The thermometer reads 103.4, so I swipe it across his forehead again. 104 shouts the digital screen. I scan a third time. This one drops to 102.8, but which is right? His breathing is labored and respirations have quickened far past his normal rhythm. He is asthmatic and too young to relay what is happening inside his little body, but the wheeze at the end of his inhale tells me all I need to know in this crazy season of sickness. I’m not waiting this one out. There is too much at risk these days.
On a normal night, we would go through the regimen we’ve become accustomed to: cycle breathing treatments, alternate Motrin and Tylenol, pray his rattling cough and rapid, sucking breath calm. But this is not a normal night, so we head to the Emergency Room because when you have small children, these things never happen during office hours.
We have made this run before, but this time feels different. I am fragile given the events of the last week – adjusting to the demands of “home school” while playing referee to four caged and rowdy brothers, brothers who by Friday have all ended up in tears, their faces buried in my neck. These little children are going through big feelings right now, the same big feelings that so many of us have: uncertainty, loneliness, anger, sadness, fear. They’ve been looking to me to show them the way, and I’ve been coming up short.
By the close of Day 1, I’d tossed an egregious obscenity in the direction of my oldest and was ready to throw in the towel. Day 2 went slightly better by dropping my expectations to basically nil. One of them might have even smiled. Day 3, however, turned my oldest into a puddle on the floor, weeping over the “real school” he so deeply missed, long-lost friends and teachers he would surely never see again. By Thursday, my preschooler was over the structured hours as well as the gang mentality adopted by his brothers who excluded him from their every move. He cried long into the night.
When we’d finally hit Friday, my oldest launched into a tearful fit while my middle child refused through violent sobs to let me out of his sight. By the time our little one started choking on his own mucus and boiling from the inside out, I was on the brink of breakdown. We headed to the hospital, something that has become routine for us with this particular child, but what we found there was anything but routine.
We passed through the automatic doors and were met by two gloved, masked attendants demanding answers.
“No, I do not currently have a fever.”
“Yes, I have traveled recently.”
“North Dakota via plane through Minneapolis.”
“I am currently congested and had a fever about a week ago.”
“I’m sorry, but you will not be able to accompany your child into the hospital.”
I looked to my husband. One of us had to go with him. They couldn’t make us both leave. Or could they?
“Sir, have you traveled recently?”
He had but, luckily, passed their screening. I was instructed to exit the building and wait in my vehicle. They took my name and phone number, so the nurse could text updates as they determined appropriate treatment for my child. My child.
I retreated to sit and wait for news. What else could I do? What else can anyone do who isn’t deemed “essential” in this crisis? We can retreat to our homes. We can stay there. We can sit and wait for news. How many more days? How many more deaths?
We can pray for those “essential” people inside the hospitals and elsewhere. We can pray for their families. We can offer gratitude for the lessons we are learning – that we are all inextricably linked despite our political leanings, our social status, our religion, our skin color; that we desperately need one another. Facebook, email and text messages are not enough. We need a hand on our shoulder. A game of tag. A coffee date. A hug.
We need to hold our child as the doctors poke and prod, evaluate and then thankfully, this time, release. A text will not suffice. These digital connections just won’t do when it’s our kid, our mother, our husband lying in that hospital bed alone waiting on test results, waiting to see if they are going to be tested at all – because, despite hitting the criteria, our son wasn’t. Thus, we will act as if he was to prevent another mother from watching her child be escorted down a hospital corridor without her, a helpless end to a long week.
Most importantly, though, we can dream that when our lives return to normal, they don’t actually return to normal at all, that everyone is a little changed, that the lessons of today are not forgotten with the next generation of iPhone or the newest social messaging app promising fast and easy connection. Human connection is never fast and easy. Nothing can replace it. It is hard-earned and powerful and marvelous and grieved when gone, even if only for a short time. We can make a promise to ourselves and to each other that our memories of these days and the lessons we learn will not be as short-lived as the time itself.