A sick baby is a balloon blown up and half-deflated. A sick baby is a blank stare on repeat. A sick baby is warm and crusty like a pizza just out of the oven. A big head and a fever to match. A willing cuddler. A quick crier. A quivering bottom lip. Big, expectant eyes. A smile like the sun in Seattle– trying, trying.

I didn’t know that two nights ago. It seemed like trying to hit a moving target as I assessed whether his middle-of-the-night wake-ups warranted intervention. Cries morphed into fusses which crescendoed into screams which dissolved into silence, all over a matter of minutes, so that the moment I’d resolved my indecisive, sleepy self to one course of action, there was a change in the sounds emanating from Declan’s room (which had been the basis of that decision) and I froze in my tracks, shrugged my shoulders, and thought: what now? I felt like a captain on a boat chasing the sun, the horizon constantly receding and escaping my intent amid a world of increasing darkness.

A midnight diaper change, some rocking, some waiting… and a healthy dose of Mom medicine (both pharmaceutical and, um, mammographical?) and we made it to morning with our boy emerging dazed and confused, but trying, trying to carry on as normal.

Then came the thermometer and the reading above 100 and, suddenly, the night made sense.

It helps to know he’s sick. One of the hardest parts of parenthood is not being able to explain a change in behavior. You think you know your child. You think you’ve learned their patterns and (some of) their idiosycracies, and then… a curveball. The target moves. Now, all of a sudden, your pitches aren’t hitting the catcher’s glove. They’re going right into the backstop.

Last night, his behavior was pretty predictable for a baby with a cold. Not much sleep. Not much patience for being alone. Colleen and I tagged in and out all night. Around 4 a.m. I took over again. Declan needed sleep. But what he needed more at that point was a distraction from the discomfort. So we lay in bed and stared at the different shades of darkness and talked/babbled and I tried not to obsess about getting him (and me) to sleep and it was surprisingly serene. Just the two of us, quietly existing and enjoying each other’s company in less-than-ideal circumstances. And then, about 45 minutes in, he rolled toward my chest, and did something he hasn’t done since he was an infant. He fell asleep there. And I thought, for this moment at least, I’ve done my job.

A sick baby is not a convenient baby. But amid the red cheeks and scrunched-up grunt face… there’s a beauty. At a basic level, we parents know what to do. We are the providers. We are the comfort. So much of parenthood is trying to keep up with the changes. A sick baby, at least, lives in slo-mo.

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