’t know why. Not today, at least. Maybe not ever.”
You forget all of that when that fist pounds on the door in 2017. Bam! Bam! Bam!
Because that’s a door that opens fast and wide. And there, standing on the porch, is a silhouette of the chirping and flashing of the machines that seize the nights and souls of children’s hospitals.
The tube running into his nose at 6 months. The sensors taped to his tiny arms at 5. The oxygen tank at 8. The wheelchair parked in the corner at 9.
Is this it? Is this the chair they said might be here at 12? Is this the chair the dawn of another day of this godforsaken disease has brought? He’s only 9, goddamn it! And so every night, I push the chair back out into the hallway. Not yet, you bastards.
These flashbacks comprise the emotional dam that springs a leak when, at 20, he calls on an otherwise random Thursday, telling us of the fever, the chills, the looking for a ride to the student infirmary.
What I say: Yes, I can put money in your account for your prescriptions and a couple of cans of soup.
What I think: As soon as I get up off the floor, out of the fetal position, upright again.
He calls two hours later, telling us of laying on the floor outside the office of the student nurse, shivering, waiting 45 minutes beyond his scheduled appointment time as she took her own sweet time finishing her meal in the cafeteria—your friends beckoning her to please hurry up, and her smiling, offering only a thumbs up. “What the fuck?” I snarl into the phone.
Does she not know we almost lost you twice?
Has she not seen those dark, sunken eyes of yours as an infant, laying on your changing table, wheezing?
Was she not there when your mother pinned your tiny body so gently against that table, comforting you in a tone only mothers speak, her own tears dripping onto you as you fought and wailed against the doctors re-inserting your feeding tube?
Has she not seen those same eyes of yours, at 8—the whites fluttering from beneath your half-open lids? The harried phone calls to specialists? The dash to Intensive Care?
She has not.
You’re just another sick kid in her Thursday.
But you’re never just another sick kid in our Thursday.
You’re the sick kid who this Friday morning, only 24 hours later, texts to announce you are free of fever and chills, excited about “taking a shower this morning and feeling 100 percent better!”
You’re the sick kid who kept some soup down last night.
You’re the sick kid who says he is thinking he will still board that team bus and suit up to play second base tomorrow afternoon.
You’re the sick kid who has always gotten back on that bus, eager to suit up and compete again.
Even so, we remind you not to push it.
“I won’t,” you reply. “I know what my body can and can’t handle.”
That you do.
Because you’ve been at this a very, very long time.
As have your parents.
Especially the two standing in the kitchen—the ones with the flashbacks that send their heads scrambling for 9-1-1.
Because he’s the sick kid who isn’t sick any more. Not today. Not even on Thursdays.
He’s no longer that sick kid killing time in a hospital bed, at 8, playing a game of 4 a.m. checkers.
I am startled from my distant, exhausted gaze at the city lights glowing beyond the hospital windows. I blink, casting my eyes downward, fixing them on the checkerboard resting on his tray table.
“Your move, Dad.”