Christmas morning, my toddler developed a bubbly rash on her butt and a fever, so my wife took her to the doctor.
She sent me a text from the doctor’s office: “She has hand, foot, and mouth disease.”
We have three children under 9, and this was our first go with HFMD. For those who haven’t had the pleasure (and I hope you never do), HFMD is ultimately hell. It lasts up to two weeks and is very contagious and very painful. The rashes eventually turn into blisters, and the blisters get under the fingernails, which can make them fall off. Fall off.
It’s horrible and grotesque, and the thought of all three of my children running around with rashes and blisters and missing fingernails sounded like a trip through hell.
By the time Mel got home from the doctor, I was shampooing the carpet and washing sheets in an attempt to contain the virus.
Mel walked in with Aspen on her hip. By now, our little girl’s soft mouth was speckled with red bumps. Her blue eyes were misty, and she kept opening and closing her hands as if they were numb. She looked like she’d been crying, and I wanted to give her a hug.
But at the same time, I was afraid to touch her.
I’d been watching The Man in the High Castle, which is an alternate history drama that explores the question of what life in America would be like if the Nazis had won World War II. One of the torture techniques the SS soldiers used to interrogate prisoners was pulling off their fingernails. Just the thought disturbed my sleep.
This is one of the worst things about parenting. If Mel had come down with HFMD, I’d have kept my distance. I’d have been compassionate. I’d have cared for the children and made her soup. But I’d have flat-out stopped touching her. Mel would’ve done the same to me, no doubt about it. But with my kids, they could have the bubonic plague, and I’d still have to hold them.
Aspen walked to me with a painful strut because of her poor rash-covered feet and tugged at my pant leg. I looked down at her and thought twice before picking her up.
This is parenting a sick kid. If the kids are icky and poopy and gross, you pick them up and clean them. And if your toddler has hand, foot, and mouth, you hold her, make her comfortable, and pray that somehow, some way, you will finish this thing out unscathed with all your fingernails.
Mel gave me a list of over-the-counter ointments and painkillers the doctor recommended. Nothing was a prescription.
“What is this crap?” I said.
Mel rolled her eyes. “It’s a virus, and she isn’t 2 yet. They can’t give us anything.”
Before a kid is 2 years old, parents really have two placebos: Tylenol and Motrin. Neither does much, outside of making you feel like you are doing something.
I spent the rest of the day taking trips to Walgreens (the only pharmacy in town open on Christmas day), picking up everything from ointments to replacement toothbrushes and bath toys — and anything else Aspen might have put in her mouth in the past few days. The whole time, I felt guilty for shopping on a holiday, but I was also completely grateful a store was open in our small town.
The next several nights were the longest of my parenthood. Mel and I took Aspen in shifts. Her rashes eventually turned into blisters, and about three days in, I got Aspen undressed for a bath and noticed that one of the blisters on her bum was peeling. I pulled on a loose flap of skin and a dollar bill-sized patch peeled off.
Mel came into the room and just stared at what was in my hand, her face confused, trying to make sense of it. “What happened,” she asked.
I shrugged. “It just came off?”
Aspen stood up. She was naked and little and helpless, her blonde hair mashed in the back. She gave me a sad watery-eyed face like I’d done something personal by peeling off her skin. In my left hand was a stuffed orange cat she’d received in her Christmas stocking. She ripped it from my hand, snuggled it, and screamed. She waddled off down the hall to the tub, her red and raw bum in view, crying the whole way.
She lost a little more skin that night, some from her hands and some from her feet. But by the next day, she started to get better. It wasn’t some dramatic turning point; it was more of a slow progression.
About two weeks after it started, I was in the living room cleaning up, and she started laughing. I was exhausted from being up too many nights, and I’d been back to work for a few days. Mel was in the kitchen making dinner. Our older two were in their rooms. Somehow we’d all managed to stay well.
Aspen was walking around the living room. I made eye contact with her, and she grabbed her tummy, leaned her head back almost dramatically, and started laughing.
I hadn’t realized she wasn’t laughing before then. She laughed, and then I noticed what had been missing: The past several days, she’d had a few emotional states — angry, listless, sad, sleepy — but not joyful.
There is something really satisfying about seeing my children happy. I’ve never understood why I get such a thrill out of seeing them smile, but I do. I think all parents do. And when it’s gone, it feels like something is missing. It feels like there is a hole somewhere that can’t be filled.
I think that might be the really troubling part of having a very sick kid. They don’t smile all that much. They don’t giggle or play around. They just sit there, sad or mad, and you want so badly to see them happy again.
I reached out and grabbed Aspen and pulled her next to me, “Looks like you are feeling better.”
She responded in gibberish and then laughed again, and I felt warm inside. I gave her a big hug.
That night, she slept better than the nights before. The next day, she started losing her fingernails, but it wasn’t as bad as I’d thought — she didn’t appear to feel any pain from it. After that laugh, she didn’t appear to be in pain at all anymore. And although I didn’t do much outside of holding her in the night and giving her ointment, there was a real sense of satisfaction that came with her getting better.