This week the 15-month-old was sick, sick, sick. The illness began back around Easter, probably on April 3rd; lasted a bit more than a week; seemed to be over by Monday, April 13, lulling us into thinking we could safely resume our normal schedule; returned with a vengeance on Sunday the 19th and continued until just now.
I think the little guy had rotavirus, because he had the classic symptoms (key among them the copious and foul, foul diarrhea) and none of the rest of us fell ill. Most people get this before age 6 and after that have immunity. The one-two punch took us by surprise; maybe he mostly shook it off, but not entirely, and we were just too quick to jump back into regular activities; or maybe the second wave, which did look a little different, was from an imbalance of gut flora. Who knows.
It was H who suggested that it might be rotavirus, since her twins fell ill at the same time with the same symptoms -- one much worse than the other, with my baby having it to a degree that fell between the two. We ended up cancelling a total of three co-schooling days (not in a row). I think we will be back in business on Monday.
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So, of course I spent the week with a feverish, listless baby sprawled or curled in my lap, buried in towels and spare old sheets from the basket we keep high up in the linen closet, only for births and for mass gastrointestinal illness. The washer and dryer ran constantly. I changed my clothes three or four times a day. I lived on chicken soup from an enormous pot that I made on the first day of the second wave, when I worried we'd all become ill. I offered the baby store-brand, pediatric electrolyte solution.
(A side note: Why, why, why must they put brightly colored dye in a drink that is meant to be given to vomiting toddlers?)
I offered him lots of nursing, too, and stayed close by so he could always have access to me, with a few breaks to run to the drugstore or grocery. I slept with the baby on a stack of towels and diapers. Even though (thankfully) he mostly slept at night and didn't throw up, I started awake at every cough, ready to leap into action. Tied-up garbage bags full of disposable diapers accumulated next to the changing table. The kids, not allowed to go to friends' houses or activities lest they pass the bug on, festered and whined and eventually settled in front of video games, and I quit making them stop.
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None of those are fun. They are miserable. But honestly, the worst part of it all is how the familiar little guy just... disappears, replaced by a limp changeling. Unable to use words yet, he cannot meet you on the verbal level and let you know that the "he" is still there, the mischievous, affectionate baby who knows you and whom you know. Eyes glassy, lids drooped, drifting in and out of a feverish doze; or arching his back and howling in pain and dismay. The only thing that remains is that he wants to cling and cling and cling to me; and that proves I am his mother and he is my baby.
I find myself singing favorite songs, trying to catch his eye. Sometimes, sometimes, a little smile plays across his lips and the eyes dart to make contact, briefly, and there he is, for just an instant. And then the eyes close and he's submerged again.
The peculiar uneasiness of the ill baby not being "himself" is something that mostly passes by the time they are able to verbalize. Even though you might say "She's just not herself this week," a child old enough to talk has to be very ill indeed before her personality entirely disappears under her illness. That happened to Maryjane when she was seven and her appendix ruptured; the first couple of days after her emergency surgery, she drifted in and out of consciousness, heavily sedated, and she really was not available to us. That was hard, because we were terribly concerned about her -- it would be several days before we would have confidence that the infection was clear -- and we couldn't really even ask her anything, or know that she understood what we told her.
I cannot imagine what it is like for parents of children who suffer from chronic illnesses that rob them of access to their child's personality, repeatedly or for longer. I know that many adults, too, face such a disappearance at the end of their lives, something I have not yet had to face closely.
When it comes my turn, I hope that things can never get so bad as to destroy my faith that "himself" or "herself" really is present -- somewhere submerged, sometimes permanently submerged, as long as breath remains in the body. Obscured, but still real.