We are all sick within a week of arriving in Amsterdam. Mum gets it first, a gastro bug that leaves her pale and shaking. She spends the night on the toilet but feels okay the next day, well okay enough to potter around the house in her pastel rainbow-coloured t-shirt nightie, the white hoodie we’d managed to find at H&M, because she doesn’t own a jumper and Amsterdam is celebrating a scorching top of 8 degrees C, and the pair of ankle socks we’d bought at the market. Okay, we think, a little cocky, this is not so bad.
My youngest is next to fall victim. I brush the clammy curls from my youngest’s forehead, and read to her, while she begs me to put something on her dry toast. Dr Google suggests apple but then diarrhoea foams in her nappy. I strip her off, change her clothes, strip the bed she is lying on, and much to her horror, we revert back to dried toast. When her weak cries for prosciutto or peanut butter or whatever it is that her sister happens to be eating get too much, I press play on the iPad and distract her with Doc McStuffins. Within 48 hours, though, she is better. My husband is struck down next, however, he lays prone in bed for almost a week. He looks ashen, the lines on his face a little deeper, a grey-flecked beard sprouting messily across his chin. Everything about him looked tired and grey, like his charcoal pyjamas, which Mum had accidentally shrunk in the dryer and then tried to stretch back out. He looked exactly like Robin Williams when he was trying to remember that he was Peter Pan.
My husband is struck down next. He looks ashen, the lines on his face a little deeper, a grey-flecked beard sprouting messily across his chin. Everything about him looks tired and grey, like his charcoal pyjamas, which Mum had accidentally shrunk in the dryer and then tried to stretch back out. He looks like Robin Williams in Hook. He is sick for a week.
My eldest is sick next. By this point, I am practically bathing in vinegar. The onset of her virus, and her request for a nappy, something she hasn’t worn for a very long time, unfortunately, coincides with her sister’s discovery that she is a ‘big girl’ and does not need a nappy anymore. My eldest takes the hit hard. She rips the nappy off and we proceed to change her pyjamas every 10 to 15 minutes as diarrhoea shoots out of her faster than she can get to the toilet.
A week later, the household is well again and life resumes its ‘normal’ routines. The girls go back to school and Mum and I explore the city with the time we have left before she flies back to Australia. Two days later, both girls started to cough. And sneeze. And a chartreuse liquid streams from their nostrils. Round two.
A week later, and way more than the approved number of hours of tv later, they are well again and want to go back to school. They manage the whole week without incident. By the following Thursday, however, my youngest is complaining on and off about a sore stomach.
She has trouble digesting wheat and dairy, and so far the school has been having trouble remembering this. It is the first time I haven’t been able to make all of my children’s food and I don’t like it. I feel helpless and frustrated. I remember reading about French schools, how the children receive a hot lunch every day. When the girls were babies, I thought that would be the dream. Now that they are older it’s like a pebble in my sock that I cannot find. I despise some of the things they serve my children. Cheap jams, sweetened with high fructose corn syrup, packaged biscuits, filled with goodness knows what, soy milk made with GMO soybeans. I am fastidious about food. It’s one of my husbands favourite jokes/bugbear about me. I make our lives so much more complicated because I make as much as I can from scratch. And what I cannot make I insist on buying organic, or biodynamic, preferably from local farmers I’ve gotten to know, whose views and values about farming are in line with my own. My children don’t often have sugar, we have fructose free alternatives, most of which I make. I make our jam, we make our chocolates, and their favourite treats are fruit gelatine bites that I make with grass-fed and
I despise some of the things they serve my children. Cheap jams sweetened with high fructose corn syrup, packaged biscuits filled with goodness knows what, soy milk made with GMO soybeans. I am fastidious about food. It’s one of my husbands favourite jokes/bugbears about me. I make our lives so much more complicated because I make as much as I can from scratch. And what I cannot make I insist on buying organic or biodynamic, preferably from local farmers I’ve gotten to know, whose views and values about farming are in line with my own. My children don’t often have sugar, we have fructose free alternatives, most of which I make. I make our jam, we make our chocolates, and their favourite treats are fruit gelatine bites that I make with grass-fed and grass finished gelatine and organic fruit. Our peanut butter is unsweetened, and I make our tomato sauce. It’s obsessive, completely crazy, and incredibly time-consuming but it makes me happy. Watching someone feed my children things pretending to be food every day is too much to bear. So much so that I’ve become that crazy mother, the one all schools detest I’m sure, who brings substitutes for them. Chocolate Banana muffins they help make instead of biscuits, Strawberry and chia seed jam I make once a week, Organic NonGMO soy milk (if they have to have it, turns out they don’t drink it anyway, they prefer water) and bread. As soon as I come up with a good recipe for a gluten free sourdough loaf I’ll make that too. Not because I have that much time necessarily, but because it makes me happy to know they are eating real food. And because I’m completely insane.
It’s obsessive, completely crazy, and incredibly time-consuming but it makes me happy. Watching someone feed my children things that are merely pretending to be food is too much to bear. I’ve become that crazy mother, the one all schools detest I’m sure, who brings substitutes for them. Chocolate Banana muffins they help make instead of biscuits, Strawberry and chia seed jam I make once a week, Organic NonGMO soy milk (if they have to have it, turns out the girls’ won’t drink it anyway, they prefer water) and bread. As soon as I come up with a good recipe for a gluten free sourdough loaf I’ll make that too. Not because I have that much time necessarily, but because it makes me happy to know they are eating real food. And because I’m a little insane.
So when my youngest starts complaining of a sore stomach, I assume it is something she is eating at school. She is constipated and gassy, so I increase her probiotic dose, and that seems to do the trick. We board our flight to Rome, for a weekend with family in the coastal town of Pescara, and off we go.
Driving from Rome to Pescara, my youngest doubles over in her seat, gripping her stomach and crying out in pain. I climb into the back seat next to her, ignoring the paranoid thought that demands I consider the possibility of appendicitis. She does an impressive fart for someone so pint-sized and declares that she is better.
On and off over the next few days, she complains of pain. But it passes quickly and she resumes playing happily, suddenly annoyed at my fussing. She eats her weight in pasta and so my husband and I think nothing of it. Until the next time, she cries out in pain.
‘It’s nothing,’ I tell myself, once she’s farted or been to the toilet. At this point, I’m not entirely sure which is more work, caring for her, or managing my own anxiety.
On the morning we are flying home, she wakes pale and miserable, with a steadily climbing temperature.
‘My stomach hurts,’ she says, shrinking away from my touch. I look at my husband’s blanched face, all of my fears are etched into the folds of his skin.
‘Appendicitis?’ I whisper.
‘I’ve been thinking the same thing… I didn’t want to scare you, though.’ It was sweet, tender, thoughtful, and so different from how our conversations have gone in the past. I smile quietly not saying anything, he hates it when I compliment him.
‘Do you want to call your cousin and see if there is a doctor available on Sunday otherwise find out where the nearest hospital is and we’ll get her checked out.’
My husband’s cousin drives with us to the hospital, unwilling to be anywhere else but by our sides. She and my husband talk in Italian, but my mind is incapable of following what they say. I sit between my girls. Holding my youngest’s hand while she cries in pain, and my eldest’s hand while cries for her sister. She is scared. The memory of her sister’s surgery two months ago is too fresh in all of our minds.
There’s a funny thing that happens in hospitals. It’s this complete surrender and utter faith in others who know more. It’s obvious and logical, I know they know more than I do, and I am so grateful for the years of study and service they have undergone in order to get to this position, so I know I must trust them, I must let go, and yet, as soon as I enter a hospital, all I can think about is all the things that can go wrong, all the areas for human error, all the unknown, unpredictable things that happen every day that can end a human life. We are too fragile, too vulnerable and it’s unbearable. But I do not know what is wrong with my daughter, and I do not want to travel on an aeroplane if it’s something serious. So I need them. I need to trust them. I need to hand over my daughter. In the past, I’ve always managed this dilemma with information. I tell them everything I know and think and witnessed. And then I ask them lots of questions about what they are doing. But I do not speak enough Italian. And the staff, as kind and friendly as they are, do not speak more than basic English. I cannot communicate what I know. I cannot ask them what they are doing nor can I ask them why they are doing it. All I can do is sit with my daughter, hold her hand, sing her song, and promise I will be there with her through this. I cannot take charge like I normally do, I have to trust. I do not like it.
Emergencies, though, outside of business-related ones, are not typically my husband’s strength. When I went into labour, I rang my Mum and let him sleep till we absolutely needed him. To be fair, I wasn’t entirely sure I was in labour, and I needed to concentrate on what was happening for me, rather than managing his anxiety. Because his anxiety – and the anger he tends to use to hide his anxiety is a lot to manage. I was 28 weeks pregnant when my eldest suffered a febrile convulsion. The only thing my husband was able to do was time how long it took the ambulance to get to our house and pace furiously at their apparent lack of urgency. I watched her eyes roll back in her head, I took her outside, I stripped off her clothes, I lay her on her side, away from anything she might knock into when the convulsing began and I sang to her wondering all the while if she was dying and trying not to cry. The ambulance arrived 25 minutes later. My guess is they knew it was a febrile convulsion and unlike me at the time, knew that her life wasn’t at risk.
So over the years, I’ve become the person in charge during emergencies. A responsibility I didn’t love but was good at. I’d had a lot of practice growing up. My step-mother had a tendency to get drunk and hit my father; with a colourful array of verbal attacks, or failing that her hand, or a lump of wood, or anything that was close by. I always found it easier to step up and take charge, it’s much easier than sitting in the quagmire of panic and helplessness that is always at the ready.
This time, though, it was just me, my panic, and my daughter, sitting quietly together while others took charge. It was too slow to translate everything for me, so I sat, like a kid, while the other adults talked around me. It was a weird relief.
It wasn’t appendicitis, thankfully, but she had a nasty case of gastroenteritis and a serious infection to go with it. They put a drip into her arm to give her fluids and a course of IV antibiotics. Her poor gut. Every time we get close to correcting her gut flora, she gets given another dose of antibiotics.
‘So, how’s the “we’re living in Europe, so we’ll just visit another country for the weekend” experiment working out for you?’ I ask, smiling at my husband.
On the flight over, he’d been in such a good mood, sitting with his girls, embracing the ‘dad whose got it all under control’ persona, and said, ‘if this works, we could do this regularly. Go away as a family just for the weekend.’
It was a lovely moment, full of such naivety. Pictures of us jetting off to romantic locations we’d only ever dreamed about.
I looked at the cracked and peeling citrus walls and the repeating motif of different animals trying to ride their way to freedom, and at my daughter, her bandaged arm propped up on a pillow, connected to the drip. Her sister, unable to cope, had gone for a walk with my husband’s cousin. My husband looked up from cancelling flights and meetings and laughed.
‘Not quite the weekend we had planned!’ He reached out for my hand and kissed the top of our youngest’s head.
That night, when I finally realise I won’t be able to stay in the hospital with my daughter, relief is nowhere to be found. Guilt and sadness arrive, suitcases in hand evidently here for the long haul. I have always been the one who stayed with my daughters. Through every hospital visit and doctor’s appointments, I was there, with them, every painful step of the way. My husband was the one who travelled, who missed it, who lived these moments through our retellings.
‘You can’t understand the nurse’s my love.’ He says, wrapping his arms around me. He is right, a doctor had come in when my husband had been out of the room, and we’d had a confusing discussion about a nose spray. Apparently, my daughter had fluid building up in her throat. That’s what was making her vomit. I only know this, because my husband explained it to me later, after the doctor had told him. All I had managed to understand was a spray for her nose, and then I had said something, which I know was not quite the thing I was trying to say because the doctor looked at me awkwardly and promptly left the room.
Two days later, we were free to go home. We booked our flights for the following day, surely health couldn’t be far away!