There are degrees of heartache in life, each plotted on some imagined graph with “stubbed toe” on one end and “paper cut” farther up, up on through “loss” and “failure” and whatever else, but at the very top will be found a jagged black border surrounding bright red letters that read “sick child.”
I know this because I’m at the doctor’s office with two of them. What exactly is wrong with my children is beyond me, which is why we’ve taken the lengths to drive to the other side of town on such a hard winter’s day. The flu, perhaps—one of those strains not covered by this year’s shot. That, or two bad colds. I suggest the likely culprit is remorse for the cold and snow that has cancelled school these past few days. My son nudges me in the shoulder for that little remark. He tries to laugh. It comes out more a phlegmy snort and I think No, not a flu. Bronchitis, maybe. The doctor will know for sure.
My wife is on my opposite shoulder. Beside her is my daughter. She sniffles, and that small act brings a bit of rosy color to an otherwise pale face. Her coat is zipped to her chin, her blue scarf cinched tight, her legs tucked under her, yet she still shivers against the fever. It’s been two day now. My son’s discomfort is largely auditory—sharp sneezes and deep coughs, each punctuated by sudden and sometimes frantic sprints to the bathroom. My daughter’s condition is more silent and worrying. A diabetic since the age of four, maintaining her sugar is a constant walk upon a tightrope easily swayed and poorly moored. Any virus can ravage her. While you and I have a glucose level that holds steady anywhere from 80-110, hers just clocked in at 396.
And so we sit. And so we wait, huddled together in a tiny corner of this doctor’s office.
Our view is of a bleak outside and the bleaker faces that come in from it. It is a sad parade of the weak and the dying, and I think to myself that however stricken these poor souls are, it is at least themselves who are sick and not their children.
Hung in the middle of the far wall is a framed reprint of Sir Luke Fildes’ The Doctor, first painted in 1887. I’ve sat in this cracked vinyl chair and stared at that painting many times over the years through many discomforts, studying the central figure of the Victorian doctor gazing intently at his patient—a little girl lying sick on a makeshift bed of mismatched dining room chairs, two large pillows, and a ragged blanket.
It’s not the doctor I focus upon this time, but the two figures in the background—father and mother watching from a distance, he with a look of anxious worry and she with her head on the table in despair. Both regulated to the shadows, helpless to do anything.
That’s how I feel right now.
Even a bad parent would not want his or her child to suffer, to writhe and wince with cough and fever. Even a bad parent would wish to suffer in that child’s place. And yet life teaches us all that very often the power we believe we possess is a lie, nothing else. Ours is an immense world, and we are such small things. The virus coursing through the two children beside me is mean and debilitating, and so is the defenselessness felt by their parents. We’ve done all we can. It wasn’t good enough.
Yet in the small minutes I’ve sat here, I’ve learned this one important thing—we are often helpless in this life, but we are never powerless. What we cannot mend we can ease, and where we cannot cure we can comfort. I can’t make my son better, but I can offer him a shoulder upon which to lay his head and a joke to make him smile. I can’t chase my daughter’s fever, but I can put my arm around her and kiss the top of her head. I can listen as she tells me of the book she’s reading.
I cannot spare my children from the troubles of this life, but I can love them through those troubles.
Maybe in the end, that’s what matters.