At five o’clock in the morning, our bedroom door bangs open.
”Aw, Phoebe,” I mumble, and begin to clamber out of bed. The pattern of these last sleep-interrupted weeks is that I will carry her back upstairs, roll her gently on to her lamb fleece, pull her blankets up, say something stern about never getting out of bed again as long as she lives or else, and stumble back down into my own bed where I will lie in a fog until–BANG!–the door opens and it’s really morning and time to get up.
This particular crack of dawn, though, she presses a thin cardboard box against my temple.
It appears that in total darkness, Phoebe has found her way out of bed, into the bathroom, has rummaged around in the vanity under the sink, brought out our giant economy-size package of adhesive bandages, carried the box silently down the stairs, opened our door, and introduced this item to the side of my head. What would cause a person to do something like that? What can it mean? I carry her upstairs, roll her on to her lamb fleece, pull the blanket up, and crash back beneath my own covers. Sometime later I find myself in the kitchen with a cup of coffee in hand, and four children tucking into bowls of Cheerios. Evidently I have had some sort of blackout.
“So, Molly, how are things at school?” I ask, rousing myself.
“Better. Actually fine, now,” she smiles. This is good news; it was grim socially not so long ago.
“How about you, Paris?”
“And Violet, how’s Miss Hodge?”
“I saw her die yesterday.”
When I rifle through the children’s book bags to make sure everyone’s homework is as it should be, school-issued health alerts drift out on to the floor like giant snowflakes. “It has come to our attention that a case of scabies….” says one. “Please be aware that a child is being treated for strep throat…” and, ominously, “each child should be checked carefully for lice, for if untreated….“
I look closely at each child’s face, in turn, as they dig into their cereal. Do they look red? Itchy? Feverish? Uh-oh. Paris’s eyes burn redly in a face that appears remarkably pale, now that you mention it. From his chest comes a kind of honking noise.
“Aw, why doesn’t Paris have to go to school?” Molly wants to know, as she climbs into the car.
“Teddy bear!” Phoebe says, holding one.
“The credit card went to bed,” Violet says earnestly as I strap her in.
“Good. So has Paris.”
“I bet there’s nothing wrong with him,” Molly says.
“Well, I know, but he looks sick,” I say, “And he sounds sick, and the fact is, even if he isn’t sick I’d better keep him home or the other mothers will blame us for infecting their children.” It is true. No mother can know precisely where her darling may have encountered a virus or bacterium, but you would be amazed at how quickly a woman will loudly assign blame, as in, “Your Paris gave my little Rickie a cold.”
When I get back from dropping off Molly and Violet, shiny white motorcycles are parked on the corner. The police are back to observe the Burmese demonstrators putting up their banner across from the embassy building again. Three officers in jodhpurs stand about handsomely. In their midst is a small boy in a red-and-navy school uniform, gesturing wildly.
“Mummy!” he yells happily when he sees the car.
“He’s telling us all about helicopters,” one of the officers calls over to me.
“Jump in, mister” I say, “I’m taking you to school.”
I thus set in motion Part III of the triple-whammy generally produced when a child gets ill. First you think, no, there’s nothing wrong with the little blighter, he’s shamming: Off to school with him! Then doubt sets in, helped on by lavish coughing and piteous strangling noises. And you think, O, what a heartless woman am I, what this poor child needs is rest: He’s definitely not going to school. As this prospect settles on the household, the hacking and gagging gradually cease. And you realize, aha! He is going to school. At which point, of course, the child is seriously unwell, and goes to school anyway. Rickie’s mother will be mad.
Paris comes home hollow-eyed and makes straight for his toys. Molly goes off to research Victorian fashion for her history project, and I put the small girls in a shallow bath.
“I’m the Princess Pamina Darling,” Violet tells Phoebe, “And you are the prince.”
“Glub,” says Phoebe, gulping bathwater out of a plastic submarine.
“Yuck, Phoebs, don’t drink it,” I say half-heartedly, and dash down to check on Paris.
“Look, Mummy, here’s the captain’s cabin,” he says feverishly, pulling me by the hand. Using a fusion of Playmobil figures, dolls’ furniture, and tiny bits of plastic food, he has constructed a magnificent piratical diorama: There’s a desk, hand-drawn nautical charts, a table with a large lettuce, a pumpkin, and a wine goblet, and a bed that has not only a striped coverlet but also a waiting nightcap. Two skeletons stand vigil.
“These guys are zombies who work for the ship,” he explains, “And when they eat? You can see their food going down through them!” Paris’ forehead is burning. Then I realize I’ve been away a dangerously long time from the girls in the bath. They haven’t drowned–I can hear their giggles. But it is astonishing how much mischief a pair of three-and-unders can get into, and boy are they fast.
Upstairs, the bath has been turned into soup. The two main meatballs are sitting there grinning, and around them, stuck to them, and clumped in heaps on the floor are hundreds of sodden Band-Aids, so thick on the surface of the bath that you can’t see the water.
“Look what Phoebe did!” Violet crows.
Phoebe looks up at me tenderly and innocently. She sounds almost sympathetic when she says, “I love you both.”
–Meghan Cox Gurdon is an NRO columnist. Gurdon lives in Washington, D.C. and writes as much as her young family will permit.