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THE 42ND FLOOR

IAM SITTING IN THE RECLINER at two in the morning, watching an infomercial about golf. ("A complete video course for just three easy payments of $19.95.") I can't move because my three-year-old daughter has fallen asleep on my chest. This sleep has been hard-won for Hope, and I'm reluctant to rouse her.

Her labored breathing and coma-like slumber come courtesy of a 102 temperature. It's not the scary kind of fever--I've seen my share of those--just the tail-end of a recalcitrant virus. To see my daughter so docile is to see a miracle. Hope is the type of kid whom other parents kindly call "active," meaning she swings from the light fixtures and swings at her sister. But this fever has tamed her. She's so hot she leaves sweat stains on my dark shirt, like Veronica's Veil.

But I'm not thinking about my shirt right now, and I've given up trying to reach for the remote and switch to anything but golf. ("Thanks to your video golf series, I've shaved eight strokes from my score. In fact, I've left my wife and kids to join the pro tour....") I'm thinking, instead, about this article, the one you're reading now. I'm thinking that one day Hope and her sisters will be old enough to read it, and how embarrassed I'll be when they discover this public admission by their old man:

When my kids are sick, I'm sorry I had kids at all.

Don't get me wrong--it's not for the obvious, selfish reasons. (Well, not entirely.) It's not the lost sleep. It's not the agile dance around projectile vomiting at 4 a.m. It's not the lost work days, taken as sick days when I was, in fact, never sick. It's not the piled-up laundry, grown higher and ranker each day because you can't leave your kid long enough to turn on the washer. It's not the protracted negotiations with one's spouse about whose turn it is to do what. It's not the feeling of imprisonment, stuck inside this petri dish of disease while outside the sun is shining (but you know that bundling up your sick child for even a short respite in the fresh air will take at least 30 minutes of boots, coats, and scarves, plus 15 minutes to find two mittens that haven't been used to wipe noses). It's not the endless variations on the BRAT diet--bananas, rice, applesauce, and toast. It's not even the sheer drudgery of sickness.

It's moments like this, in a recliner at 2 a.m., waiting, waiting, waiting for a child's fever to break, waiting for her rapid, shallow breathing to ease, counting the seconds between coughing fits to see if the medicine is working, leaving phone messages on the doctor's answering machine begging for a better antibiotic. It's deep into nights like this, amid the smell of VapoRub and sweat, that I realize a mistake has been made, that I'm not cut out for this. In a rare case of divine oversight, God picked the wrong guy for the job.

You'd think--as you conjure up this picture of me in Perfect Parental Posture, nursing a sick child on my own chest--you'd think that I'd feel competent and confident. I feel anything but. Although nothing prepared me for the slings and arrows of parenthood, I've adjusted to most of it--the mad shifts in scheduling, the Herculean tasks of daily living. Oh, it's exasperating and sometimes irritating, but it's also spontaneous and fun.

Until now. Until nights like this, when I'm rendered helplessly impotent, when I can do nothing but wait.

I am an American male. I change my own oil. I do my own taxes. I vote my own conscience. And I never, ever call the repairman. To just sit here and wait and wait and...where's the owner's manual? What problem is this that I cannot solve, this calculus of illness? I am dyslexic in this new math, a frustrated student. Just give me a pair of needle-nose pliers, a wiring diagram and some duct tape, and I'll....

I'll do nothing. Do nothing but wait. So that's what I'll do. Because, I'm learning, it's all I can do. Hold her here, spoon in some Tylenol, occasionally wipe her brow. That's it. Wait.

By sundown tomorrow, my wife assures me, Hope will be back to her old self--a mixed blessing, by most accounts. But I will silently cheer her whining then, happy, at least for a moment, that she and I have survived this siege. We'll both live a little longer to learn more about one another.

I've learned, for instance, practically all there is to know about golf--about taking your time, about playing the lie, about reckoning the dog legs and occasional hazards. And when my daughter is old enough to read, she'll learn the metaphoric possibilities of her own name. She'll learn how Hope can teach patience, even to the most reluctant of students.--Mark Collins


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