Coal, goal, and a swab in the hole
It started with a high fever. Holding Ben was like clutching a sack of burning coal. An angry sack of coal, in fact, one that writhed and mewled and tried to escape from my arms. Okay, I'd say, and put the coal on the floor, since that's what he seemed to want. And then he'd slump onto the rug and start weeping, because running wild, unfettered, and free hadn't been as awesome as he'd imagined. Sad coal. Coal of desolation. And I'd sit there and think, Damn. Anthracite sucks.
We had a few nights like that, with Ben waking up every couple of hours needing only to be held, where "held" can be understood to mean held, then rocked, then caaaarefully carried over to the crib, then deposited as gently as if he were made of, I don't know, something fragile and dangerous like nitroglycerin or maybe plutonium or, wait! I know! my flagging maternal good humor, then picked up again as the howling commenced, ad infinitum, ad nauseam, ad hominem and beyond. During the day, Ben alternated between his usual sunny good cheer and what more neutral observers might call irritability.
Now, along with a high fever and the rash that blossomed all over Ben's torso a couple of days later, that irritability is one of the symptoms of roseola. I in my straightforward way am more inclined to call it asshole. -Ishness. -Ocity. -Ification. -A-ganza. See how I'm not quite calling my sweet small son an asshole? Rather, I am remarking in a detached and clinical way that he displayed many of the hallmarks of one. That's for the convenience of all the Googlers who are querying roseola symptoms. High fever torso rash diminshed appetite virus mild diarrhea "baby measles" puffy eyes lordy what an asshole. And that, my friends, is how you do search engine optimization.
And then the fever broke, and the rash came on, and with it the high-pitched keening that signals an ear infection. The only thing that seemed to comfort him was being holstered belly to belly in the Ergo carrier with his head tucked under my chin. And that was fine until he decided to unleash one of his periodic dog-whistle shrieks, mouth right next to my ear. It was unclear over the weekend whose eardrum would rupture first. I confess to a fantasy of hastening mine along by mechanical means, just to muffle the noise. Oh, like you've never considered defying the instructions on the package of Q-Tips, inserting one into your ear canal and working it like a butter churn.
But I managed somehow to refrain, and to make endless grim circuits around the house with the aural equivalent of an actuated smoke alarm strapped to my head, and to pick up and put down and pick up and put down and pick up and put down gently...every...time. None of that, of course, is more than a parent should do. But I surprised myself by how calm I stayed, how willing I stayed, in the face of it.
And now we are back to normal. I had forgotten over the last week exactly how delicious Ben is, how I get this curling feeling of full-body warmth when Charlie makes him laugh, how much it cracks me up to see him ask for things with a combination of the sign for milk — which he seems to think means gimme — and an imperious clap of his hands, like, Lady, who do I have to blow to get another handful of blueberries around here? I think I'd better not expect much in the way of a tip.
This isn't going to seem related, but hang on because I'm going to do that thing where I gather seemingly disparate threads into a single impenetrable knot, which is either a neat trick or a cheap one, I never really know. Yesterday I took Charlie to soccer practice.
Paul usually does this, but he and Ben were detained, so I did the necessary. Put on quasi-athletic shoes, chivvied Charlie into emerging from the cardboard box he has claimed as his hideout, painted my naked chest with the team colors, that kind of thing. And spent the next hour running back and forth, calling out approval and encouragement, turning Charlie's occasional frustrated frown up-the-fuck-side down with positive words, rambunctious hair-tousling, and snarled promises that we were gonna wipe the goddamn field with those clumsy loser children on the red team.
I was kind of excellent. And so was Charlie, who announced later at dinner that practice was great. "I love soccer," he gushed. Which I, alas, do not. I hate soccer, in fact. I feel that way about children's sports in general. I think it's important for a kid to be exposed to such things, and I'm committed to making it happen, but I would so much rather be reading a book to him, or doing a craft, or cooking, or pretending for the umpteenth time that he is Ponyo, I am Lisa, Paul is Sosuke, and Ben is a brine shrimp about to be filtered through the baleen plates of one of those freaky-ass giant fish, and we are all enjoying a hearty plank of ham in a cardboard box — even that — than getting all team spirited on the sidelines.
But I was, as I said, pretty excellent. I didn't let on, even a little bit. And sometimes I think — here comes that knot! — that my worth as a parent is better judged by how I handle the things I hate, soccer practice and having my sleep broken every 90 minutes by a scalding struggling bituminous lump of rage, than by the way I manage everyday affairs. Which I don't always do so well. But give me a sick baby and a breathless hour of "Good try! That was close," and I feel like I'm doing okay. Incredibly, I even feel like I'm lucky to have this luxury, the opportunity to do things I hate for people I love.
I can't be alone on this one. Tell me you don't like soccer, either. Or tell me what you hate but do with enthusiasm, anyway. Or tell me I'm an asshole — excuse me, an irratibility-ish-ness-ication — for calling my toddler coal. I'm listening, as soon as I dislodge the Q-Tip.