I don’t know for how long our son, Eddie, had been crying in his crib, but by the time we heard him, his eyes were puffy and his face was flushed. It was Thanksgiving, and we had put him down for a nap about an hour before the meal, but once dinner was served, we were all so busy talking and eating, we couldn’t hear his cries. At our home in New Jersey, we have a baby monitor, but we don’t have one in our apartment in New York, where we were having Thanksgiving. He was one room away. I figured we’d hear him.
I took one look at his red cheeks and swollen eyes and thought, “This is the kind of shit he will remember – and talk about in therapy for years to come.”
We put him on the couch, and he just lay there, barely moving. I felt like I’d broken him. And I thought, “This is the kind of shit I’ll remember – and talk about in therapy for years to come.”
I felt his head. He was burning up.
“He’s probably just overheated from crying,” said my sister-in-law.
“He just got himself worked up. He’ll be fine,” said my brother’s girlfriend.
By midnight, he still had a fever and hadn’t eaten anything. We gave him some children’s Tylenol and at about 12.30 a.m., he finally went to sleep.
The following morning, he was still depleted, like a balloon that had lost its air. He wouldn’t even drink his bottle of milk. He perked up briefly around noon but was flat again by late afternoon.
“I think something bit him,” said my mother, who was in town for the holiday. “He’s got a little mark on his hand. And he’s been scratching at his foot.”
I looked at Eddie’s hand. There was a tiny red dot the size of a pin prick.
“Mom, I can’t even see it,” I said.
My mother is inclined to take small things and make them large, turning mishaps into crisis. It’s a family trait, actually. My brother might see my husband, Bruce, across the room and say, “You’ve got something on your sweater,” and walk over and pluck off the smallest piece of lint the size of a gnat. Bruce and I dismissed my mother’s comment. Sure enough, by sundown, Eddie had a full-fledged rash.
I called our pediatrician and described the rash. She knew immediately what it was and said it was a very common viral rash in children: Hand, Foot and Mouth disease. She prescribed children’s Benadryl and Tylenol and told us to call her back if the spots became more purple in color.
By the end of the holiday weekend, Eddie seemed ready to return to school. He still had some spots on his hands and face, but his fever was gone and his mood was upbeat. I brought him into his classroom and as I began removing his coat, the nicest of his three teachers looked at me and said, “I hate to be picky, but I noticed something on his hands.”
“Oh, it’s fine. He’s not contagious. I spoke to the doctor, and she wasn’t worried. She didn’t even put him on antibiotics,” I said. I wondered if I should have left out that last part. Perhaps they would have preferred it if he were on them.
“Well, we’ve had Hoof and Mouth going—“
“I think you mean, ‘Hand, Foot and Mouth.’ ‘Hoof and Mouth’ is something cattle get,” I said with the authority of someone who has done a modicum of research on the World Wide Web.
I couldn’t tell whether they were accusing me of bringing the virus into the school or warning me that someone else had. The nice teacher mentioned a child called Lola, who was also listless on Thanksgiving and the rash almost all over her body. I didn’t know if the teacher was trying to tell me she thought Lola gave it to the class and Eddie was just an innocent victim, or if she was saying your dirty child has brought a pox on this class. Regardless, I defended myself vigorously.
“I’m pretty sure Eddie picked it up here,” I said, and then, to downplay my son’s affliction, I said, “His rash was only on his hands and mouth. There wasn’t a dot anywhere else.”
I felt like the guy who, facing charges that his dog bit someone, says, “My dog doesn’t bite. That’s not my dog. I don’t even have a dog.”
“Do you want me to take Eddie home?” I asked. “I can, you know.”
“Oh, no, no. That’s fine,” the nice teacher said. “We just don’t want it to go round and round. One year, someone was sick and everyone kept getting it over and over again, even the teachers.”
It didn’t surprise me. These kids are infested with germs, and they put their sticky germ-infested hands all over everything in that room. And after they touch everyone else’s germs, they put their hands in their mouths, passing disease from one child to another over and over again. It was hard to imagine why there is ever a time when they’re not sick. I wanted to wash them all down with Lysol.
On my way out of the building, I stopped by Eddie’s mailbox and saw that flyers had been placed in everyone’s mailboxes explaining that the children had been exposed to “Hand, Foot and Mouth” or Coxsackie. The flyer went on to describe the disease’s symptoms and treatments. I jumped to the part about whether they thought a child should be sent to school or whether he should be kept home. It said, “Removal of most children from child care is not warranted—“ though between the words “Is” and “not warranted,” the sentence was cut off on account of poor photocopying. I hoped the missing word wasn’t “recommended.”
The flyer went on to say the child should be kept home if he has fever of more than 101 degrees or is unable to participate in activities. If by activities they meant gluing cotton balls to paper or licking the toys he hadn’t yet touched, I’m sure Eddie was up to the task. I, on the other hand, was starting to feel a bit chilled, and my throat was getting sore.