‘There’s something wrong with my legs’ marque 3 announces. It’s Saturday morning with swimming lessons in an hour.
‘I can’t walk. They feel really weird and sore’.
‘That’ll be the trampolining you were doing yesterday in your friend’s house. You’re not used to it. You’ve pulled a few muscles’. Ah yes, it’s a great feeling, providing the answer straight away. Diminishing the anxiety that accompanies acute onset lower body paralysis with a quick, knowledgeable response. That’s what we’re here for after all. Make them feel safe. Understood.
‘Here, put your togs on. The swimming might help to work your muscles free’.
‘How can I go swimming when I can’t even walk?’ he asks logically enough. Because we’ve bloody well paid for it, I answer in my head. I’ll carry you to the pool-side, toss you in and bingo, your legs will start kicking just fine.
Except that, as it turns out, he’s right about not going swimming. He crawls upstairs and puts himself to bed. The pain in the legs travels to other parts of him and he’s out for the count. It’s the suddenness of it that you hear about but don’t quite believe. Until you watch it strike child after child and then it strikes you. Floored. This year’s influenza enters our house via the musculature of the lower limbs and does not leave until it has wasted the cells and the organs and the minds of all but one person. A much envied person courtesy of the ‘flu jab. A person who is not used to being the only one left standing. Asthma has made sure of that over his life time. Maybe it’s the fever causing me to think this way. Little hallucinations. But is he not smiling a bit too much given the state the rest of us are in. Shouldn’t he at least try to join in with the odd fake symptom?
Mothers and fathers of Ireland, in the name of all that is mighty, get yourselves the ‘flu jab. It is excruciating to be attempting to care for worryingly sick children while you are worryingly sick yourself. When it hits me I feel as if I’ve fallen down a flight of stairs and broken my coccyx. The pain radiates from there and I am unable to walk. There’s a nausea and dizziness accompanying it, a touch of the runs for good measure and other queer symptoms you don’t tend to hear about. Marque 2 talks incessantly about the smell of burning tyres he’s getting in his nose, as if his little nostril hairs are singed from the temperature. He’s worried about a fire in the house that we just haven’t noticed as we’re all too sick.
It renders the old maternal instincts a bit schizoid too. Before succumbing to it I’m doing religion homework with marque 4. His First Confession is coming up and in order to prepare for it there’s written work. Finish these sentences: I was unkind when… I was untruthful when… I was unfair when. We stare at the words. We can’t think of anything. In my pre-‘flu state I look at marque 4 and think of how kind and fair and truthful he is.
‘We’d better make a few things up’ I say eventually, exasperated.
‘But wouldn’t that be untruthful?’ ‘There you are, I was untruthful when I made up sentences that were untruthful for my homework’. Then he has to learn the Confiteor prayer off by heart. There’s that middle bit which gets my blood up. It was much better when it was in Latin. Created a little distance for us sinners.
‘Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa’. River flowingly gentle on the ear too. Not so with the new version. There’s no wiggle room here:
‘Through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault’. Chest banging overt self-flagellation.
Hang on a second. Don’t I spend most of my waking hours telling them that it isn’t there fault. Don’t worry, just an accident, not your fault. I don’t want them crippled by guilt in life. I thought we’d all moved on from that.
He trips over the words, mixing them up, coming out with combinations that cause laughter in the wise old mother, confusing him all the more.
‘You don’t have to learn that off by heart’, I tell him. ‘I don’t approve of it’.
Over the next day or two while influenza works away in me and marque 4 is yet to crumble it all seems very different. I can see many, many things that we could now write down in those sentences. And I seem to be chanting ‘through your fault, through your fault, through your most grievous fault’ in my delirium. If he falls mute in the Church and can’t think of anything to ask for forgiveness for, I’ll give him a hand. Shout a few prompts in his direction. That’s how the ‘flu makes you feel. Which is perplexing so I google it. Why the hell do I feel so irritated and low with this thing? The result is interesting. There is a battle going on, obviously, but during it our immune systems release chemicals – cytokines – to fight the bug. The cytokines do something else though while they’re fighting. They deplete serotonin levels in the system. So you can be left feeling bewilderingly low. Once I understand this I begin to feel a little less like a lemming and notice the good stuff again. Like the way they crawl in beside me in our bed and fall asleep. Marque 5 naturally. But marque 2, 3 and 4 as well. Nesting. And marque 1 sits in my chair, just as sick as the rest of us, but he’s keeping watch. Asking if I’d like a cup of tea or some more nurofen or anything at all as soon as I open my eyes. Not bad. Not bad at all.
The ‘flu jabbed father sails in from his daily 12 hours of labour in exuberant form. He fends for himself food wise (appetite loss is another key aspect), swims through the deluge improving things here and there, and pours himself a healthy glass of red wine. He gets two glasses out, just in case. Nice touch. It’s the last thing in the world I feel like (and perhaps I slit my blood-shot eyes at him to indicate this) but it offers symbolic hope. Trust. Faith. Your empty glass shall some day soon be full. The urge to throttle with envy is waning a little now and I’m beginning to interpret his smile as something other than smug. Things are definitely on the up.
‘My hair feels much lighter’ marque 4 says sitting back down on the Church pew. It’s a few days on and we’ve made it to his First Confession. Enjoying it as it happens. The purity of the singing voices of eight year old boys. The jollity of the priest who mentions the goodness at the core of all gathered.
‘What, since we got it cut?’ I ask. He has the thickest hair I’ve ever seen. We had it trimmed last week.
‘No, just now since I spoke to the priest and he spoke to me. My hair and the top of my head feel much lighter, it’s really weird’. His face contorts slightly to indicate his confusion. I say nothing. I may even be a little dumb-struck. I’m staring at him, wondering. Are we in the presence of someone who has received a sacrament and felt it bodily – a sudden lightness? Or is it a coincidental side-effect of the ‘flu? For tonight, in the spirit of the occasion, I’m dumping the scepticism. For tonight, for one night only, I’m a bit of a believer.