I always thought family rode in the back of the ambulance with the patient. That’s what they show on TV. But when my 14-month-old son was loaded into the back of the ambulance, they stopped me from getting in with him and directed me to sit in the front. I still have no idea how long the ride was. All I remember is watching the pavement pass below us while I waited for sounds that indicated my son was deteriorating and thought, “If he dies, I can just throw myself out the door. It will be fast.”
The next week passed with the slowest hours of my life as my son was moved from the emergency room to the pediatric unit to the pediatric intensive care unit while his airways constricted so tightly he couldn’t get enough oxygen through them to breathe. Holding him down as they inserted an IV was one of the worst moments of my life, but watching them hook him up to oxygen, helium (to force the oxygen through his almost-completely closed airways), a heart rate monitor, an oxygen monitor, and the tiniest blood pressure cuff I’ve ever seen was enough to send this girl into the darkest place I’ve ever been.
That was all due to a common illness called parainfluenza, which I had first and passed to my son. I had felt lousy for a week, with a sore throat and throbbing headache, but being a teacher in the last week of school, you can’t take a day off. So I pushed through and finished the year. I felt awful, but I could function. I chalked it up to bad allergies and crossed my fingers I wasn’t contagious. I pushed through. My son, however, could not.
So when I first read about the coronavirus across the world, I began having flashbacks to that awful time nearly two years ago, but I was reassured by the reports from around the world that it wasn’t impacting children. Thank God, I sighed, along with countless other mothers everywhere. If I was going to get sick, okay, but as long as it wasn’t my kids again. As cases began to crop up here in the U.S., I still wasn’t convinced it would sweep through the population like it did in Italy. Even as our schools shut down, I considered quarantine playdates with friends because, again, kids were somehow immune!
And then, kids started getting sick. And then, some died.
My family goes nowhere. We see no one. I go to the grocery store once every two weeks, quite a length of time with two hungry toddlers who inhale fresh fruit and chicken nuggets. When I come home, I am the frantic lady wiping everything down with bleach wipes and stripping my “outside clothes” for my “inside clothes” and going back through the house to wipe everything down that I touched on my way. I’m not normally a germaphobe. In fact, with both toddlers being thumb-suckers, you have to adopt a rather lackadaisical attitude about hand washing. My kid’s thumb is in his mouth while he’s still sitting in the swing at the park, forget “wash your hands when you get home.” But this has changed all of that. We sing “Happy birthday” to the soap or the reaaaaally slow version of the ABCs as we scrub up to our elbows.
As I’ve taken in the seriousness of the situation, it seems the world around me has had the opposite reaction. Now that people are bored and tired of staying home, I’m watching my friends resume playdates and visits to grandma’s. I watched in horror on my friend’s Instagram story as her daughter played with a teenage neighbor in their backyard. I cringed at all the Mother’s Day photos of small children wrapping their arms around grandma. Just call me Scrooge.
But you see, I’ve been there. I’ve been casual about germs and illness. I’ve been the mom who shrugged and said, “Oh it’s just building his immune system!” as my kid ate something off the floor or shared his popsicle with a friend or took the baby’s pacifier out of the baby’s mouth and stuck it in his own. I’ve even done all of that after our PICU stay. I don’t believe we should stay in to hide from something, and I definitely don’t believe in allowing our fears to dictate our daily lives.
I do, however, believe in trusting when our fears are real. When our anxieties are keeping us safe. We long for normalcy, for a feeling of safety and security, and we are so done staying inside with our children, but it is the safe place to be. We cannot allow our desire for normalcy blind us to reality. We cannot let the partisan bickering of politicians color our view. We need to look at our hospitals and know that we want our children in their own beds, not the hospital’s.
The worst case is that I’m overreacting and my kids miss out on a summer of fun. They miss Nana’s hugs and Auntie’s pool. They miss out on festivals and fairs and playground trips and zoo excursions. They miss all the fun I had planned, and make no mistake, I am absolutely grieving the loss of one of my summers with them.
But we all know that’s not the real worst case. That’s the worst case of my caution.
The worst case is if we are not cautious. I have witnessed what a respiratory illness can do to a young, otherwise healthy child. I have held my baby while he clawed at me as his airways shrank, and I have sobbed in the hallway as I listened to the doctors give report that scared me to my soul. I watched a solid, strong, chunky toddler decline to a sweaty, glassy-eyed mess in a matter of hours. I still relive those horrible moments when my mind is quiet and I struggle to reign in my paralyzing terror of how quickly it can all change.
There will be other summers, other playdates, other trips to the zoo, park, pool, museum. There is only one of him.
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