It's only been three weeks since illness invaded my house and turned it into a forced labor camp, but it feels like it has been months. The drab gray skies, the hours of taking temperatures, passing out medications, and soothing sick children all blur together in a sleepless, weary fog. I feel a bit like I am living out the 1993 comedy "Groundhog Day" in which Bill Murray wakes up to live out the exact same day over and over until he finally learns the life lessons of unselfishness and love.
I wake up and say to myself, "Here we go again." I measure out cups of juice with vitamins and medications. I see that everyone gets dressed and combed. I give nebulizer treatments and spend hours consoling a coughing baby. When I am lucky enough to be able to put Elijah down I get to reward myself by quickly gathering the trash to take out, or the laundry to put in the washer, or the dishes to put in the dishwasher. I make lunch, serve lunch, clean up from lunch, put Toby down for a nap, see that the girls do their schoolwork, and right here is the all-time high-point of my day, if it is a really good day. I settle Elijah once more and carefully slip him into his swing, praying he stays asleep so as not to ruin this moment. I station one of my girls to watch Elijah for me. Then I slip on my shoes and coat and step into the brisk, fresh air. I walk as slowly as possible the twenty yards to my mailbox, absorbing every outdoor sight and sound and smell that I can take in. I pick up the mail then and slowly return to prison. Usually I find Elijah crying when I come back, three minutes later. But for three minutes I was alive.
Then one of my five task-masters cracks the whip and it's back to work: bouncing the baby, more antibiotics, more nebulizers, more laundry, making dinner, serving dinner, cleaning up from dinner while the girls clean up this day's craft schrapnel, putting the kids' pajamas on, brushing teeth, reading stories, and tucking in. After giving Elijah a final nebulizer treatment and dose of antibiotics we bounce up and down on the big red ball one final time for the day, then I quietly trudge up the stairs with the little guy so as not to startle him into coughing again. I lay in bed beside him, praying he will sleep and fighting the urge to turn to a more comfortable position. If it is a good night I will get one or two stretches of uninterrupted sleep for an hour or two before Elijah wakes up drowing in mucous and coughs so hard that he vomits all over me again. Sometime around 8:00am Elijah will open his eyes, see the sunshine, and smile at me as though he's had a good night's sleep, and I will say to myself, "Here we go again."
Don't get me wrong, it's not as though there are no variations to this routine. There is the exciting "bath night," the adventuresome "nail clipping night" in which I get to trim 100 finger and toe nails all in one night, and the exhilirating "bathroom cleaning night," but it's just that every once in a while, when I stop to catch my breath I remember that I used to be human. Do you remember the scene in one of the Star Wars prequils when the teenage Darth Vader has just lost all his limbs and most of his life in a battle with some good guy? (I can't remember names, sorry, I only saw it once when I was formerly alive.) Anyway some other guy says to someone else as Darth Vader is being operated on and replaced by all the machines that have become his body, "He's more machine than man now." Sometimes I feel like that: more machine than human now.
Do you know that Matt and I used to go for long walks at night under the stars? Yep, we used to actually talk to each other, beyond the usual, "So did anyone faint or throw up when you stuck a needle in their arm today?" "Nope, it was a good day. How about you? How many times did Elijah throw up on you?" "Only twice, not too bad." "Huh, well, goodnight."
I used to have an active mind that loved learning foreign languages and puzzling over philosophy. I used to walk the streets of Chicago like I belonged there and sip cappacino at Starbucks while I studied Greek and Hebrew. It's been ages since I've felt smart, or pretty, or thrilled at the prospects of tomorrow's adventures.
But if I am honest with myself I remember more clearly that I was lonely then. I wanted a home to come home to instead of a dorm room. I wanted a family that didn't change with the semesters. I wanted the warmth and stability that college could never offer. It is a season now: I am a middle-aged mother of five young children, fighting to keep them all breathing through the gray days of February. Springtime will come, health will return, the children will grow. And I will do what all mothers do: I will look back on these days with fondness and wish that for a moment I could go back and feel Elijah's warm sleeping body next to mine again, and watch Toby's adorable antics, and hear Hannah's silly new joke just one more time.
Yesterday, after I had asked Hannah to please lower her shrieks to whisper at least 100 times so as not to wake her sleeping brother, I asked Hannah to pray at bedtime. "I think I'll just pray in my heart," she replied, "I don't want to wear my voice out." After a moment of initial shock, laughter found its way out of my weary bones. It bubbled up and bubbled over, and Matt and I sat laughing together and repeating, "Hannah doesn't want to wear her voice out!" and laughing all over again. It felt like tiny sprouts of green pushing its way out on branches that had stood frozen and bare all winter. Even in the fog, Spring is waking.