Paying it forward
The dry, ratchety coughs continue as I search for the light switch. In the darkness my hand hits what seems like a thousand pieces of paraphernalia on the bedside table. Our weapons against the war on my child’s health. We’ve seen the signs early and tried our best to fortify the ramparts, dig moats, double the guard. But it’s no use. A child’s defenses stand little chance against these fucking marauders so endemic to their tender age. I believe children put up a good fight but are always the first to get hit. Like a warrior sans his army.
More coughing. The bout lasts five minutes this time. I switch on the light and look upon his face. It’s troubled, desperate, exhausted. My sleep-deprived brain screams obscenities. Illogical, irrational gusts of rage directed at nothing in particular, best limited within the confines of my skull lest they physically harm something or someone. I rage against the malady, calling it names. Futile, because it continues to ravage my child’s health, jeering at my helplessness. I rage against that helplessness. My inability to tear my child’s discomfort out of him one cell at a time. I wish I could. If it could assume physical form I would torture it, tearing it asunder and burning it in a pile that would spit, hiss and crackle with satisfying intensity. But these are mere fantasies. His suffering isn’t. This is real, visceral misery. It’s 3 am. Why do these fucking diseases become the most exuberant when the world craves rest?
More coughs. His little body heaves, wrested from its state of rest by an unseen force. He turns to one side to help breathe better. I lie next to him and hold him tight making sure I massage his chest whenever the spasms hit. That seems to help. At least I think so. I try to contain his involuntary movements as safely as I can manage. He gets two minutes of respite. That’s 20 minutes of respite to me. I think of taking the easy way out and blocking it out of my ears, closing my eyes. After all, I know the medicines will take effect by tomorrow morning and he’ll feel better. I can’t bring myself to. My wife takes turns letting me catch up on some sleep but with every coughing bout I lie awake listening to and hoping for signs of abatement. Literally, just lying awake in the other room listening to his breath, the activity in the room and if there’s any hope of peace on the horizon. Eventually I complete my shift of 30 mins and head back to give the missus a breather. She’s tired and frustrated.
Fuck this feeling of frustration. In the middle of the night it’s like bombs going off inside your head coloring your vision a bright orange everytime you blink. There’s a lot of anger to deal with and at times I get angry with him. For a while I’m short with my temper, barking instructions at him, telling him to sleep one way, then the next, to keep his head up, take his medicine. He’s even more confused with this violent oscillation and reacts with sadness. Eyes half bleary from the coughing and lack of sleep but emotive enough to convey their hurt. I feel like an asshole. I am one. I get up, walk around for a minute composing myself. A drink of cool water would help but I’m unwell too. My throat hurts. It’s a fucking package deal. (WE HAVE INCONVENIENCES TO SUIT ALL IMMUNITIES AND AGES! SATISFACTION GUARANTEED!)
I slowly rub my temples humming a song but I don’t listen to anything with lyrics anymore. Electronic music can’t be hummed. Perhaps I can beatbox. I laugh at this fleeting, ridiculous thought. There is only insanity at 3am. My mind suddenly races back a few years to a service marketing class. I can hear the professor speaking softly to us, bending slightly which he did when he thought he was telling us something interesting. “A minute between 2-5am is the equivalent of 3 minutes in the day. That is why your hotel checkin at these hours is designed to be the fastest. A 20 minute check-in at night robs you of an hour of productive time in the day.”
A hollow laugh. Sorry professor, I guess I stopped keeping track of lost hours the day I became a dad. I head to the bathroom and switch on the shower full-blast. The hot water creates a sauna-like atmosphere in no time. Works a million times better than those piddly, useless humidifiers that are supposed to help clear the chest of mucus. I haul him into my arms and walk into the bathroom. It’s 5am. We sit inhaling the steam. It’s suffocating but I hope it’s helping him. I can hear his breathing labor and I clean his airways. It’s a brief respite. For a miniscule sliver of time he can breathe perfectly and he fills his lungs. We head out after 10-15 minutes. It seems like an hour and everything’s in slow motion. In a short while the sounds of purpose will mutely waft in through the closed windows. America gets ready for work. Cars will start, doors will open and shut. I have to join that stream heading downtown soon.
I contemplate a few minutes of sleep but I know what lies at the other end. Disorientation (is this what military training is like?). As I wrestle with the decision to allow myself rest, my sluggish mind suddenly detects a continuous period of pin-drop silence. He hasn’t coughed. I look over at him and see that he has settled into his pillow, eyes shut, hands above his head in his trademark “I don’t give a fuck about nothing” pose. He’s breathing softly and there’s just sweet, terrific peace. I sigh and I’m actually able to hear it. Lovely.
Perhaps thirty minutes of shut-eye will help un-muddle my head. Heck, I’ll call it a “power nap” and feel all capitalist-y, ready to take on the world with an extra large coffee.
As I settle in, I think of a time many, many years ago when I was struck with a horrible bout of bronchitis. I coughed for a week straight, day and night. I vaguely remember my parents tirelessly hovering over me and I suddenly feel like thanking them. Properly. Then I realize, in parenting, the best way to pay them back is to pay it forward.
I hope I do so, unselfishly.