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December 3, 2015. 11:30 p.m.
I wake to one of my children crying out for me, but I am deep in a dream. She’ll go back to sleep, I think, or come into my room; they always do. I nuzzle my head deeper into my pillow, but the cries persist – shrieks of panic, I realize, so I give myself a metaphorical slap in the face and dash across the hall.
I take in the scene. It is straight out of the book of parental nightmares: My two-year-old is sitting upright in her bed, covered in vomit. She has woken the baby, who sleeps sometimes in a crib in their shared room, sometimes in a pack-and-play in our master bathroom, depending on what is most convenient. Both children are beside themselves. I do the first thing I can think of, which is to call for backup.
The baby is contained, but the mess needs to be dealt with. My husband gathers the bed sheets, pillows, and stuffed animals while I usher my middle girl into the bathroom and into the tub, where her tiny frame shivers as I try to spray her clean. Her face has lost all color. It is a moment when everything inside of me reaches for her. I want to hold her and enfold her and lift her up and make her well. But first I need to make sure there is no more unchewed macaroni in her hair.
My husband takes over putting her back in bed while I take care of the baby. She’ll be in the pack-and-play for the rest of the night, obviously. As I nurse her, I hear more retching from across the hall, and another round of changing sheets and pajamas. I think of something a former colleague told me years ago. I was only recently out of college and he was maybe ten years older than me, with two young children. One of them had been sick with a bug just like this one, and he said to me, “Since becoming a parent, I’ve done things I never thought I would do.” He didn’t elaborate.
Once the baby was asleep again, I relieve my husband of duty. I make myself a nest on the floor by my sick darling’s side and listen to her breathing. I can tell from the speed of her breath when I need to gather her up and hold her over the tupperware receptacle we have placed by her bed. Every time, she tries to push me away. “I done! I done!” she mumbles. But my job is to be there, even if she doesn’t want me to be. Even if I don’t want to be. We do what we must do when it must be done. This is what it means to parent.
By morning, she is nearly herself again. She chatters and smiles, upset only by my refusal to let her have a cup of milk. I tell her we need to wait until her tummy is ready, but it’s probably me that isn’t ready. I don’t like thinking of her hunched in the tub, white and shaking, wet and afraid. We will both need some time to recover.