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The Sniffles All Around Bring Misery, Closeness

Jan Hofmann is a regular contributor to Orange County Life.

The kids and I took time out to stop and smell the flowers this week. The problem was, we couldn’t smell anything.

We hadn’t exactly planned it that way. Our household calendar was cluttered with entries for the first days after the holidays: a consultation with my son’s orthodontist, another with my attorney, carburetor work on the car. Then there was a belated holiday dinner with one friend and penciled-in lunch plans with another, not to mention a full schedule of work and school and a long list of errands that had already been put off too long. We were going to get a productive, fast-paced start on the new year.

As it turned out, the only appointment we were able to keep wasn’t even on the list: a group expedition to the doctor.

“I might as well get a rubber stamp for these symptoms,” said the nurse as she wrote down three separate lists of similar complaints: stuffy nose, fever, cough, headache and so on. “All our patients seem to have the same thing. I just hope we don’t get it.”

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“Hello, everybody,” said the doctor as he strode briskly into the examining room. “Who’s first?”

No bickering, for once, about whose turn it was to go first for something. My daughter, by virtue of her 102-degree fever, won that contest without a struggle--not that she or her brother could have put up much of a fight.

“A very bad cold,” the doctor proclaimed after the usual peeking and prodding. But before I could blurt out, “I could have told you that!” he went on. Bronchitis. An ear infection. Not good news, but at least I didn’t have to feel guilty or embarrassed about bothering the doctor for something I could have handled myself.

My son didn’t have bronchitis. But he had two ear infections to make up for it.

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I was last. “Moms always go last,” the doctor said. My problem was merely a stubborn sinus infection, come back to life like the villain in a horror movie despite our assault on it 2 weeks ago with a $67 round of antibiotics.

After explaining the purpose of each prescription and reciting the usual instructions--rest, fluids, more rest, more fluids--the doctor wished us well and sent us off to fend for ourselves.

We coughed our way to the car, which, thanks to the aforementioned carburetor problem, did some coughing of its own. “Listen, Mom,” my daughter said. “The car has it too.” We laughed, and coughed some more.

I dropped the kids off at home, then hurried down to the drugstore with our prescriptions and the gold card I would need to pay for them. The usual 20-minute wait was an hour and a half this time. “We’re swamped,” the pharmacist explained. Somehow I knew what he was going to say next.

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“Everybody has it,” he told me.

When I got home, the kids were parked under comforters on the couch, taking advantage of the unspoken suspension of household rules by sipping soda pop (In the living room! In the morning!) and watching the same TV shows my brother and I watched on our sick days 20-plus years ago.

“What’s wrong, little buddy?” asked a portly man in a nautical cap on the screen, looking somehow inappropriate in color. Oh, Skipper, I thought. Where do I begin? But Gilligan launched into his tale of woe before I could get started on mine.

Gilligan’s red shirt and rosy cheeks weren’t all that had changed since I was a kid. Instead of lying down in front of the television, I was on my feet in the kitchen--antibiotics or no antibiotics, we had to have Mom’s Chicken Soup, and I was the only one around here who answered to “Mom.”

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“This is really good, Mom,” my son said politely as he sampled a spoonful an hour later. “I just wish I could taste it.”

“Me too,” I said.

They took naps; I rushed to meet a deadline. I don’t know how my mother ever managed without a computer and a modem, not to mention videotapes and microwaves. And she went through many more episodes of this than I’ll ever face. My brother and I got the measles--both kinds. My children got vaccines instead.

By 7 p.m., the doctors and nurses on “MASH” were rushing around trying to deal with another episode of emergencies, and so was I.

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“His leg is crushed. Get this one to pre-op, stat!”

“Mom, I just barfed!”

“Mom, my nose is bleeding!”

“Incoming choppers!”

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I mopped and wiped and hugged and consoled as fast as I could. In between crises, I took a few self-indulgent moments to lie down myself--but never for very long. Even after I tucked them in for the night, I listened for coughing and feeble cries for my attention, just as I’d done night after night when they were infants. Those instincts were rusty but still functioning, I discovered, at 1:18 a.m. and 2:37 a.m. and 4:02 a.m.

Their fevers had broken the next morning, and as I put away the thermometer, I proclaimed with nurse-like cheer that the worst was over.

“But my nose is still stopped up,” one of them complained.

“Mine too,” said the other.

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“I didn’t say it was over. I said the worst was over.”

“Oh.”

“There’s nothing good about being sick,” my daughter moaned. Yes there is, I thought, but I didn’t contradict her out loud. We may have been miserable, but we were together, and paying closer attention to each other than we had in months.

By the second evening, they were burned out on TV. “How about reading?” I suggested. But they said their heads hurt too much.

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“Let’s try something with bigger type,” I suggested. “Maybe that won’t hurt.” So we dug out an old favorite, a book that was long since supposed to have been handed down to their little cousins in Ohio.

The sun did not shine, It was too wet to play, So we sat in the house All that cold, cold wet day.... As my daughter read, I realized that I still knew the words by heart.

... And then something went BUMP! How that bump made us jump!

“Isn’t it interesting how the fish takes on the role of the parent?” he said, making it profoundly clear that he was no longer a 3-year-old.

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I almost started crying, but I blew my nose instead. Where had all that time gone? And why hadn’t we spent more of it this close?

We’re better now, thank you--still coughing and sniffling, but much better. And next week, we’re going to be frantically busy. But in spite of everything, we seem to have started out the new year exactly as we should have.

I just wish there was an easier way to clear the calendar.


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