I was sitting in the living room the other day when my two-year old son, Eddie, said, “Band-aid, mommy. I need band-aid.”
“What happened?” I asked, quickly scanning his body. I saw nothing. I wasn’t surprised. He’d been sitting on the living room floor a few feet away from me playing with his trucks, and I hadn’t heard him cry out in pain. It was hard to imagine he’d hurt himself in front of me, and I’d somehow missed it.
“Boo boo,” he said.
“Where?” I asked.
“My leg,” he said.
I wasn’t sure what happened, but I indulged him.
“Okay. Let’s go get a band-aid,” I said.
We walked upstairs to the bathroom and sat down on the floor.
“Now then. Where’s the boo boo?” I asked.
“Here,” he said, pointing to his leg.
I inspected his knock-kneed little toddler legs. “I don’t see anything, pal,” I said.
“Right here,” he said, pointing to a little blemish near his ankle.
“That’s a mosquito bite,” I said.
“It hurts,” he said.
“All-righty, then,” I said and put a band-aid over the bite.
“And here,” he said, pointing to a small speck on his other leg.
I placed a band-aid over that one, too.
I don’t mind placating my son on small matters. I still let him suck on a pacifier when he goes to bed. I give him chocolate milk in a bottle when he wakes up. If he wants a band-aid for a mosquito bite, I’ll allow him that. He’s going to spend a long time in a harsh world. I don’t mind mollycoddling him before he goes out there.
But he’s developing an obsession with physical ailments, and I fear if I let him get away with it, he’ll be a full-fledged hypochondriac by the time he’s three. My mother came to visit from Florida last week, and Eddie kept saying “boo boo” and showing her a cut on his knee that happened a few weeks ago and was already healed.
“You’re showing me old boo boo’s,” she finally told him.
He also seems to have a low pain threshold. He cries out when I shampoo or brush his hair. He sometimes yells when I change his diaper. And on occasion he’ll walk across the kitchen floor and say, ‘ouch, ouch,” making me think he stepped on a piece of glass or had a splinter, and yet when I lift him up and inspect the bottom of his foot, there’s nothing there. I’ll place him back down on the floor, and he’ll walk off as if nothing happened.
Don’t get me wrong. He’s taken plenty of tumbles that warranted real tears. He’s fallen off our porch steps and face-planted onto the pavement below. He whacked his head once on monkey bars and made his forehead bleed so much, I thought he would surely need stitches (he didn’t). He’s banged his mouth so many times, knocking his tooth into his bottom lip, that he probably has a callous in that spot. It’s when he cries out unnecessarily that worries me. My husband is fond of quoting a friend of his: “No blood, no band-aid.”
In our house, the go-to remedy is not band-aids but ice. When Eddie was younger and would fall, it was frustrating because he couldn’t always tell me where it hurt, so I’d get a piece of ice out of the freezer and apply it to some spot on his body, approximating where I thought he was hurt. The cube would invariably end up in his mouth, whether that’s where he was hurt or not, and that seemed to assuage him. So now whenever he’s hurt, I give him an ice cube to put in his mouth, and it makes him feel better – though these days, the smallest scratch or even a hang nail will prompt him to say, “Ice, mommy, ice!”
If Eddie does indeed turn out to be a hypochondriac, it will pain me because I’ll know where he got it: from me. In my mind, even a routine dental appointment can end in tragedy. I had my wisdom teeth pulled two weeks ago, and I feared my heart rate would spike and I might have a heart attack while I was under anesthesia, or the dentist might accidently cut an artery, and I would bleed out. A couple of days ago, I felt something funny in my mouth, like an extra piece of skin, so I pulled out the magnifying mirror and spotted a suspicious growth that looked like a canker sore. “Tongue cancer,” I thought and immediately went to the internet to find photos of what it looked like.
I don’t know what caused my own hypochondria, but I can only imagine what fostered it. When I was 11, I went on a camping trip to Florida with a friend, and I got sick. When I got home, I was diagnosed with walking pneumonia, and after a series of doctor’s appointments, I was ultimately told I needed open heart surgery to repair a hole in my heart that had apparently been there since I was born. I can still remember my mother weeping in the hallway as she told the news to my sixth-grade teacher.
By the time I was 38, I was convinced every lump and sore was cancer – at least when I found them on my own body. When my father’s arms erupted in a bunch of small lumps that looked like mosquito bites, cancer was the last thing I thought it was. Sure, he had been diagnosed with esophageal cancer five months earlier, but he’d had the tumors surgically removed and had undergone several rounds of chemotherapy and radiation as a preventive measure. In fact his prognosis was good.
I remember describing the bumps on my father’s arms to my therapist. “Cancer doesn’t grow that way,” I said with authority.
Of course it does. And my father died of it seven months later. The only time I didn’t mistake mosquito bites for cancer is when it was really cancer.
As I sat on the couch this afternoon with Eddie on my lap, reading him a story, he lifted his head up abruptly and whacked me in the eye. He’s done this before, once whacking me so hard, I thought I was going to black out.
“Ouch!” I said reflexively, rubbing my eye.
“What doing, mommy?”
“You hit me in the eye with your head,” I said, forgetting for a moment that I should try not to make him feel bad for hurting me, particularly when it’s unintentional.
“Mommy has a boo boo?” he asked, and without waiting for an answer, he said, “I get ice.”
He jumped down from the couch and walked into the kitchen toward the refrigerator. I followed him into the kitchen because I knew he couldn’t reach the freezer. As I took an ice cube out of the tray to hand to him, so that he could hand it right back to me, I felt silly, because while my eye hurt, it didn’t rise to the level of needing ice. But while he may have caught my hypochondria, I was pleased to see I’d inadvertently taught him something else: empathy.