On Tuesday just before dinner Wally sneezed four times in a row. Caroline looked at me. A feeling of dread passed between us: We both knew how things would go from here.
A few years ago, before Jay was born, I spent a Saturday morning reading Tolstoy’s wonderful novella The Death of Ivan Ilych. Near the beginning of the story Ivan Ilych is standing on a stepladder hanging curtains in his house. He slips, knocks himself against a knob on the window frame, but regains his balance before he falls. Afterwards he thinks to himself, “It’s a good thing I’m a bit of an athlete. Another man might have been killed, but I merely knocked myself, just here; it hurts when it’s touched, but it’s passing off already—it’s only a bruise.”
Of course, it’s not only a bruise. Ivan’s symptoms get worse and worse. Each step along the way he rationalizes to himself: Oh, it’s nothing. But in the end that slip on the stepladder proves fatal. He bumped himself in just the wrong way. A few weeks later, Tolstoy writes (in a sentence characteristic of the barbed style that makes the story so entertaining), Ivan’s “so-called friends” are left “to fulfill the very tiresome demands of propriety by attending the funeral service and paying a visit of condolence to the widow.”
A few sneezes from Wally don’t make me worry that his life is in danger, but they do predict with great accuracy that the coming weeks aren’t going to be fun. Since Jay was born I’ve become very good at recognizing the first signs of a cold. All it takes is a misplaced sniffle or the faintest sheen of snot beneath one nostril and the rest, as they say, is written: the fever, the cough, the sleepless nights and ruthless mornings. The cold picks us off one by one. It’ll be a month before we’re all healthy again.
And indeed, my eyes are slits right now. It’s turned out to be Jay who’s gotten it worst. He’s been running a fever and has a spot of red on each cheek as bright as if he’d stolen into Caroline’s rouge again. He’s sneezing and coughing. Droopy in the eyes. Utterly pathetic to look at. And because of it all, he can’t sleep: Last night he coughed himself awake around 2am and spent the next 90-minutes calling to us (very good naturedly, as it happened) with one request or another: I need a tissue; I need water; take my blanket off; put my blanket back on; Daddy, is the vaporizer working?
Wally has born his illness more sensibly. Last night he slept for 14 hours. We went in to check on him at 9am just to make sure he was still breathing. To be fair, he hasn’t gotten it as bad as Jay. No fever that I’ve noticed and no cough yet, either. His biggest problem is that nursing with a stuffy nose is about as pleasant as being waterboarded.
In a way it’s funny that all it takes is one little germ that’s not even very menacing as far as germs go to knock a whole world-beating family on its back. Most days we scheme great schemes—about how we want to live abroad; have a third child; buy a house; make our marks in the world. Then we get sick and we’re thankful just to make it to naptime.
Not everything about a family cold is bad, though. Being sick has a mellowing effect on Jay’s personality. He’s sweeter, cuddlier, maybe even more empathetic. Yesterday we were settling in together for our afternoon nap and Jay turned to me and said: “I like your shirt.” He’s never said that before. I figured either he was buttering me up because he knew he’d be asking a lot of me later that night, or, as sometimes happens, his sickness had made him more aware of the water he swims in—his itchy eyes, his burning forehead, his godforsaken nose—and thus more aware of other people, too.
And that, I guess, is one of the virtues of sickness generally—that it throws normal life into relief, at least in those moments where it’s gentle enough to let you think.
About an hour ago I put Wally down for his nap. I held him in my right arm, put a bottle to his mouth, and walked him around his room. At first he couldn’t eat and breath at the same time but after a few false starts he cleared an opening in his nasal passages just wide enough for the task. He gulped the milk. His eyelids fluttered. He breathed in one rattling breath after another and at last, fell asleep.
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