My son, Eddie, had been coughing all day, so at bedtime when I put him in his crib, I placed him on his stomach rather than his back so the mucous wouldn’t run down the back of his nose into his lungs. Still, at about midnight, I could hear him hacking through the wall of his bedroom, and soon, he began to cry. I went into his room, lifted him out of his crib, and placed him in our bed where he gently fell back to sleep.
Fifteen minutes later, he started coughing again and woke up. While I had placed him in my bed on his side, as he slept he’d rolled back onto his back and began coughing again. I propped him up on his side again, this time with pillows, and we both fell back asleep – until he woke up coughing again about 20 minutes later. I propped him up again and again, and again he kept waking up coughing, though he seemed to sleep in between bouts. I didn’t. As I listened to his raspy breathing, I kept wondering, “Is this when I’m supposed to take him to the ER?” What about his doctor? Is this one of those situations where I’m supposed to call my pediatrician, even in the middle of the night? He was certainly breathing, but it sounded so labored.
It’s moments like this that I wonder whether someone should be entrusted in my care. I’ve never trusted my own judgment, not because I have notoriously bad judgment but because I lack confidence and don’t trust my ability to properly assess a situation. When my father was diagnosed with esophageal cancer in 2001, I cried for an entire weekend – so much so that my eyes swelled, making me look like a boxer after a fight. But throughout my crying jag, I kept chastising myself for being melodramatic. After all, the doctor didn’t say he was going to die. He merely said my father had cancer. It wasn’t until my friend – and now husband – Bruce reassured me that the situation was indeed very bad that I allowed myself to grieve with impunity. In retrospect, it was the right response. My father did die, but it seems like dumb luck, like how even a broken clock is still correct twice a day. I don’t have faith in my ability to read a situation, and it scares me that one day the only thing between my child living and dying might be my judgment.
Take tonight. As I drifted in and out of sleep, I wondered, what if Eddie dies in the night, and I could have stopped it? What if he chokes on his own mucous? Do I perforate his neck and use the shaft of the pen as a breathing tube? Should I wake the pediatrician up? I hate to be an alarmist. I come from a long line of them — people who scream when a child falls or shriek when you turn a corner in a hallway and almost run into them. But while I don’t want to be an alarmist, I’d hate to not be one when I should have been. I looked over at Eddie. He was sleeping soundly, but for that pesky death rattle. His body felt warm, but I had taken his temperature just before I put him to bed, and his fever was about 100. The parenting books said one doesn’t call a doctor about fever unless it exceeds 102.
Just before sunrise, my alarm went off. I was surprised I was sleeping because I’d been up most of the night. Eddie woke up alert and energetic but for a hacking cough that made him sound like a long-time smoker. I was relieved to see daylight. We’d made it through the night.
I put Eddie in the bath but still wasn’t sure whether I should send him to school or take him to the doctor. I called the pediatrician. I felt more comfortable calling her now, even though the office wasn’t open yet. I didn’t want to be alarmist, but I didn’t mind being concerned.
“What about school?” I asked the doctor on call. “Should I send him? Do you think he’s contagious?”
“If every parent kept their kid home with a cold because they thought he might be contagious, there’d be no one in school,” the doctor said. “He’s your first child, right?”
“Yeah. And probably my only one,” I said.
“I figured,” the doctor said. “They say when it’s your first child, and he gets a bloody nose, you’re ready to take him to the emergency room. With the second child, you say, ‘ Can you move over there? You’re bleeding on the rug!’”
The doctor convinced me I was being overly cautious,so I got Eddie dressed for school and dropped him off. When I picked him up, he was carrying a note. It was the standard piece of paper they place in his lunch box every day, telling me whether he was in good spirits and how many dirty diapers he had, but today, there was a note on the bottom: “Eddie’s nose was running green today.” I folded it up, put it in my pocket. I felt like I’d done something wrong.
The following day, the parents received an email from the school’s director, entitled “Green Noses,” that spelled out the school’s policy on colds. Quoting the school’s handbook, the director said parents were forbidden from sending their child to school if their nose is running yellow or green.
I was certain the email was meant for me. I felt so misunderstood. I only sent him because the doctor told me I should. She almost mocked me for not doing so. And as soon as I did, I was singled out for being a rule breaker and for putting a pox on the school. But it didn’t stop me from responding to the director’s email.
“So if Eddie has a green nose tomorrow, he can’t come to picture day?”
I’d received a memo weeks earlier that tomorrow was photo day, and I’d already paid for a whole set of pictures.
“I’m sorry. No. He can’t,” the director wrote back curtly.
I don’t know why I cared whether Eddie was in his class photo, but I was deeply disappointed at the prospect that he wouldn’t be. I wanted the little wallet size photos of him and the class picture, where I could pick out his smile visage among all the little moon faces in his Toddler class.
When Eddie woke up the following morning, I checked his nose to see if his snot was green. It was not. It was clear, and thinner than the previous day. I put him in a brown, white and grey plaid shirt and grey pants and combed his hair for his class photo. But fearing the school’s director would yell at me and possibly kick Eddie out of the program, I carried him into his classroom with some residual snot running down his nose to ask the teachers for a second opinion.
“I need help with a judgment call,” I said and lifted Eddie up so his teacher could see his nose. “Does this look green to you? I thought it looked slightly yellow, but my husband said it was clear. I just can’t tell.”
The teachers said he was fine, and if anything changed during the day, they’d call me. When I picked him up that afternoon, they said his mucous had gotten thicker as the day went on and that the problem wasn’t so much the color but the thickness. This snot thing was becoming a moving target. They told me if his snot was still thick at bedtime, I could not bring him in the next day.
When we got home, I placed Eddie up on the porch and started to unload some items from the car. Just then, our mail lady, Sheila, walked by and asked me how Eddie was doing with school. I started to tell her what happened with Eddie’s nose, and the last thing I remember her saying was, “You’re not one of those parents who–” when suddenly, Eddie tumbled down our three porch steps right in front of us and landed face first on the concrete sidewalk below. He began to scream. When I picked him up, he was bleeding from his forehead, his eyelid and his cheek. I carried him into the house and put a package of frozen green peas on his forehead, which was already beginning to swell into an egg the size of a ping pong ball. He continued to cry, and I tried to console him by telling him he could have sorbet. I don’t know why. He didn’t know what sorbet was. I washed his cuts with Bactine and put a band-aid on his head and one on his hand, to distract him, and once he had calmed down and began unwrapping the rest of the band-aids in the box and it was clear he didn’t have a concussion, I put him down for his nap. When I woke him up, his right eye was swollen almost shut, making him look like a boxer. I was glad he had already taken his class photo.