One of the unique challenges of caring for a heart baby is keeping them at a prudent distance during cold and flu season from their infectious preschooler siblings.
It’s no mystery why 3-5 year olds get sick all the time. Something something immature immune systems, according to the medical establishment. All right. I get that. But I also know something all parents of small children know: preschoolers are disgustingly unsanitary little people.
They cram things into their mouths on impulse, compelled by some vague and powerful instinct. In the winter their cute little noses hemorrhage snot like a busted pipe, which they smear onto their hands and arms and shoulders, onto the furniture, the fridge, the cat, each other.
I’ve had more success using my Jedi powers to levitate one of the cars into the driveway than I had keeping our then-three year old from touching his face after he lovingly fingered a public urinal at the Home Depot. I mean, sure, I washed his hands — sort of, and a few seconds too late. I practically had to get him in a headlock to do it.
“We need to wash your hands, Woogie.”
A deceptively difficult-to-answer question. I answered it in adult.
Ryan countered by answering in preschooler. “But I don’t want to.”
I’ll admit that reply still leaves me vacant. It freezes me. Probably because I’ve internalized the contemporary whole-brain parenting zeitgeist which suggests that my instinctive response — “So WHAT?” — is somehow inappropriate.
However, after he made it clear that he was about to jab his dirty, pee-stained fingers in his eyes again, I grabbed his arms and hustled him over to the sink.
He fought me like a marlin hooked off of Key Biscayne. He tried to ram my chest with the back of his head. Whoever was in the handicapped stall loudly crinkling the pages of his newspaper got quite a show. Above the hiss of faucet water, Ryan hollered like he was fighting off some rando child-abductor. His outrage was primal. What right did I have to wash away his stranger urine bacteria? Practically child abuse. Wait’ll he tells mommy.
Anyway, back to the point. Nothing more need be said on the subject than this: small children eat dirt. Case closed.
To compound matters, we send these little bio-weapons off to collective petri dishes called preschool, where they rub their germs everywhere and infect each other with their horrible illnesses. Thus incubated, we then pick them up in our vehicles and bring them back into our homes. If you think about it, it’s kind of remarkable that preschools are regulated by state agencies and not the CDC.
At any rate, these are some of the mundane privileges enjoyed by all parents who have small children and normal babies. With a heart baby, however, you have to be especially vigilant — for the flu in particular, which can exacerbate the underlying medical conditions of these kids.
Now, a common cold would not be good for Jack. To stay on the growth chart, he needs to sleep well and eat great, and a cold could cause him problems with eating and sleeping that might set him back.
Ryan currently has a cold. The tell that he has a cold is his stomped-goose cough. That’s it. It’s not his perpetual snot-stache; he has that all winter long, in sickness and in health.
And the tell that he has a cold is certainly not in how he acts. One of the things that makes our wondrous little bio-weapon so insidious is that you rarely know he’s sick until it’s too late and you’ve rubbed your face all over his irresistibly smoochy little cheeks.
His mother and I often recount one time in particular when Ryan got both of us sick with monster head colds. We were immobilized on the couch, slack-jawed as Ryan — still symptomatic with a fever of 102.5 — was running laps around the first floor, giggling with glee as he threw himself into an armchair. Hands down, one of the most profoundly depressing moments of my life.
But, every thorn has a rose. We’ve realized that we have a foolproof predictor for when truly serious illness is in our midst: Ryan himself.
The second sickest I’ve ever been in my life was last winter, with the super flu that apparently might be the new normal. Four agonizing days wracked with fever and bone-jarring chills. Too sick to sleep and ravenously hungry with hallucinatory half-dreams of pizza and Reuben sandwiches and gallons of Graeter’s ice cream, but unable to move.
The third sickest I’ve ever been was this past December. Super flu again. I got the flu shot this time. Same experience as the previous year, except two days praying for death instead of four.
Both of these debilitating illnesses were given to me by you-know-who. And prior to each of them, Ryan was actually — as in visibly — sick. Looking back, when I saw him last winter asleep on the couch in the middle of the day, I should have backed away in horror and had him quarantined.
This past December, when I went into his room at 4 am after he started crying because he’d just vomited all over the entire world, I should have woken up his mother, gotten her and the baby out of the house, and called in an Outbreak Response Team to disinfect the premises. Because if this kid is actually laid low by illness, I promise you it’s bad.
So, back to the present. Ryan has a cold and he’s running from room to room as usual, jumping around, exuberant, and of course, anxious to hang out with his baby brother.
“Woogie, you need to keep a little bit of distance from Jack while you’re sick.”
“But I don’t want to.”