I am one of those fortunate parents who has a son who rarely gets sick, so when he does, I’m skeptical, unprepared, and in denial. Illness never seems to announce itself slowly; it’s always sudden, rude, obtrusive. On a school day at 7:50am I am ready to head to the garage, but Za’id stops me, “Mom, my head hurts. My neck hurts.”
“You must have slept wrong. Did you use one pillow or two? The headache is probably sinus related. I have one, too. I prayed I’d get your headache, but I see my prayer didn’t work this time; it got both of us. You don’t have a temperature. How about you go to school and call if you feel worse?”
All the way to school, I am wondering if I am doing the right thing. What if he just wants a day off? He looks fine to me, I tell myself. Besides, wasn’t it just last week that he chided me when Tom’s mom allowed him to miss a week of school because he had a sniffle? “Mom, you’d never let me do that. You’d say, ‘Blow your nose and get to school, boy.’”
He’s right. In my mind missing school frequently and unnecessarily leads to missed knowledge and a habit of irresponsibility.
A few hours later, I nearly jump off the treadmill while it’s running when I hear my cell phone ring. “Mom, I have no energy. Please come get me.”
“Be right there,” I say, as I head out of the gym.
Once he is home and filled with DayQuil, I say, “OK. Get in bed and get plenty of rest. I have to go to a meeting.”
“When are you coming back?” he says and presses the remote.
I watch the words Sportscenter fill the screen and wonder, What? Are you planning a party, but say, “Before 2:00pm.”
Later, I enter Za’id’s room where I find him sitting criss-cross-applesauce on the floor playing Madden. “I told you to rest. If you can play videogames, you could have sat in your seat and learned some math and science.”
“Mom, I don’t have to sleep every minute of the day.”
When a person is sick, he sleeps or at least lounges, not bang his fingers against a videogame controller.
It’s early Saturday morning and I am happy. The house is quiet and will be for at least another two hours. I am doing my homework for an online writing course when I hear Za’id rumbling around in his closet. No, no, no, I think as he enters the shower. Once out, he jumps on my bed and says, “Mom, can you take me to the game? They play at 9:00am.”
I do some heavy eye-rolling and exhaling and say, “I thought you were sick.”
He smiles. “I’m better now.”
“Mom, are we going straight home?” Za’id asks after the game.
“We need to pick up a few items from Food Lion on the way home.”
I run my MVP card under the six foot tall blue and black scanner. “Easy, Mom. What’s that?”
“It just gives me coupons. Why don’t you go down and grab the milk?”
“Mom, I’m too tired. I can’t do it.”
“You were fine an hour ago at the game.”
“Well, now I just need to get home.”
I look him up and down, incredulously.
At home Z plays a few more videogames and then takes a nap. I decide to join him until he jumps on my bed and says, “Mom, can I go with Keisha and Amber to the mall?”
“What? No. You said you were sick. You came home early yesterday and everything!”
“But, Mom, I feel better now. I was just tired. I took a nap; now I’m better.”
“You’re not going to the mall.”
“Mom, is that a maybe?”
“No, it’s a no. Go get the DayQuil.”
After the Dayquil, I look in his room to see if he’s sulking because I did not allow him to go to the mall with his cousins, but all I see is a young man with earphones in his ear sitting criss-cross-applesauce on the floor playing Madden.
We come home from church and I say, “Let’s go ahead and make the rattrap car while I have time to focus on it.”
“OK,” Za’id says, as he settles into the recliner.
I fumble with the directions and curse the teacher for testing my knowledge instead of Za’id’s.
“Oh, Mom, I’m so tired. I can’t do this right now. Can I come back in an hour?”
“What? But you’re feeling better today.”
“No, I’m weak.”
Forty-five minutes later I yell for him when I think I finally understand the directions for building the car. There is silence, so I go to his room and find him asleep.
I’m in that in between place: half scared and half livid. He says he’s weak, can’t sleep at night, achy. Crazy, scary images flash through my mind as I attempt to do a home diagnosis.
I can’t take it anymore so after President’s Day, we are at the doctor’s office. “Doctor, this illness comes and goes. It’s gone when he plays videogames and it reappears when it’s time to do school projects or go to aisle ten to get the milk. What’s going on here?”
Dr. Palmisano smiles and places the stethoscope on Za’id’s back. “Take a deep breath. Take another.”
“Well, when I’m playing games it takes my mind off the pain I feel.”
“Maybe I should prescribe more videogame time,” Dr. Palmisano says and chuckles.
Za’id looks at him as if to say, That’s the best prescription you’ll ever give.
But I just roll my eyes.
“His lymph nodes are swollen. He’s fighting infection. He probably has a sinus infection. Maybe I’ll check for flu. Where have you been hurting?”
“My neck, chest and back.”
The nurse swabs Za’id’s nose and returns in ten minutes to tell us he tested positive for the flu. When she leaves, Za’id says, “Mom, you looked that lady up and down like, How dare you tell me has the flu.”
It’s official. I will never understand children or illness. They have a fever, but still feel like doing cartwheels. Maybe that’s it! If a child tries to feign illness, he is more likely to “act” like someone who is sick. Maybe that will be my measuring tool the next time illness arrives uninvited.