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Sing a song of sickness

by Brian Clarey

I’m trapped. A prisoner. I might as well have one foot nailed to the floor and the other stuck in a bucket. I’m not going anywhere… not for a while, anyway. But the kid seems to be doing fine right now — he’s currently rummaging through the kitchen for something inoffensive to eat — so I might as well get some work done.

It started this morning, when my youngest son crawled from the bunk a bit out of sorts, a sleepy-eyed stonato with a weak voice and dry mouth.

I should have known something was up when he refused breakfast: a soft-boiled egg with dipping toast and some turkey bacon, which he usually makes disappear in a matter of minutes. He wasn’t into cereal or juice, and just before the bus cruised down our street he made a mad dash for the bathroom. I could tell by the look of sheer urgency on his face that it was the kind of emergency celebrated in song by children everywhere when the feeling’s not that nice and you have to flush it twice, sometimes capped with the refrain, “cha-cha-cha.”

I should have known something was up when I walked past the bathroom — which the kid totally destroyed, by the way. How such a tiny child can befoul a room like that is beyond me. Something in the odor, a sickly and foul thing that crept from the bathroom as he ran out to grab his backpack and the bus, spoke of bad doings inside my boy, and I should have realized he wasn’t well.

Honestly, I should have known he was sick when he looked me square in the eye and said, “Daddy, I’m sick.”

But I’ve been hustled before. This one called home from school nearly every week for two months last year when he figured out that we pretty much had to go get him when he did. He picked up the technique when he saw his brother pull it earlier in the semester, but the older one was always better at it, putting on the sick voice and shuffling around the hallway, acting like the light hurt his eyes. Masterful performances, all of them — some of them powerful enough even to challenge my own fine work in the form.

Oh yes, I put together a spectacular run of sick days in the years between 1979 and 1983, not all of them entirely legitimate. I got pretty good at it after a while. Sometimes I’d go with the fake cough or the I’m-gonna-pukes.

Migraines were good. But the one that never failed me, my ace in the hole, was a five-word sentence that worked best when delivered in the doorway to my parents’ bedroom just before sunrise.

“It hurts when I swallow.” Could be strep. Could be mumps. Could be flu. Could be a whole host of things, none of them appropriate for exposure to young children. I would whip this one out and know for sure my day would consist of couch time, “I Love Lucy” reruns and maybe some chicken noodle soup or a little tea and toast if I felt up to it.

So naturally, every time one of my children claims illness, I think the little weasel is playing me. Today, as it turns out, I was wrong. It looks to me kind of like he’s sliding into first and he feels something burst.

And like a lot of parents, my wife and I have no plan in place for when a child takes sick and needs to stay home from school. It was easy when I was a kid: My mother stayed home every day until I was like 13 years old, when she went back to work. Virtually every student in my elementary school had a mother at home while we learned our sums and sentences in classrooms that smelled of chalk dust and Tang.

But my wife owns her own appointment-based business — if she doesn’t work she doesn’t get paid. And I have a weekly list of professional responsibilities that would have made me sick for real had I gotten a glimpse of it when I was a blanketed 9-year-old kid faking a fever on the couch, racking up “Gilligan’s Island” time.

So what’s a two-income working family to do? We suck it up, that’s what we do. We juggle schedules, drive circuits around town, play phone tag and improvise, like I’m doing right now: sitting at my home computer getting some work done while the little bugger drinks juice, watches “SpongeBob Squarepants” and pauses occasionally to annihilate my bathroom. We try to make the best of it.

I’m not quite buying the sick act from the little guy.

Not yet. But if I can ascertain that he’s truly sick — if, for example, he looks to be sitting on the fence and he’s feeling hot and tense — perhaps I will teach him a few verses of “The Diarrhea Song,” which is probably more appropriate for a 6-year-old boy to sing than his father, anyway.

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