Anatomy of a lost day

May 07,2008
Professor Mom
Aliki McElreath( )

Aliki is a writer and college English teacher. She lives in North Carolina with her husband, two children (ages seven and ten), a dog, a cat, a rabbit, and too many fish.

It happened yesterday afternoon--again. Right before I was going to head out to pick up L. from school, Scott put on some music and T. and I danced. She was filled with delightful energy and we held hands and twirled and jiggled together. Earlier, after lunch, we'd snuggled in the hammock, soaking up some together time after a busy start to the week.

"I have to go pick up your brother," I told T. at 2:25, after we'd danced our fill to Lucky Dube. Since Scott was home yesterday, L. and I had some one-on-one time planned: a trip to the polling place to vote in the primaries, and then a stop-off at a new coffee shop right down the street from our house. T., though, crumbled uncharacteristically at the news.

"Stay with me! Stay with me!" She cried, her face suddenly a mess of confusion and tears. She took a few steps forward towards me and then melted to the ground, holding the sides of her head. My heart sank. Scott and I looked at each other--she was clearly in the throes of one of her migraine headache episodes. Was it the dancing that brought it on? The weather? I felt a rush of guilt--it MUST have been the dancing.

It's not often that Scott and I are both home to deal with this. Often one of us--usually me, for some reason, is in the car with both T. and L., managing crying, fussing, and vomit while driving frantically home at top speed to get T. to bed. But yesterday Scott carried T. upstairs while I dug out her special "headache cloth" from her dresser drawer--a flowery, soft scrap from an old blanket that I wet with cold water and drape across her forehead. We pulled the curtains in her room and tucked her in and she looked there, in the darkened quiet of her room, like a fragment of herself -- all the bubbly zest and energy drained suddenly, turned inwards from the pain.

I hate these migraines. I hate them. They sweep down monthly from that place where dark, unwell things live--the ones that make our kids toss and turn and moan--and enclose my little girl's head in a vice. Lights stab her eyes and the room spins so much for her that all she can do is cling to our necks in desperate fear. She loses whole days like this, sleeping it all away while we walk quietly around the house, our hearts upstairs with her, lying under her pink comforter, tucked in next to her soft cheeks.

Last night she awoke again at 11:30, after I carried her into our bed. She couldn't sleep again until nearly 2:00. Every movement made her stomach lurch and we spent those two hours carrying her to the sink, reapplying the cold cloth, and willing her to lie still so she could get the sleep she needed. It's in those late hours of the night, with a sick and hurting child, that you feel the most vulnerable as a parent. You long to sleep, but you long, too, for morning and for the rightness you hope it will bring.

This morning I got up at 6:00, made coffee, fed the pets, tiptoed around, and spooned down a bowl of cereal. I listened for signs of life upstairs. T. is, mercifully, always fine the next day, but there's always that what-if feeling? What if she isn't? L. has a field trip today and Scott is chaperoning and bringing T. along. I give an early exam, and have piles of grading. What if?

But at 7:00 I hear the rush of little feet upstairs. I race up and find T. in the bathroom, trying to fit her potty seat onto the toilet. She turns to me, still looking so small and vulnerable in the clothes she wore yesterday, and smiles, her face all peace and contentment.

"I all better!" she announces. "I all better!"

And she is, and everything else is, too.