Of course we’ve been sick (because isn’t everyone sick this month?), and of course it made the rounds (because when do sick children ever keep their germs to themselves?). And it was some kind of sneaky virus, too, one that clings and lingers and winds itself up in your thinking until you can hardly remember a time when you didn’t cough twenty three times an hour. It’s been almost two weeks since Lincoln first woke with the fever that signaled the beginning of this respiratory mess that settled on us all, and we’re all still feeling a bit Humpty Dumpty, like we’re all just bits and pieces of ourselves. Scattered, too restless for the couch but too exhausted for much else, cut off from each other by the isolation of clogged ears that make everything sound muted, mumbled, far away.
I lost hope on day ten when some third round of the sickness uncoiled itself over our house and pressed down on us all with a vague, unforgiving pressure, a nameless malaise that seemed to come from our rattled coughs themselves. Our lungs seized and seized as if trying expel a demon of dust from our poor, dry throats. But nothing came, just a chorus of barking coughs that seemed bent on shaking us apart.
Our oldest, the one who never stops talking, fell into a dejected silence. “Do you feel okay?” I asked him. “Do you need anything?” He would shrug and say he felt okay and no, he didn’t need anything. No, he didn’t want to get out of the house. Could he just sit on the couch for a while?
He hadn’t eaten more than four bites of any meal in a week. Just enough to say he’d eaten something, but not enough to alter the landscape of his plate. The doctor said there was nothing to be done; it was a virus, and we’d just have to wait it out.
He might as well have been reading my mind when he said it. “Mom, I feel sad, and I don’t know why. I just feel like crying for no reason.” And what’s a mom to do but wrap this tall seven year old in her arms and tell him that it’s okay, he could cry, she would be here, and everything would be all right. So, I held my son and tried not to cough into his hair as he felt that first unmoored sadness, the confused disillusionment that strikes us all eventually. And wow did it hurt, hurt worse than having that feeling myself. It rattled me harder than those relentless coughs, watching him feel that feeling I know all too well.
There is no cure for sadness that has no cause. I could not comfort him as I usually do, by talking him through the events that led to the frustration or promising him the scratch would heal. I could not bandage away a pain that came from no visible wound. I could only say these terrible words no parent wants to say to their child: “Sometimes this just happens. People get sad sometimes, and sometimes we just feel like crying. It won’t last forever.”
It won’t last forever, but it will come back someday. Unexplained sadness will not rule your life, but it will be a part of it, from time to time.
This just happens sometimes. To you, to me. I’m sorry, son. I’m so sorry that I birthed you into a world you are only just learning will hurt you and hurt you often.
His hair is just the color mine was when I was his age, a golden brown like honey over chocolate, more hair than I ever had but just the same color. I don’t want to see myself in his sadness, don’t want to entertain the thought that he will inherit that from me, this tendency for sadness that comes out of nowhere. Mostly he is the spitting image of his father, a tiny little copy of the carefree Peter Pan I married. Let him be like his father in this, too, I pray. Let him dodge the melancholy vein that runs through me.
That day, we held each other, and I kissed him and told him other words, beautiful words that are also true, words like how he brought joy into my life and more love than I ever imagined. I told him how just the sight of his face turns a light on in me, how I will never forget the way he looked the first moment I saw him. And more, how sometimes these moments of sadness kind of wake us up to how good the happy times are, how they teach us to pay attention to the good parts even more. How you kind of feel cleansed after a cry, like you are ready to get back to feeling like yourself again.
And I would have gone on, gotten into rainbows after a storm and the promise that awaits and a whole parcel of elementary school theology, but just like that, my son wiped his cheeks and climbed off of my lap, already through the storm and watching the sun peek through the clouds. So like his father, I thought, made of rubber that one. I decided that perhaps the last throes of the virus might be gone then, exorcised through our tears, that maybe the sickness had just drained right out of us. And then I stifled another cough.