99 Problems

Published on December 9th, 2017 | by Cheryl Klein


Seven Days in the Stinking Marsh

In the swampy, stinking waters of the river Styx – the actively wrathful fight each other viciously on the surface of the slime, while the sullen (the passively wrathful) lie beneath the water, withdrawn, “into a black sulkiness which can find no joy in God or man or the universe.” At the surface of the foul Stygian marsh, Dorothy L. Sayers writes, “the active hatreds rend and snarl at one another; at the bottom, the sullen hatreds lie gurgling, unable even to express themselves for the rage that chokes them.”

            —Wikipedia entry on Dante’s Inferno, because when your family has the flu, you will feel even less committed than usual to seeking out original sources


Sunday: Our son Dash, who has recently hit whatever developmental milestone involves yelling “No, don’t DO that!” many times a day, is phlegmy and extra cranky. He’s had a cold for a few days, but now when I push away the baby hairs on his forehead, he feels hot. He says “Owie my ear” and tugs on it.

Monday: We break in my new health insurance with a trip to urgent care. We negotiate our time like captains of industry, or working parents, so that my partner C.C. takes him while I pound out a mad three hours of work, and I meet her at Kaiser in time to wait for the prescription while she rushes off to see a therapy patient.

The last time Dash had to take an antibiotic, he loved the taste and said “More!” with an impish grin after every dose. This time we get amoxicillin, which is the same sticky bubble gum syrup I hated as a child. Dash is having none of it. And so begins a twice-daily ritual of spiking a bottle of chocolate milk. Goodbye, nutrition.

Tuesday: I am new at my job, and the half sick day I took yesterday was about all I could afford. But by late afternoon I am achy and shivering despite a late-fall heat wave. I tough it out and manage to retrieve Dash from daycare (he was feeling fine; we may have fudged the 24-hours-without-a-fever rule), get him home and collapse on the couch. In a true act of heroism, C.C. cancels her Tuesday night patient so she can put him to bed, which lately has required great physical and mental stamina. I curl up in our bed with my laptop while, a room away, C.C. reads Sparkle Boy and Buddy and the Bunnies and Go Dog Go.

He starts asking for Mommy, because his favorite parent tends to be whichever one of us isn’t there, some fucking Manic Pixie Dream Mommy not tied to the ugly inconveniences of reality. But I’m not immune to the lure of idealization, so I agree to step in. This is the easy part, where I just lay next to him until he falls asleep. (Yes, we sleep trained. Sort of. And then we accidentally un-sleep trained him via one too many nights of lazy cuddling.)

It is, of course, not easy at all. A changing of the guard signals to Dash that it’s time to play. And fling all of his books off the shelf. Twice. And demand milk. And to “kiss Mama” (C.C.), now his preferred parent. I send C.C. desperate intra-home texts about how we need to stick to plans. But take this all with a grain of salt because there is a herd of horses in my head. She replies, Neigh.  

Eventually I stumble, teary and shivering, into our room and say, “I give up.” She puts Dash in his carseat and drives him around until he passes out.

Wednesday: I decide I’m past the worst of it—the icky, shivery stuff—and now just have a cold. Mind and DayQuil over matter. C.C. takes our train-loving kid down to Orange County via the Metrolink train to get an early start on Thanksgiving with her family. I work and try not to breathe on any fellow members of the skeleton crew that’s in the office.

Once my cold medicine wears off, it becomes very, very obvious that I’m not past the worst of it. But I’m so excited to have a night to myself that I meet a friend for happy hour in Little Tokyo anyway, even though I wonder if I might faint as I put my card into the parking meter. I am somehow painfully in my body but also floating outside of it. I drink half a hot toddy and try not to get germs on the communal edamame and wonder if the sentences coming out of my mouth make any sense.

That night, alone in my house for the first time in ages, the Gas Company comes by to do some kind of Gas Company thing, and I cower in the dark bedroom like a mole person, pretending I’m not home as a man moves around the driveway with a flashlight.

Thursday: I sleep in until 7:30, make vegan mashed potatoes, and join C.C., Dash, and her family in Santa Ana. C.C.’s mom is sick too. She’s cooked a feast, but she’s grouchy. My energy is gone by mid-afternoon. I cough and cough and cough. Dash is feeling great now, but he knows something is up with the adults in his life.

We repeat the routine with my family the next day: eat, cough, administer antibiotics, survive.

Saturday: I give C.C. the night off and she goes on a movie binge at the cheap theater. Almost as soon as she leaves, Dash has a sort of aggression explosion: unprompted biting, hitting me with an old National Geographic book about baby animals, spraying me with water. This has been happening periodically; C.C. says it’s called “splitting,” where kids categorize their parents as good cop and bad cop. Guess which I am. But tonight it’s reaching new levels, and for the first time, I feel a little bit afraid, like my baby has been replaced with an ferret who does cute tricks but might bite my face off. I want to cry. I do cry, a little, but try to hide it because I don’t want to make him responsible for my emotions when he’s barely old enough to identify his own.

I try to say the things you’re supposed to say. Tell me how you’re feeling with a word. Let’s take a break. Why are you mad? It’s okay to be mad.

Repeatedly, he says, “Don’t talk quiet!” and I reply, at the top of my hoarse voice, “It hurts my throat to talk loud.”

I am mystified, but also I am not. I think I know what’s up. The Mommy he knows and relies on, who is usually a pretty decent Mommy even if she spends too much time on her phone, has been replaced by a zombie who talks in a low croak. Who is slow to come paint with him and sneaks away for naps.

This Halloween, masks terrified him at every turn. He still thinks about them as he goes to bed, and he has started to categorize every frightening thing—a plastic T. Rex baring its teeth, a pirate hat with a skull and crossbones—as a “scary mask.” What is a sick Mommy if not a scary mask?

Bedtime is uneventful, but endless. Until it ends. He closes his eyes at 9:30. I hope it means he’ll sleep late tomorrow.

At 3 am—so, Sunday, technically, and this is part of the problem, how the lack of clear delineations between night and day and one day and the next can grind the humanity out of a person—I wake up sweating and coughing. I cough and cough. I should close our bedroom door, I think, but I’m not awake enough to do so.

And so Dash wakes up, not quite six hours after going to sleep, which is acceptable only for college students. I send C.C. in. Dash wants Mommy. I would be flattered if I weren’t covered in bruises from his biting, a woman battered by her own parenting failures. C.C. hangs out with him, gets him some milk, but I can’t go back to sleep. This is the worst of all worlds, when none of us is resting.

We tag in and out for hours, neither of us really getting sleep, the house that was clean 24 hours ago now a dim swamp of Mega Bloks and dirty dishes. I lay on the couch while Dash scrubs our chairs with a dish sponge, covers the kitchen in bits of paper towel and tries to empty the cat food into his toy garbage truck.

I let my dream of sleep go bit by bit, cycling through all the stages of grief. Coughing and coughing. A few weak strands of sunlight come through the living room window. I divide my time between playing trains with Dash and diving headfirst into a flame war about DACA on Facebook. I flat-out call people racist. I pour all my rage out. It feels ill-advised and pointless, and also great.

I say to Dash, “It’s hard being sick, because I can’t play with you as much as I want to. And I think that’s hard for both of us. But I will always get better and take care of you.”

The words fall out of my mouth, and I wish I could reel them back in. A few years before Dash was born, I had breast cancer. It’s a testament to the healing power of time that it’s taken me until day six of this flu to start wringing my hands about my own mortality, but it always catches up with me. Even in the best-case scenario, I will not “always get better and take care of you.” No parent will. Someday I won’t get better. Someday I won’t take care of him. I knock on the wood floor. Please, universe, know this is not hubris. This is love.

As an adoptive parent, I can’t help but wonder: If I’m not teaching him to count and picking bits of basil out of his spaghetti sauce, who am I to him? What I lack in genetics, I try to make up for in labor, even though I’m wary of a culture obsessed with producing (in the words of the creepily capitalistic Thomas and Friends) “really useful engines.” Adoptive parents tell our children: Your birthmom loved you, but she couldn’t take care of you, so she made a plan and found parents who could. That’s how much she loved you.

A friend adopted a six-year-old whose single mom had a chronic illness and could no longer care for her. From deep within the hole of this flu, I feel the truth of the birthmom narrative more than ever. If I had to make a plan, I would. Accepting our limitations might be the most daunting, loving task mothers face.

“Mommy ride a big train? Red train?” Dash asks. I don’t know if he’s talking about Metrolink or something in the world of Thomas. All borders feel blurry. Life and death, dream and reality, white lie and deep prayer.

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About the Author

Cheryl Klein’s column, “Hold it Lightly,” appears monthly(ish) in MUTHA. She is the author of Crybaby (out in 2022 from Brown Paper Press), a memoir about wanting a baby and getting cancer instead. She also wrote a story collection, The Commuters (City Works Press) and a novel, Lilac Mines (Manic D Press). Her stories and essays have appeared in Blunderbuss, The Normal School, Razorcake, and several anthologies. Her work has been honored by the MacDowell Colony and the Center for Cultural Innovation. She blogs about the intersection of art, life and carbohydrates at breadandbread.blogspot.com. Follow her on Twitter: @cherylekleinla.

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