It is really hard to multitask while holding a sniffly-sick baby.
At first she’s only a little congested. It’s enough to keep her from nursing, but her forehead is still cool. The other kids already have it worse, runny noses and sore throats and coughing that sounds like a little dog: yip-yip-yip-yip-yip! Cough-cough-cough-cough-cough!
Thus begins our foray into the fall cold season.
At the beginning, I am very zen. The dishes can wait, I say. The laundry and sweeping and wet towels on the bathroom floor? These do not matter. Pay them no heed.
This is easy, because I never think these things matter. I never pay them any heed.
They can wait, and they do. They wait. They do not take care of themselves. This is the minor flaw in my zen.
By day three of kid-sick-ageddon, we’re drowning in crumbs and used tissues and the previous night’s dinner dishes (the previous night’s dinner, unsurprisingly, consisting of something that rhymes with “smandmiches” and “cold smeareal”).
On a normal day, I would not be paying this a lot of heed, but, okay, I would be picking stuff up off the floor as I went through the house. I would throw in a load of dishes while I waited for my tea to brew. I would sweep.
Instead I am holding the sniffly muffin, who really needs to sleep but can’t figure out how to do that while her sinuses are clogged. I am checking temperatures and looking for more throw blankets. I am marveling at how the different kids get sick differently.
Somehow the three-year-old never gets quite as lethargic as the other kids, the ones who can usually help to throw in a load of laundry or unload the dishwasher or run the vacuum. Those kids are all in their pajamas at two-thirty in the afternoon, fevers raging and naps coming on.
The three-year-old is using the silverware drawer as a step ladder to try to reach a jar of honey.
“Sweetpea!” I say. “Let’s choose something else!”
He considers. “Lollipop?”
He knows I don’t have enough hands to redirect him. I know there aren’t any lollipops. This is the impasse of day three.
Day three is when the appliances sense weakness, and they strike. The washing machine stops running halfway through the spin cycle, and the dishwasher leaves a coating of what looks like dill on all the dishes. (It will turn out to be the contents of two used teabags. I cannot explain how they got into the dishwasher, but now they are exceptionally clean.)
Day three is when the oldest four children are splayed out on the couches, a little dazed, staring at books whose pages have not turned in a suspiciously long time.
By day four or five some of the children will be feeling well enough to make helpful suggestions to each other, like “stop sniffling so loud” and “your coughing interrupted my thinking,” but on day three, all is quiet. Mostly.
On day three, you do not get dressed, but you maybe put a sweater and a necklace on over your pajamas.
On day three, you put the zinc lozenges in pretty bowls.
You light fresh candles in the bathrooms and on the kitchen counter.
You look up, and out the windows, and into the red-cheeked faces all around you. You do not look down where the dirty socks and bits of trash and abandoned rice cakes are nipping at your ankles. Eyes on the horizon.
I can choose mindfulness any time, I know, but sometimes I only remember to choose it when there aren’t any other choices. And between snuggling the sniffly-sick baby and dispensing mugs of licorice tea, doling out cough drops and digging up another box of tissues, there really aren’t any other choices.
Is it wrong, to think of sick kids as a spiritual practice? Maybe, but by day six I will be buried under a pile of my own tissues, so you can think of that as my penance, if you like.
In the meantime I will hold the baby. I will sway back and forth without thinking ahead to dinner or bedtime or if we have any clean pajamas left. I will be present.
And I will try not to notice the three-year-old quietly emptying board game pieces all over the floor.